Friday, June 13, 2014

TOP STORY >> D-Day exhibit brings back memories

Leader staff writer

“How anybody got through, I’ll never know,” recalled a 96- year-old World War II veteran who stood on the cliffs above Omaha Beach eight days after the initial D-Day assault on June 6, 1944.

Roy H. Smith, a retired accountant who lives in Little Rock, was one of a small group who visited the D-Day exhibit at the Jacksonville Military Museum on Thursday and reminisced.

Smith said he was drafted in Pine Bluff in 1941 for a one-year stint. Five years later, he got to come home. Even though he was injured in the war, the veteran said he was pretty lucky.

Smith is one of about 12,000 World War II veterans living in Arkansas.

“I went from Pine Bluff to Camp Robinson to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. I was actually in Wellington, England, on D-Day. It was home to three bases — a Spitfire base, a troop-carrier base and a naval station. All the planes were in the air, and there was activity everywhere. We knew something was going on,” he said.

Seven days later, Smith was stepping on the beach.

Smith’s said, a few years ago, his grandson in Florida had an assignment to interview a World War II veteran.

“The kids watched the ‘Longest Day’ and then had to do the interview. I wrote down all I could recall up to the time I was injured.” The grandson got a good grade on his report, Smith said. Then his family bugged him to put down the rest of it in writing. “It’s not a commercial project, just a family project,” he said.

Smith said he was in a replacement unit, and it took his group about 18 hours to make the 90-mile trek across the English Channel.

“It was a rough crossing. We hit a storm,” Smith said.

After reaching the beach and making his way up the cliffs, his unit moved inward.

“We were going through some hedge rows a few days later. It was as quiet as death. A machine gun team was ahead of me when we were hit by German tank fire,” Smith recalled.

The first round missed him, but the second blast sent shrapnel into his leg. “It was about 2 p.m. and I didn’t get back to the beach until about midnight,” he said.

Smith was taken to a hospital in Wales and spent four months recovering. “The bad thing about it is, to this day, I don’t know the fate of the machine gun team,” he said.

Smith quipped that when he was at the hospital, one of the first things they tried to do was feed him.

“I just wanted sleep. The Germans would fire at night just to harass and keep us awake. It worked,” he said.

Recovered from his injuries, Smith didn’t go home, but was sent back to his unit.

“I joined them right about the time the Battle of the Bulge was occurring. We were down below that, so we didn’t get involved,” he said.

His unit, the 79th Infantry Division, moved into Belgium and crossed over the Rhine River into Germany.

“Our main job was to round up all the displaced people. The Germans captured a lot of people and took them back to Germany to work for them. When the Germans scattered, these people were left behind to live on the land,” he recalled.

As the European war was winding down, Smith and his unit made their way to Czechoslovakia. “Believe it or not, we went there to train for the Pacific battles,” he said.

Smith made it home a week before Christmas 1945. “I hadn’t been home in five years,” he said.

Three years later, he married, till he lost his wife 49 years and two months later. Smith said he was blessed with a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

Smith, who has been back to Normandy since the war, said the museum’s exhibit that included sand from the beaches there was excellent and brought back a lot of memories.

His unit, the 79th Infantry Division, landed on Utah and Omaha beaches June 12-14 and first encountered combat June 19. According to Army records, the division spent 248 days in combat and had more than 15,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured or missing).

The unit received eight citations for its actions and efforts during World War II and was deactivated at the end of 1945.