Honoring U.S. Army Air Force 2nd Lieutenant Edwin F. Smith
By Paula L. Ratliff
JOBE Contributing Writer
United States Army Air Force Veteran Edwin Smith is celebrating his 100th Birthday on April 12, 2023, and is being honored for his service during World War II.
“It is not often we get to celebrate a centenarian,” said Barren County Judge-Executive Jamie Bewley Byrd as she issued a Proclamation for his birthday.
Smith was a Second Lieutenant and a pilot, completing many successful missions. He survived the war, only to escape death three days after the war ended in what is one of the deadliest crashes in military history as two B-29 Superfortress Bombers collided, killing 18 servicemen in an inferno that stretched for miles over Weatherford, Texas. The two aircraft, one from Clovis Airfield, New Mexico, and the other from Alamogordo Airfield, New Mexico were on separate training missions to simulate bomb runs. Smith was one of two survivors and is now the only living survivor.
Many considered that WWII was over on Armistice Day, August 14, 1945, as the Japanese Imperial made an official announcement of surrender. It would take a few weeks before the surrender documents were signed on September 2, 1945.
Yet, there was one more assignment on August 17, 1945. “A practice run, they said. Then we were heading to Saipan in the Pacific Islands. But fate had other plans and I remember it like it was yesterday. We never suspected anything like this could happen,” said Smith.
Smith is a man of great stature, standing at 6 feet and 1 inch tall, his gait steadied by a simple walking cane. His demeanor was calm and his voice was low, but as he shared his memories, his countenance lightened and history became alive again. He is, without question, a walking miracle surviving by divine intervention and he readily acknowledges that “God heard my prayer.”
Smith was stationed at Clovis Field, New Mexico when he received orders to lead a nighttime training exercise, dropping five radar-controlled night bombing runs in Fort Worth, Texas. He was the co-pilot that night, leading 10 men on the plane, each having specific responsibilities, highly trained and prepared. They were not allowed to take any personal items, only their dog tags.
“We flew into Fort Worth just as it became dark. We made a good first run and then started toward the second when it was frantically announced that the nose of the plane was dropping.”
Smith recalls during the flight he noticed that the rate of climb was not working properly. The plane would drop 200 feet, then correct and go up 200 feet above the 15,000 altitudes, then back down. “The plane was going through the air like a dolphin,” recalled Smith.
The pilot began to make the southerly bank when Smith heard his commander’s last words, “Oh my God!” Smith looked up from the instrument panel just in time to see a blue light. He thought they had hit a passenger plane.
Smith was “thrown all over the cockpit” as the plane was speeding to the ground with three engines still running. The collision and subsequent fire and explosions sent debris, burning fuel, and burning parachutes into the dark night sky. One by one, pieces and fragments of life returned to the earth, covering two fields, one on the north and one on the south side of town. Residents of Texas reported seeing the explosion in the air more than 90 miles away.
“I knew nobody was going to survive,” he recalled. Shocked and terrified, he arranged his parachute and tried to climb out of the co-pilot window. He couldn’t fit out and he was stuck halfway out of the window, unable to free his lower body and the slipstream was so fierce he couldn’t straighten up. He decided to go back inside the plane and ride it down.
“At that point, I started to pray, asking God to forgive my sins and prepare me to die.” As he tried to pull back inside of the window, the ripcord on his parachute deployed, ripping his body out of the window and propelling him into the air.
He went unconscious at that point, later awakening as he floated down to earth. He believed he was dead and mistook the silence and darkness for eternity. He floated in and out of consciousness and believes he hit the ground three times.
In the early morning hours, he was awakened when authorities found him in a field surrounded by burning debris from the aircrafts. The doctor asked for a parachute kit and said to give him both shots of morphine. “It might kill him, but he’s near death anyway,” Smith recalls hearing the doctor say.
Smith suffered extreme injuries and was hospitalized for 36 days. He was eventually reunited with the other survivor, Corporal Earl E. Wishmeier of West Burlington, Iowa. The two became close friends and remained in contact until his passing in 1993.
