Francis Smith — a Navy pilot’s faith carried him through

By From page B3 | May 29, 2012

WW II VETERAN, Francis Smith looksthrough a copy of "The Escort Carriers in Service." The Navy pilot served in active duty from 1943 to 1945. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

WW II VETERAN, Francis Smith looksthrough a copy of "The Escort Carriers in Service." The Navy pilot served in active duty from 1943 to 1945. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

As a Navy fighter pilot in World War II, Francis William Smith of Cameron Park had a lot of harrowing experiences.

It is something that Smith, 87, doesn’t dwell on, nor does he talk about it much.

One of the scariest things Ensign Smith experienced, though, was during training.

The orders were to follow the flight leader. They were in Hawaii, and some three planes followed the leading plane into a canyon. As they followed their leader in formation, a rock canyon wall appeared before them.

It looked like it was the end. The other pilots, including Smith, were tempted to try to turn around. But true to their training, they followed their leader.

“We stayed with him … we stuck with him. But it looked like certain death. Suddenly when we came to the wall, an air drift lifted us right out,” Smith said.

Their leader knew about the air drift, but they didn’t until that last moment. To follow their flight leader in the face of apparent death was a true test of loyalty and faith.

“He wanted to see if we would stay with him,” explained Smith.

He upheld his oath as a pilot and member of the prestigious United States Navy V5 program. In the military, orders are not taken lightly, and one does not think of themselves.

“I was 19 when I went into the Navy, and I was 22 when I was out doing the fighting. I was just a farm boy, farm hick, and my eyes were opened. I’m proud of it, though, I’m patriotic,” said Smith, who is a member of the Knights of Columbus. “I have a grandson in the United States Marines who is serving in Eastern Europe.”

Reviving memories

Like many veterans, Smith’s memories have been submerged, especially the scary ones.

At the end of July, though, Smith will be remembering his experiences and pay homage to those who died in service to their country. Smith is being honored with a trip to Washington D.C. provided by The Honor Flight Network ( The HFN is endeavoring to provide a trip to Washington D.C. for all WWII veterans. These people who risked their lives will visit the War Memorial and other sights in the hub of the democracy for which they served … before it is too late.

According to Smith, the book/movie “Flyboys” gives a vivid, fairly accurate account of what it’s like to be a pilot during wartime. But Smith didn’t serve in the rescue/escort destroyers like the “Flyboys” He served on escort carriers, including the USS Makin Island and the USS Kitkun Bay.

If Smith wishes to relive those WW II days, he can go right to his book shelf, where he has a book called “The Escort Carriers in Action.”

Compiled in 1945 from official U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard photos, it was published for the 30,000 officers and men of the Escort Carrier Force. Others could buy it back in the day for $2.50. As a member of that elite corps, Smith received a gratis copy of the book.

The book was put together by R.J. Reynolds, Price (from Price Waterhouse) and E.T. Meredith, who was a publisher, among others, who served on the Escort Carrier Force.

It is an awesome photographic history of the ships and men who served. Smith has kept it in pristine condition.

A different picture

To the inexperienced eye, the carriers look like big Navy ships. But pilots who landed and departed from these carriers, like Smith, see a different picture.

For one thing, it wasn’t easy to take off or land on a carrier. Smith can point out the different parts of the ship, and the runway that pilots navigated.

“There’s only a relative few who have mastered the art of landing on a carrier,” Smith explained. “Now it is done by automatic pilot. But we had to do it ourselves. Once you are strapped into the plane, you can’t get up. We were shot off by a steam catapult.”

When landing, it was imperative to be restrained by a tail hook that hooked onto the plane; it was no easy task for the crew or the pilot to make sure the tail hook attached properly. It was a safety measure, as the landing strip was very short.

Smith’s actual combat service didn’t start until 1945.

He flew off carriers and in the Lingayen Gulf, the USS Kitkun Bay took a kamikaze strike, which disabled it. While it was sent back to Pearl Harbor for repairs (with no landing strip, the USS Kitkun Bay was out of commission). The crew spent an anxious three weeks on the beach, waiting for a new carrier, the USS Makin Island.

At that time, Smith heard about the Bataan Death March, which still makes him shudder. He is grateful that he did not suffer like the U.S. soldiers who were brutalized and starved on the hot, cruel trail. Thousands perished of disease and thirst, and the handful of survivors were scarred and traumatized.

Later, his carrier assisted the landing at Iwo Jima with guns, rockets, bombs and strafing. The carriers “softened it up,” detecting kamikazes (by radar) and other dangers. They later went into Okinawa on a similar mission. On Okinawa, there was a huge railroad gun. The Japanese would bring it out, shoot it, and then it would go back into a cave.

“We were given the job of shooting that thing … we finally disabled it. We shot rockets and strafed the Japanese, who were mainly hiding out in caves. I haven’t thought about it for a long time … I saw some pretty horrible things,” Smith remembered. “Sometimes we had to strafe indiscriminately; at least one time there were civilians,” Smith recalled, holding back tears. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

Later on, in his many travels with his wife of some 64 years, Peggy Smith, they visited Japan and really liked it.

Good memories

It was serendipitous that Smith joined the U.S. Navy. He and a friend, who was also attending San Jose State University, had heard that the Royal
Air Force was recruiting healthy and talented Americans in San Francisco. Both aspiring pilots, it sounded interesting, so they went to San Francisco to sign up for the RAF.

They found the U.S. Navy recruitment office in San Francisco by accident. As it turned out, the RAF recruitment was in Oakland. Smith is glad, though, that he joined the U.S. Navy.

