Bob Smith young

Salute to Veterans ~ Too tall, too young – Bob Smith went to war anyway

Smith was a freshman at Cornell and his brother John had been drafted. He asked his parents’ permission to enlist and they told him he had to get his degree first.  Smith, not the most dutiful son, took his life savings, $35.00, and bought a bus ticket to Wichita, Kan. Before he enlisted, he wanted to see the miles of continuous wheat fields that he had read about.

After seeing Kansas farm land, Smith went to the Marine recruiting office in the post office. The recruiter told him that he was too big to enlist in the Marines. If he went to the draft board on the third floor and volunteered, the recruiter would see that he got into the Marines.

Smith says, “I ran up three flights of stairs, burst into the draft office and said, “I am 17 today and I volunteer to be drafted.”

The lady smiled and said, “When were you born?”

Smith says, “I swallowed, panicked, and said, ‘17 years ago today.’  Somehow she believed that and wrote down April 18, 1927.”

Then came physicals and testing at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The doctor said, “Are you the guy that wants to get into the Marines? Then you had better bend your knees a little.” The uniforms didn’t fit; his dress uniforms had to be made in Philadelphia.

The uniforms weren’t delivered until Smith was ready to be shipped to the South Pacific. He was told to toss them into a barrel, and he would get new uniforms when he came back. Smith says, “From then on I wore coveralls and never got another uniform when I returned as a hospital patient.”

At boot camp, Smith marked his first choice as tanks, then infantry. One of the tests was for radar technicians, the Eddy test. This was nothing Smith wanted to do, so he tried to give all wrong answers. Naturally, he passed and was sent to radar school in Chicago.

Smith said the men in the school learned enough to set up a camera on one side of the Hugh Manley School building so they could watch a screen on the other side of the building. When they saw the patrol walk by on that side, they would sneak out windows and go out to see the night life in Chicago.

The next radar school was in hot humid Mississippi, weather unlike any experienced in upstate New York. Their dress shoes grew mold in their lockers between weekend leaves. When it rained, the boardwalks floated away from the dorm buildings. The school was run by the Navy. Smith noted a little inter-service discrimination at work when the sailors were issued little thin mattresses, but the Marines had no mattresses for the first two weeks.

Smith’s four best friends in the school had all left college to enlist. They were all tired of school and craved active duty. When they finished radar school, they saw a future of sitting in front of a TV screen to tell a pilot where the enemy was or where a big hill was in relation to his plane. So they decided to fail the next big test. And they all failed it.

They had been doing well up to that test, so no one was fooled. They were put on KP and required to clean latrines until they faced the Captains Mast for Failure of Duty. The Executive officer called them into his office and said, “These are serious charges, and if found guilty, could cost you a lot in your future.”

The Exec told them he would sit behind the Captain where he couldn’t be seen and would give a slight nod or turn of his head, indicating what their answers should be for the Captain to decide to return them to duty, rather than the brig.

Smith says, “Five of us nodded or shook our heads as directed until, finally, the Captain asked, “If we let you take this last course again, do you think you could possibly pass this test?” One said ‘Yes, I could, Sir.’ Four of us returned to duty.” The Exec shook their hands and said he wished he were going with them.

Finally, active duty:  Smith, assigned to Third Division, U.S. Marine Corp was sent to a replacement depot in Hawaii. He won’t forget the ship. The brand new ship lacked proper ballast and waves shook it violently. Everyone was seasick. Another detail still vivid some 56 years later is the ship’s latrines. They were long pipes cut in half the long way, with sea water rushing through them very close to exposed body parts.

From Hawaii to Guam, Smith traveled on a convoy of two troopships, with one destroyer escort. About halfway a submarine was located in the area. Smith says, “There was no naval radio contact in a war zone. We didn’t know if the sub was ours or theirs. The destroyer escorted the other troop ship, and we proceeded shakily on. We listened to Tokyo Rose, who knew where we were.”

On Guam and later Iwo Jima, Smith experienced what active duty meant for a big, tall Marine. The big guys carried ammunition and mixed flame thrower fluid behind the lines. He was much in demand to carry the base plate for 105mm mortar.  Sometimes a cook was needed and Smith could do that too. Also, figuring into the duty decision was the fact that it would take too much scarce manpower to remove a wounded man that big from the frontlines.

