World War II C-47 pilot ranks among 'Greatest'

Several days after Christmas, the father of a very good friend died unexpectedly.

In a sense, it's hard to say "unexpectedly" when the beloved patriarchal figure was 97 years old at his passing. But despite his advanced age, he had been in remarkably good health and showed few signs of slowing down until a series of recent falls. By all accounts, he maintained strength, dignity, and an ever-sharp intellect to the very end.

Throughout his career, he had been a distinguished educator, rising from the teaching ranks to be a coach, principal, and superintendent. Before launching his career in education, he had served as a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, earning a host of honors for bravery and valor.

Last Friday, at a memorial service in a rural outpost of Jackson County, Gordon G. Smith earned a final salute. Actually, it came in the form of a series of touching tributes, from a daughter, two sons-in-law, his grandchildren, and then his son. All of the remembrances spoke volumes about a man "who continually sought ways to do for others."

His son, Mike, a longtime teacher and coach himself, was assigned the task of painting an overall picture for all to see. He enlisted the help of his wife, Mary, another distinguished member of the teaching profession, in offering several visual aids to assist in the presentation.

"What could I show to you that would represent my dad?" he asked.

Perhaps a "container of popcorn that he grew in his garden and foisted off on his kids and half of Jackson County?"

"Or maybe a Hershey Bar that he used to woo the ladies at the Atrium? Or maybe a pair of high black socks that he insisted on wearing with white shoes during the Florida years? Or maybe one of those very cool bolo ties that he styled during his square dance years?"

Instead, his son settled on a picture of a C-47, the military transport aircraft that his father flew in World War II.

"He logged 2,047 hours in this plane as he flew it across the Atlantic, around various parts of Europe, and then finally back to the U.S.," his son said of his dad. "He was 26 years old when he guided his C-47 into the air and headed to England on Christmas Eve in 1943. So with this visual aid in mind . . . come with me. Take a close look at this picture . . . and come with me back not to 1943 but to 1945.

"In my mind's eye I see a C-47 like this one sitting on the tarmac at an air base in England. It's 1945 and the war is over. My dad walks briskly across the tarmac and scrambles up the stairs into his plane. He nods to his crew and makes his way to the cockpit. He takes his seat. It's the pilot's seat. He fires up the giant C-47 engines, and his plane taxis down the runway for yet another takeoff. But this takeoff is different. The war in Europe is over. This is the final time his C-47 will launch from European soil. The war in Europe is over. This time he's going home.

"He has dodged the bullets of war. He has served his country. He has survived. Though he certainly doesn't know it or acknowledge it, he is now a member of what will come to be known as the 'Greatest Generation.' That doesn't mean anything to him. Like thousands of others he was just doing his job. And now the job is done, and it is time to go home.

"The C-47 lumbers down the runway, and the wheels gently lift off one final time from the British Isles a place he has called home for nearly two years. His plane slowly gains altitude, and it finally breaks through the overcast that perpetually shrouds England. His C-47 breaks through the clouds and into the bright sunshine. My dad smiles into the sunshine, and with the deft touch of a veteran pilot, he gently banks the C-47 until its heading is due west due west toward America due west toward Michigan. He's going home.

"He's going home . . . to a loving and lonely wife whom he has not seen in over a year and a half.

"He's going home . . . to a daughter who was born on the day he landed in England.

"He's going home . . . to four additional kids that at this point are just a twinkle in his eye.

"As his plane leaves behind the coast of England, he's 28 years old. He doesn't know it, but he has almost 70 years left in his life. He has nearly 70 more years to live and love and laugh."

Of those many years, I crossed paths with him but a few times at a cross country meet, a basketball game, a graduation party, and a wedding. Each time I enjoyed the richness of his sense of humor, and his readiness to "tell a good story or listen to a good joke." One of his favorites was well suited for a man who carved a career in the field of education.

"Do you know why they don't send donkeys to school?" he asked, perhaps many, many times over the years to his five children. "Because nobody likes a smart ass."

As a quip, it's a good one and, better yet, rates as a joke that I will be able to remember, especially as I climb the age ladder.

For Gordon Smith, however, it was just one from a vast repertoire, a supply he could dip into whatever the occasion, even during his final days.

Yet, as he was eulogized last Friday, it was clear that he was a man defined by beliefs, by his desire to uphold a certain set of standards built on the blocks of hard work and dedication. As it was said, "His was not only a long and exciting life his was a life that mattered."

Indeed.

Published: Thu, Jan 08, 2015

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