“When I came back from the war, the airlines were recruiting us, especially Navy pilots because we were so well-trained,” Smith said.

But Smith went back to college, where he met and married Peggy in 1946. On one of their first dates, Smith took her flying over the rural Santa Clara Valley (now “wall to wall” people), where Smith was born and raised. Smith grew up on a plum farm in the then-tiny hamlet of Campbell. The plums they raised were mostly sold to Sunsweet, where they were dried and packaged as prunes.

With help from the G.I. Bill (a whopping $101 a month), both he and Peggy graduated from SJSU in 1949. When Smith’s reserve duty was up, he did not re-enlist. He had been a “weekend warrior,” spending his weekends in the Naval Reserves in Livermore, Oakland and Alameda.

“She was afraid. I could be called up any time, and I didn’t want her to worry,” Smith said.

Nor did he take a job as an airline pilot or as a teacher. Instead, he took a job at Sunsweet, where he became assistant superintendent of the main plant.

“I wasn’t suited for that sort of work,” Smith said. “I had my MBA (masters in business administration), so I started teaching business courses. I found that I really liked math and I loved teaching, so I started teaching math.”

Passionate about math

Smith ended up taking a year off to get his masters in mathematics at the University of Illinois.

By that time, he and Peggy, who was also a teacher, had started their family.

“We have great children,” Smith enthused. “A boy and a girl. My daughter is a special education teacher and administrator in Aptos, and my son works at Hewlitt Packard. We have four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.”

“I did some college teaching, too,” Smith said. “When you’re a teacher, you almost always have to moonlight.”

Smith explained that algebra is useful, fascinating and the basis for nearly all mathematical knowledge.

“I always tried to teach a class in beginning algebra. If you’re good at algebra, everything else (like calculus, geometry and trigonometry) falls into place. But I also love to teach advanced algebra,” Smith said brightly.

The rest, as they say, is history. Smith taught high school math for about 29 years. Even after retiring and moving to Cameron Park from San Jose, Smith continued to substitute, teaching math at the three high schools in El Dorado County at the time.

He still helps out with the Math Field Day and the Academic Decathlon.

“Peggy is a member of the American Association of University Women, so she got us started on helping out with the Academic Decathlon. It’s great. I love to go and banter with the students and teachers about math, and help out whenever I can.”

Passionate about Peggy

When Smith talks about Peggy, his eyes light up. Not only is Peggy a marvelous, successful teacher, but she is a wonderful wife and mother.

“It was love at first sight, and I still love her with all my heart, ” Smith affirmed.

On this day, Peggy sits in a recliner, silent and seemingly unfocused, apparently watching TV as a darling cat sits on her lap. Smith’s life is consumed with taking care of Peggy, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. She is well-educated, an inspired teacher and the grandniece of W.K. John Kellogg, the cereal magnate. Her grandparents were missionaries who met in Tonga.

“Peggy designed our last five houses,” Smith said proudly, looking around their beautiful, well-appointed home on a graceful hillside. “It is wheelchair-friendly, with wide halls, a level patio … she designed it with the possibility that we would have her aunt or mother here to care for.”

Instead, the design turned out to be necessary for Peggy’s current life, as she only gets around by her wheelchair.

“How prophetic,” Smith said. “It worked out well. Almost everyday I have caretakers come for a few hours in the morning and in the evening to help with bathing and medical care. And everyday, Peggy and I go somewhere, either for a drive or out to eat. Sometimes my son comes from Roseville to help out.”

Smith reveals no bitterness or weariness with his task of taking care of his beloved. He is thrilled to report that the other day, Peggy was sitting in the MacDonald’s on Missouri Flat Road when she looked out and read the sign across the parking lot: “Yogurt,” she said. “Subway!”

“So you see, Peggy is still there even though she’s helpless. Of course, we don’t do as much as we used to. We used to help out at the Knights of Columbus pancake breakfasts and such, but those days are gone.”

When Smith retired in 1984, he and Peggy traveled all over the world, and they enjoyed several cruises. Among other places, they visited Europe, Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Romania, Russia, Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. They also traveled to Central and South America, where they were particularly impressed by Cuzco.

“We loved to travel, and we traveled a lot … good thing we did it,” said Smith gently.

Passionate about teaching

Smith’s eyes glisten, too, when he talks about a lifetime of teaching. One former student is a Naval Academy graduate who is a Rear Admiral in the intelligence division, and another is the professor of math and physics at the University of Oklahoma. Mimi Escabar, features editor at the Mountain Democrat, is also a former student.

“I still hear from students, e-mails, letters, Christmas cards and such. It’s always good to hear from them. I think I made a difference. I hope I have,” Smith said humbly.

When Smith goes to Washington D.C., his son will accompany him, and his daughter will stay with Peggy. They will see the magnificent WWII Memorial, and Smith will remember, once again, the sacrifices — and the difference — he and the rest of his generation made.

Ron Pfefferle, a fellow Knight of Columbus who recommended Smith for a story, volunteers at Mather Hospital, where he and other Veterans help their brethren suffering from disabilities, post-traumatic stress and other effects of war and military service. There is a sign on the wall at Mather, according to Pfefferle that says: “All gave some … some gave all.”

Indeed, Smith risked all in his dangerous missions as a USN V5 pilot in World War II. An incomprehensible number of pilots’ lives were lost in defense of democracy, and Smith is one of the few who flew out of the South Pacific. Despite the perils he experienced, he said that he has “never regretted it.”

E-mail: [email protected]

Susana Carey Wey

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