Though the work was dangerous, there were advantages. Smith said he got to carry a carbine rather than a rifle. Smith says, “It didn’t have to be cleaned twice a day. That was a plus.”

For a time he drove a truck that carried four 1-ton bombs for the B-29s that flew out of Guam. He had no idea the bombs weren’t armed and when he tipped a truck into a ditch, the bombs went tumbling and clanging. He sprinted – a marvel of speed for his size– to exit the area.

Smith determined that the South Pacific mosquitoes were not so dangerous to health as believed. He hadn’t lost any height and his feet stuck out of the mosquito netting about five inches, offering a feast to the mosquitoes every night.

While driving a jeep ambulance, some shrapnel came through the back seat and imbedded in Smith’s back. He wasn’t aware that he had been hit until he crawled out of his seat and it was blood soaked. The shrapnel was too close to the spine to be removed from there, wasn’t life threatening, he was able to work, so he stayed on duty.

All of the units in the South Pacific were preparing for an invasion of Japan. Smith says, “One night a slightly inebriated Air Force guy came into the camp saying he would bet $100 two-to-one that the war would end in the next four days. No one took him up on it. He was obviously deranged.” The next day the atomic bomb was dropped.

Smith returned to the States via San Francisco. The bunks hadn’t gotten any longer and were still stacked eight high. Smith and some of his friends slept on an amphibious vehicle attached above the deck. This led to some harrowing views of the sea below when the vehicle tipped precariously during high seas.

Smith remembers that the food he most enjoyed after years of service rations was milk and potato chips.

The rule was that hospital patients were sent to the hospital nearest their home town. So Smith was sent to Sampson Naval Hospital in New York State. The shrapnel was removed successfully and Smith spent recuperation on brig duty time until his discharge. He assigned prisoners jobs which included escort service to carry nurses’ bags. Smith has happier memories of that duty than of escorting bombs for B-29’s.

Smith returned to civilian life as a student at Cornell on the GI bill. He thinks that Uncle Sam subsidizing his education may have helped his mother forgive him for defying her and lying to get into the service. Since he enlisted at Wichita, he was given travel pay to Wichita, so he used the travel pay to buy a motorcycle for transportation at Cornell.

Smith used his agricultural economics degree from Cornell to work on a Bureau of Reclamation irrigation and power project in Minot, ND. He worked in various sales positions, sometimes using the radar education he had despised at the time. And eventually he came to Indiana when he landed a coveted truck-owner job with North American Van Lines Electronic Division. Preparing for retirement, he bought his little piece of paradise, a 5-acre farm in Smith Township. It is home to many gardening experiences that Churubusco News readers know from his column in the local paper.

Memories of the war years fade with time. Smith prefers to recount the humorous incidents and forget the others.

Some memories don’t fade: one especially stays with him. He was sent to see the chaplain while he was in boot camp, never a good sign. A telegram had arrived for him saying that his father died and would be buried the next day. The chaplain could arrange an emergency leave, but Smith didn’t have money to travel home. Smith doesn’t know how they learned about it, but the men in his boot company pitched in from their meager funds to raise money for his trip home. By the time Smith returned to boot camp, his company had moved on. He never caught up with a single one of them during the war.

Smith says, “Their generosity was unexpected and wonderful. I have always regretted not being able to thank them. So if you were one of them or ever contributed to a stranger, I thank you.”   

Another memory that doesn’t fade is of his brother John, a high school science teacher, who died trying to rescue some of his men under Japanese attack on Pele Lieu Island. Even as he enjoys the serenity of his gardens, John’s sacrifice is always present.

(Bob Smith prunes grapevines on his little piece of paradise in Smith Township. The pruning improves the vines and may lead to a topic for his Good Gardening column. It has been many years and a long circuitous journey from transporting ammunition on Guam in World War II to the solitary pleasures of gardening. He chronicles his gardening adventures for Churubusco News readers, but hasn’t talked about his wartime adventures until now.  Smith volunteered for the Marines at 16-years-old, using a little deception. The armed forces were desperate for replacements for battle weary men and weren’t inclined to turn down any volunteer eager to serve.)

photo by zumbrun


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