Article by Joe Lee
It has been exactly fifty years since Gene Smith, a West Point resident and a veteran of the United States Air Force (USAF) who retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was shot down during a bombing mission in North Vietnam. He wound up spending more than five years in captivity before his release in 1973.
What got him through the physical torture, the mind games and the isolation that marked approximately 2,000 days of his life is a big part of what he’ll discuss when he speaks at the Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Ceremony on Tuesday, November 7 at 10 a.m. in the Leo Seal Building at Mississippi State (MSU).
“Faith and kids, without a doubt, got me through it,” said Gene, who grew up in Tunica and graduated from MSU in 1956 with a Chemical Engineering degree. “I spent 5-6 weeks in isolation, being tortured and interrogated. I was in a four-by-seven cell. You talk about an adjustment period – they’d open the door twice a day to feed you, and once a day I emptied my chamber pot.”
“You had to learn to cope with the fact that you were there – that you were not going to wake up from a bad dream. I had pain to deal with (a leg injury from when he was shot down) with virtually no medical treatment. Sitting in that cell 24 hours a day, you didn’t know when you would get out. I got where I mentally planned and scheduled my day: exercise as long as I could, try to work some math problems, try to recall portraits of my kids, meditate and pray. I thought about my family constantly.”
He was eventually moved to another part of the prison – infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton – and into a four-room cell with a couple of men from his squadron.
“As chance would have it, an hour after I was put in that cell a Navy guy from Friars Point, Mississippi – 20 minutes from Tunica – came in,” Gene said. “We began to learn how to adjust in that cell with four of us.”
“My group that I flew with were all fighter pilots. We had some bomber guys; we made split-second decisions. These were great officers. That group of 600-plus people, for the most part, was a select group. We did a pretty good job from the mental standpoint of dealing with it, (but) if I had known we were going to be there that long (in captivity) … I figured I’d be out in a year, or a year and a half.”
Gene and his first wife, Rae (who died in 1999), had three young children at the time of his Vietnam deployment. Rick Smith, a captain for Southwest Airlines in Phoenix, Arizona, and a 21-year USAF veteran with nearly 40 total years as a pilot, remembers getting letters from his dad in the years Gene was a POW. Both men warmly recall the tremendous support the USAF gave the family once he was home. The Smiths bought a boat and spent a year on the water, fishing and swimming and relaxing while becoming an intact unit once more.
“My father is one of my best friends,” Rick said. “Since I became a pilot, I realized how much we have in common. To be able to talk to your father about what you do for a living and know that he did the same thing is special. I served in Desert Storm flying F16s and the big joke is that I flew 47 combat missions and my dad (flew) only 33 and a half – always good for some back and forth who is the best pilot.”
“As far as me serving my country and becoming a pilot, sure, we discussed it on occasion but Dad never pressured me. He guided me to it because I was typical of my generation: I didn’t know what I was going to do but I always loved being around military airplanes. I will forever be grateful to him for his recommendation that I join the military.”
Gene, meantime, had given considerable thought to what he wanted to do upon release. His father passed away during his years in captivity, but his mother was still alive in 1973 and living in Clarksdale. In addition, Gene’s brother and his wife lived in the Golden Triangle. Thedesire to be near family had a lot to do with his decision to go to training command and take steps toward being a squadron commander at Columbus Air Force Base (CAFB). Although at CAFB only several years – before taking the position of executive director at Golden Triangle Regional Airport, where he would spend two decades before retiring – Gene crossed paths with Mike Ware, a young pilot who not only served under his command but, years later, supervised Rick Smith.
“I went to pilot instructor training in 1974-1975,” said Ware, 66, who is retired from Federal Express and lives in Memphis. “When I got back, Gene was squadron commander. I was an instructor pilot for him as a brand new second lieutenant. I made first lieutenant and captain, and I returned to CAFB in 1993, where Rick was an instructor pilot for me from 1993-1995. We reacquainted pretty heavily for those two years.”
Ware wrote an essay entitled “Faith, Hope, Life” which was included in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series volume, “My Kind of America: 101 Stories about the True Spirit of our Country.” The essay was based on what he heard Gene tell him many years ago.
“Gene was asked often how survived that torture and humiliation every day,” Ware said. “And he would say, ‘Because I had faith. Faith in my lord, faith in my fellow POWs, and faith in my country; through faith you have hope, and when you have hope you have life.’ I do a lot of public speaking myself and share that story. A man who’d been shot down and was readily able to talk to us about his POW experience – it was unbelievable for a 25-year-old who had aspirations to fly fighters.
”The homecoming at the Seal Building will include the presentation of a deluxe hardback book to all Vietnam veterans in attendance. Sharon Dollarhide, who served under Gene Smith at CAFB – and had no idea at the time that her squadron commander had been a POW – said the book, which includes a DVD, is perfect for the coffee tables of veterans and is full of stories told by them.
“The book, which is free to all Vietnam veterans, is so well done,” said Dollarhide, State Veteran Service Officer with the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board at MSU. “It begins with a letter signed by President Trump and Vice President Pence. Governor Bryant has written a letter and signed it as well. There are parts of the stories that are hard to bear because of the horror of the times, but it is our history – a history that we would serve well to learn from.”
“My son, also a veteran – a Marine – has a heating and air conditioning business. He was servicing Gene’s unit when the two of them began talking, and he told me about a veteran he had met that served at CAFB named Gene Smith. I had a picture of Gene presenting me with an award, and my son’s jaw dropped – it was the same man. I contacted him about the commemorative book, and he came to visit me at the center and took the grand tour.”
Gene will speak for about 20 minutes, and Rick said not to be fooled if his dad claims beforehand that he’ll have no idea what he will talk about. Rick’s advice – which is almost word for word what Ware and Dollarhide urge as well – is for young people to pay close attention when Gene is introduced and walks up to the microphone. “The difference in kids these days is that when he talks to a young group of people who are serving their country, age and time have nothing to do with it,” Rick said. “They listen because they know it’s about being a patriot, to put your hand over your heart or salute the flag.”
“That is the message Dad has always been good at delivering. Kids these days don’t get to hear that message, so a student turnout at the event should be great. They can so easily be misdirected by social media and take so much for granted. People like my Dad can give that message about being an American and what it means, because he has made the sacrifice and lived to tell about it.”
“I’ll talk about what happened to me, and how grateful I am at the opportunities afforded me when I got home. It will be positive, and nothing negative,” Gene said. “I spoke all over Mississippi and other places on a regular basis for years, at high schools and churches, and I still use the opportunity to sell what a great country this is. If I influenced one young person who wanted to serve their country in some way, then it’s worth it.”