Smith grieved for the loss of the crew and has always felt responsible even though history later confirmed many mechanical issues with the B-29s. In a letter to U.S. Navy Veteran Bob Hopkins in October 2002, Smith stated, “I will die with grief in my heart. My soul is full of sadness for the families of these 18 young, patriotic Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country; they gave their lives, but not in vain.”
Open Record Requests were submitted to the Department of Defense for any investigations into the crash and the mechanical issues of the B-29s. As of this writing, no additional records have been provided.
Left with nothing
When Smith was dismissed from Camp Wolters Army Hospital, he did not have any clothes, shoes, or wallet. On the mission, they only had their dog tags and what they were wearing. His flight suit had been cut off and he was missing his right shoe. His shoe was located at the crash site with the end chopped off from one of the propellers. He believes this is probably when his leg was broken.
Smith credits the Red Cross with helping him obtain a khaki uniform with no insignia, a hat, and a pair of shoes from the PX. He still has the uniform hanging in his closet. The Army gave him a one-way ticket to Clovis, New Mexico.
Smith said he was anxious to return to the barracks where he had lived with the crew. “The barracks were quiet and empty as if nobody had ever been there. The beds still had blankets on them and the windows were open just like we left them. There was mud on the blankets from the rain. All of our personal belongings were gone. I sat down on my bunk to pray for the souls of the crew and I cried. I needed counseling; I was 22 years old and in the last 36 days had endured just about all I thought I could stand.”
Smith’s injuries were so severe he was discharged in September 1945 and the Army gave him $400 cash for his travels home.
His early years
Smith’s father served in World War I and his grandfather served in the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. He was raised in a one-room log cabin in Monroe County, Kentucky where he recalls storing milk in the creek to keep it cold. He also attended a one-room school before moving to Glasgow in 1935.
He escaped death as a child when he caught Typhoid Fever before the vaccine was invented. “At that time, the standard of treatment was to starve the fever. Thankfully a traveling doctor came to the house and told my parents to feed me” he said with a smile.
He played football for four years at Glasgow High School and his team was undefeated. He was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Louisville; however, fate would change those plans with the attack at Pearl Harbor.
After his time in the service, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee for two years and then transferred to Bowling Green Business University which became Western Kentucky University where he earned a degree in accounting. His career has included working with the Internal Revenue Service, Smith Realty and Taylor, and Taylor Realty with his sister. He also owned Cardinal Realty and Auction. Over the years, he has volunteered and presented to many Veteran groups and school classes about his time in the military.
Smith’s first wife was killed in a car wreck in 1968. In 1969, he married Bobbe Brower (1932-2016) and they had one daughter, Becky Kingery. At the age of 46, he became a new husband, a step-father to two teenage girls, Kathy England, and Patty Broom, and a father to a newborn, nine months after marriage. “His bravery continued, “ said his daughter.
Smith still enjoys football and favors the Dallas Cowboys and the Western Hill Toppers. He also enjoys spending time with his eight grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren, He doesn’t mind to brag about his older sister, Willa S. Taylor of Glasgow. “She is older than I am, but don’t tell her age in the paper, she wouldn’t like that,” he said.
A monument in Texas
Hopkins corresponded with Smith in 2002 when he was researching this tragedy, having discovered an entry in the log books at the firehouse where he worked. The entry stated “no survivors.”
On October 18, 2003, 58 years after the crash, Hopkins was instrumental in securing historic markers to honor the crews of the two bombers. At that time, Smith was 75 years of age and he attended the dedication. Reaching Hopkins by phone, he was thrilled to hear of Smith’s pending birthday and the community efforts to honor him.
“He is truly a remarkable man. Living proof of how God works. He knows who pulled his ripcord.”
Writer’s acknowledgments: Special thanks to Bob Hopkins, author of “Tragedy over Weatherford,” Caroline Forrester, author, “Edwin F. Smith, an Oral History Interview” and to the Glasgow Daily Times, “Survivors Return to the 1945 crash site.”