LEGACIES OF WWII: Gordon Smith –Army /Europe
After disembarking at LeHavre, France in 1944, the 103rd Head Quarters Battalion of the U.S. Army traveled to Innsbruck, Austria. Private Gordon Smith of Warren, IN served guard duty at night in the mountains around the volatile Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria. His orders were to shout ‘Advance and be recognized’ to those who approached him. “Each day we had a different password which was circulated,” said Smith. “We used different passwords because we knew the enemy was on its way and could figure them out.”
Smith was born in 1924 in Perkins County, South Dakota, third oldest of 13 children. His parents were homesteaders. “Dad hauled freight with teams of horses,” he said. His mother was from Franklin, IN, and had moved to SD to teach. She met Gordon’s father there.
When Gordon Smith was 14 years old, a drought in the area where his family lived made it impossible to earn a living. Nearly impoverished, Smith’s large family moved to Wabash, Indiana. “We lived close to my mother’s family,” he said. He found work with local farmers and gave his family the money he earned.
A year later, in a desire to help support his family even more, Smith quit school and got a permit to work in a local factory. He never finished his education. “I went to the school of ‘hard knocks’,” he said.
At age 19 Smith was working at General Tire in Wabash when he attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy in Marion. An older brother had already enlisted in that branch.
However, the Navy turned down Gordon’s application. “I had flat feet,” he said. Undeterred, he applied to the Army and was accepted.
The Army sent Smith to Camp Wheeler GA for basic training, then on to advanced training as a radio operator at Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts.
After adapting to the warm weather of the South, Smith discovered his body had trouble adjusting to the cold temperatures of the North. His health became so problematic that he fell ill with pneumonia. The timing could not have been worse.
“The rest of my unit shipped out while I spent four days in the hospital,” he said.
Following his recovery, Smith left on another troop ship with the 103rd Division from Boston. “We traveled on one of four troop ships filled with personnel,” he said. “We had escorts of bigger ships for protection. We zig-zagged our way across the ocean but had to be careful because of mines the Germans had planted in the ocean.”
Smith used his skills as a radio operator on various kinds of equipment, including walkie-talkies. During their weeks of bivouac in the field, the troops ate C and K rations.
By spring 1945, the Germans knew they were beaten. Many soldiers lined up to surrender. But not everything went smoothly as the end of the war approached.
Smith’s unit was preparing to move out from Europe when one of its jeeps hit a mine. “Our lieutenant died from blunt force trauma,” he said.
When the Allied victory in Europe finally arrived in May 1945 with Germany’s surrender, Smith, lacking the 85 points needed to be discharged, stayed a few months during the occupation. Then he was ordered aboard the USS Aquitania back to NY. “I had a 30-day delay in route before reporting to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to prepare for the invasion of that country,” he said. Corporal Smith went home for his 30 days and was at Fort Campbell in early August when he and other troops were told that Japan had surrendered. “We were kissed by some happy women,” he said. For most of his time in military service, Smith earned $21 a month.
Smith was discharged in April 1946 from Camp Atterbury in southern Indiana, but chose to re-enlist in the Army until 1949. He and his wife Thelma, whom he married in 1946, lived in Dora, Indiana and later Wabash. “I thought I needed to serve my country,” he said. “I’m glad I did.”