Friday, July 16, 2010

Semi-Finalist Week 6: A Multi-Generational Military Family

My name is Michael Smith, and this is a short version of my family’s history as a military family. My grandfather, James Smith, was a coal miner in Scotland before Great Britain got involved in “The Great War” now known as World War I. He joined the British army and was sent to fight in Europe, leaving his wife, Georgeanne and 6-year-old son, James Andrew at home in Bannockburn. Unfortunately, during heavy fighting, my grandfather was killed by German cannon fire. My grandmother and my dad moved around Scotland and England for a few years, when things were very hard for a single mother. She finally decided to go to another part of the British Empire, Canada, hoping for a better life. She met an American gentleman in Ontario on business, and after a few years he asked her to marry him and move to Illinois. She accepted, and they lived in a small town in Illinois for a while.

By this time my dad was in his late teens, and felt like seeing more of this great country, so he set out first to St. Louis, the closest big city. He worked at a few odd jobs, then continued west to Kansas City. He fell in love with the City, and a young red-haired girl named Bessie Thomas. He got a steady job as a truck driver. He and Bessie dated for a few years, and he asked her to marry him. They were married in November, 1932. James, or Jimmy as he was known, wanted to give back to this great country, and decided to enlist in the Navy Reserve, even though he was not a permanent US citizen. He was very proud to have known a local political figure and supporter of the Navy Reserve, Harry Truman. Jimmy and Bessie tried for several years to have children, then in 1940 learned that Bessie was expecting. In January of 1941 Sondra was born, just a month after Jimmy’s 31st birthday. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, 3 weeks before his 32nd birthday, Jimmy again felt like he needed to do more to help this country however he could, but with a baby daughter, he couldn’t leave his two best girls at home. As the War progressed, through some dark times, he felt more and more like he just had to do whatever he could, so he enlisted in the US Army in early 1944, at the age of 34. He had been preparing to become a naturalized citizen, and during Army training at Camp Roberts California, one of his proudest moments was realized when he was officially sworn in as Citizen of the United States of America. Bessie and Sondra made the long train trip to California in July and stayed with Bessie’s older brother, Sidney. They wanted to spend as much time as possible with Jimmy before he was to be sent to Europe following his Army training.

He was sent to Europe and fought in the Battle of The Bulge, where he received several wounds. None were life-threatening, and he continued fighting until receiving a more serious wound and was captured by the Germans on December 16, 1944. By this time he had learned that Bessie was expecting another child, and Jimmy was determined to get back home to his family. After spending several months being moved from one POW camp to another, and Hitler’s forces being beaten on all fronts, the Russian Army liberated the camp where Jimmy was being held prisoner. Not a large man to begin with, Jimmy had lost more than 40 pounds during his captivity, and the doctors wanted him to put some of that weight back on before they would send him home. He also learned that Bessie had given birth to a son in April, 1945, and named him James Gary Smith. Finally, Jimmy was returned to Kansas City and his beloved Bessie, Sondra and now James Gary. Jimmy and Bessie bought a little house on the west side of Kansas City, Missouri which they called home for the rest of their lives. In 1949 another son, Michael Don was born. (That was me.) During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the US was committed to stopping the growth of Communism, especially in Southeast Asia. James Gary, who everybody just called Gary, convinced Jimmy and Bessie to sign for him to enlist in the Navy in 1962, when he was just 17 years old. Gary made several deployments to the Western Pacific and the Tonkin Gulf aboard destroyers. In March of 1966 Gary was released from active duty but remained in the Navy Reserve in Kansas City. In 1969 I decided to join the Navy, also, but was mostly interested in Navy aircraft, specifically fighters or whatever the Blue Angels were flying. After basic training in San Diego and avionics training in Millington, TN, I was assigned to a Navy A-6 training squadron at Oceana, Virginia. During my 2-year tour at Oceana, Gary decided to return to active duty, and was sent to a new, nuclear powered destroyer home ported in Charleston, SC.

Gary and I visited each other whenever possible, and were able to spend Christmas together at our parent’s house in Kansas City in 1970. In 1971 I was transferred to a carrier based A-6 squadron assigned to the carrier USS Forrestal. The squadron was the first to receive the new, A-6E aircraft, and required a lot of training. Also, the Forrestal was undergoing a long period in the shipyard for some repairs and upgrades. After coming out of the shipyard, and several short cruises up and down the Atlantic coast for sea trials and aircrew training, the ship was scheduled to deploy in June, 1972 to Southeast Asia. A fire just below the flight deck the night before scheduled departure forced another carrier to take the place of the Forrestal. After another 3-month repair period, the Forrestal was deployed to the Mediterranean for 10 months. Gary remained on active duty in the Navy until 1988 when he retired to his home in the Jacksonville, Florida area. I married a Virginia girl in 1976 and got 3 step-children in the bargain. We also had a son, Robert, in 1977. I was discharged from active duty in 1978 and moved to Michigan for what I thought was a good job.

It wasn’t, so I went to work for the US Department of Defense in 1984. My supervisor convinced me to join the Navy Reserve in 1985. As a DoD civilian employee I moved first to Atlanta in 1986 (where I got a divorce, and custody of my son) then finally, in 1987, I moved back to Kansas City, still in the Navy Reserve. One of my stepsons, David, is also a Navy veteran, having served on the USS Forrestal, too, before it was decommissioned. In 1988 I married my high school sweetheart, Kathy Hough, who had also been married before and had 2 children. In 1993 I was “hired away” from DoD by the Federal Aviation Administration. I retired from the Navy Reserve in 1995 at Naval Air Reserve Center Olathe, KS, formerly Naval Air Station Olathe, just before it was closed permanently and turned over to the State of Kansas. I was transferred to southern California, still with the FAA, in 1997. Jimmy and Bessie were very proud of their 2 sons and their devotion to their country. Jimmy passed away in 1988, and was given full military honors at his gravesite. Bessie passed away in 1992, just a month short of what would have been her 60th wedding anniversary with Jimmy.

Sondra, who loved her ‘little’ brothers, and shared her parents’ pride in them, passed away in 1993 from cancer. Gary passed away from leukemia the day before his 57th birthday in 2002. I still live in southern California where I am still employed by the Federal Aviation Administration. I take great pride in riding my motorcycle with a nation-wide organization, the Patriot Guard Riders, whose “mission” is to escort fallen military on their ride to their final resting place at Riverside National Cemetery, or, to greet and escort military units or individuals on their return home from deployment.

Thank you,

Michael D. Smith

USNR (Retired)

***Remember---Each week between now and Labor Day I will select 1 semi-finalist to highlight here on the blog. ! There are some great prizes to be had. A portion of my annual book proceeds go to ASMBA-STAR--my favorite charity for Vets and their families. So spread the word to all those hard working, dedicated military families out there.***

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