Hartford Native, 90, Finally Receives World War II Medals
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., presents long-delayed Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals to WWII B-26 pilot and Vermont native Bert Smith. (Courtesy Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy)
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., presents long-delayed WWII aviator medals to Vermont native Bert Smith as his family looks on. (Courtesy Office of Sen. Patrick Leahy)
It was 1943. Nineteen-year-old Bert Smith, having graduated from Hartford High School the year before, was among the young pilots flying B-26 Marauder bombers up from Hunter Air Force Base in Georgia to New England, preparing for the Allied invasion of Europe.
When he passed over New York, he had the village where he was born — White River Junction — on his mind.
“I decided that it was a nice day, I might give the people in White River a treat,” Smith recalled in an interview Saturday.
Traveling about 250 mph, he dropped the plane down real low, went up the Connecticut River as far as he could, and “made a U-turn and came right down through again.” The plane made an incredible roaring noise, “buzzing” the town below.
“I’m sure that they all woke up, because when I looked up at my old house where I lived, my mother was waving a sheet and my brother had a tablecloth and he was waving it,” Smith said.
Those wartime memories, and many more, were on Smith’s mind the past few days. Now 90 years old, he traveled with his family to Washington, D.C., last week to accept long overdue honors: seven awards for his service in World War II, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, which he received for “outstanding courage … superb airmanship and steadfast devotion” during a bombing attack over Germany in 1945.
On Feb. 22 that year, Smith persevered during an attack on enemy transportation facilities, despite losing an engine, which forced him to fly lower to the ground, more susceptible to enemy fire. The extensive damage also meant he couldn’t keep up with the other American planes in the attack, who Smith said were traveling up to 220 mph compared with his 170 mph.
Despite the dire circumstances, Smith continued strafing targets on the ground and carried the attack through to “highly successful completion,” according to the citation for the award.
“Sometimes you get carried away with what with you’re doing,” Smith said, recalling the attack.
By the end of the war a few months later, Smith, a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, would have served as flight leader in the 450 Bombardment Squadron, 322 Bombardment Group, participating in the Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe campaigns.
But like many veterans, although he was aware of the medals due to him, he had never received them — until last week, when Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., presented Smith with the honors during a quiet ceremony in his office at the capitol.
“It meant a lot to me, it was impressive to me,” Smith said of the ceremony, where he was accompanied by his daughter, son-in-law and grandson. “It was a very nice ceremony with nice people in attendance, a lot of good listeners.”
Smith added later, laughing: “It’s the first time I’ve been in Washington since they’ve had electricity, I think.”
Never one to boast about his contributions to the war, Smith had been encouraged by his late wife, Patricia, to request his medals in order to pass along his history to their children and grandchildren. Patricia Smith died on Christmas Day last year.
Smith and his family enlisted the help of Leahy, whose office worked with the National Personnel Records Center and the U.S. Air Force to expedite verification and issuance of the awards.
“The senator is a very fine gentleman,” Smith said. “Vermont’s lucky to have him.”
Leahy, for his part, said he was deeply humbled to have met with Smith.
“Like so many people who have really accomplished a lot, people who have been real war heros, he didn’t in any way brag about it,” Leahy said in a telephone interview on Saturday. “He just said, ‘Well, I went there, I did what I was supposed to do.’ And considering the areas where he was … it was very, very difficult service.
“It’s almost a cliche to say ‘nerves of steel’ when you see what he did,” Leahy added. “A bomber (flying) way down low to hit his target and having lost an engine, and he still came back up, it was very, very skilled. … It’s the kind of thing that if a fiction writer was writing about somebody doing this, you’d think, ‘Wow,’ but here’s a man who actually did it.”
Smith’s grandson, Tyler Barnes, 36, of South Burlington, Vt., attended the ceremony. Barnes said he became interested in World War II history during his school years, and carries special regard for his grandfather’s plane, the B-26.
“It was much deeper than just a little boy’s fascination with airplanes and big machines, but it was about the fact that we had someone in our family, someone who I loved very much, who had such a history with them,” he said.
“My grandfather is a humble man,” he added. “I think he truly does not believe that anything that he did was that extraordinary or that out of the ordinary, and it was for those reasons he was reluctant to talk about them.”
Leahy said his experience is that people who show the most bravery in service are often the most humble, and Smith was no exception.
“He was almost nonchalant about it until I actually handed him the medals and said, ‘It is time your country recognized what you did,’ and that’s when he got a little emotional. I got a little emotional,” Leahy said.
After the war, Smith returned to Hartford, where he and Patricia — to whom he was married shortly before the war — began raising a family. He served for 10 more years in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and as the liaison officer for the U.S. Air Force Academy, and also worked for New England Telephone and served on the Hartford School Board.
The family then lived for several years in Morgan, Vt., before relocating to Colchester, Vt., and eventually South Burlington, where some of his family still resides. Smith now lives in retirement most of the year in Florida, returning periodically to Vermont.
During their time in Washington, Smith and his family also went on a special tour of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Military Aviation exhibit, where museum staff are preparing to renovate one of the B-26 exhibits.
Smith’s daughter, Maureen Barnes, said Smith was happy to share some of his stories during their visit on Friday.
“My father drew quite a crowd, because he was telling real live stories of things that had happened to him in relation to the exhibit,” she said.
Smith said he was invigorated by the trip and that he believes every American student should visit the Capitol, “because you come away from it a true patriot and (have) a better recognition of what the federal government is all about.”
In his youth, Smith had been so eager to serve that he even found a way to forge a birth certificate to allow him to serve before he had reached the required age. He said all these years later, he still feels compelled to service.
“I hope that we don’t have another war,” he said, “but if we do, and I was able, I’d be standing in line at the head of the line.
“I can’t say that I had a good time, but I can say I met a lot of nice people in the military, and I had some very good friends in the military, and I lost some good friends in the military. I thought of them many times, and it made me realize some people paid a higher price than I paid. Mine was very small compared to what they paid.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3220.