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At 92, retired Corporal James Smith, Jr. has Seen it All
MIDDLE GROVE – We went to visit him on Veterans Day.
“Sure come on up. I’m surprised you’re working on a Holiday,” he remarked.
But the truth is, to get a chance to reminisce and share his experiences, this was the perfect day.
Later, when it became appropriate to thank him for his service, he said of course “you are welcome.” Followed closely by, “it was not my pleasure.”
Meet Marine Corporal James “Jim” Smith, Jr., retired, of Middle Grove. Patriotic? Absolutely. But blind patriotism? Not on your life. He’s seen and experienced too much for that to happen.
Getting your backpack shredded by shrapnel on Guam can add to one’s perspective. And battlefield experience can make a young marine grow wise beyond his years in a hurry.
“We were in Guam,” Smith said, one of two tours to that remote battleground. “I was with a new man, Frank Mele. By that time I had been around a bit and knew a few things that could help us survive.”
By necessity, to stay out of the enemy’s rocket range a landing craft dropped them in knee to waist deep surf.
“We had an expression: 'Don’t bunch up on the beach'. We had a guy on shore directing traffic and people would naturally gather around near him. I told Frank: ‘C’mon, this is the last place we want to be.’ Crowds draw mortar fire, we need to find a different way to shore,” he said.
On one Guam mission, he did just that. Striking out on his own path, Smith could not see the gaping hole that the LST craft’s propeller left in the murky water. Stepping into the hole and down he went, under full pack and rifle; he sunk like a stone and fought with everything he had to get to the surface.
“My hand was grabbed and I was pulled up out of the hole,” he said. Just like that.
I asked him who it was. He said he had no idea.
“When I got pulled out, all hell was breaking loose. That guy had to get going and so did I,” he recalls
Such is the impersonal character of war. You rarely see the enemy you kill and sometimes you don’t know who to thank for saving your life.
Smith’s military career parallels the United States’ WWII roadmap in the Pacific theater. Guam, Guadalcanal (twice), Bougainville, Iwo Jima. Enlisted in 1942, honorably discharged on October 16, 1945.
Following Pearl Harbor, he first went to enlist in Brooklyn, but the line went around the block three times. Finally enlisted in Glens Falls, the Marine pride comes out.
“A bus started all the way up in the Adirondacks and picked people up along the way to Albany for our physical. Only two on my bus made Marine. The rest, they sent down the hall to the Navy,” he noted with a chortle.
Boot camp in Paris Island, SC. He qualified as a rifleman and earned his marksman’s badge despite the fact that he broke in with a Springfield rifle and they switched him to an M1 halfway through the qualifying.
“I wasn’t prepared for the extra recoil and it smacked me right in the eye socket. I got through, but never forgave them for that,” he said.
Iwo Jima. The imagery of that battle is characterized in history books as a triumph with the iconic raising of the flag, but for those who were there it was hell on earth.
“I’m a survivor of Iwo Jima,” he noted. “But I cannot forget the images, the bloodshed, and 7,000 soldiers, many just out of boot camp, who gave their lives for freedom. I was there. Most people walking around today have no idea what happened.”
In fact, while many people revisiting the history regard Iwo Jima as a stepping stone to victory, it may in fact have hastened the decision to use the Atomic Bomb to put an end to massive American casualties.
“There were 7,000 soldiers, buried in their ponchos, with one dog tag, so that the War Department could keep track of who was lost,” he explained. “It’s not an image that goes away easily.”
After VJ day, he was assigned as Sargent of the Guard at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was being lobbied to re-enlist and actually considered it until one day this officer told him to fix the heels of his shoes.
“That was the sign that I had had enough,” he said.
By the time the Korean conflict came around, he was already into his settled family life. He retained his Marine pride, but he was done.
Of all the medals, awards and memorabilia we looked at, Smith seemed proudest of the last thing he showed me. It was a check from the Home of the Good Shepard for playing music for the residents. The beaming pride of a pro.
“I thought I would give music up by now,” he said. “My wife, when she was alive, told me it was important to keep playing music that made people happy. While I was thinking about hanging it up, I noticed during a performance that an old woman had her head down most of the time, but when I played the ‘Whippoorwill Song’ followed by ‘My Blue Heaven,’ well, she perked right up. That’s why I keep going.”
The least we can do is plug his next gig. For those interested, Jim will be playing this Wednesday, November 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Home of the Good Shepard.
“So I’ll be there Wednesday. Playing...” he said.
Then a musician’s studied two-count pause.
“…For the old people. Ha!”