Over the course of a remarkable military career, Columbia’s Olin E. Smith fought in three wars, rose from private to brigadier general and left a deep legacy of service through his three sons, all of whom joined the U.S. Army and rose to the ranks of lieutenant colonel and major general.
He is the father of two-tour retired Vietnam veteran Lt. Col. James G. Smith, 73, of Hopkins. Another son, Lt. Col. Robert Smith, a Desert Storm veteran, died in 1993 at age 45 while working for the recruiting command at Fort Jackson.
On this Memorial Day weekend, Olin Smith’s life is indicative of the service of so many soldiers, sailor, airmen and Marines who had distinguished careers and quietly passed on. He died on April 17 at 95.
“My dad was very driven,” said Smith’s third son, retired Maj. Gen. Steven Smith, 63, of Alexandria, Va. “He really liked the atmosphere and all the army values. He was the living epitome of what duty, honor, country should be.”
Olin Smith was born in a log cabin in the tiny hamlet of Kline, W.V., in 1921 to the late Andrew and Grace Hartman Smith. The one-room cabin had been built in 1888.
“The town was so small it doesn’t even appear on a map,” said Andy Smith, executive director of Nickelodeon Theater in Columbia and Olin Smith’s grandson.
The family eventually moved to Charleston, W.V., and Smith attended South Charleston High School, where he was president of the student council.
Andy Smith tells the story that one Veteran’s Day the town didn’t have enough veterans to march in the parade. Smith was in the marching band, so a National Guard recruiter gave him an old World War I uniform and he fell in line.
As a result, while still in high school, Smith joined the West Virginia National Guard.
“They paid one dollar a weekend,” Steven Smith said. “It was enough for him to take my (future) mother, Virginia, out.”
‘I was never so scared in my life’
Smith went to work for Union Carbide after graduation “and really, really hated it,” Steven Smith said.
In 1940, Smith’s national guard unit was federalized for one year in anticipation of World War II.
“About 20 days before my dad’s unit’s year would have been up, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” Steven Smith said, “and in 10 days they were on a boat headed for the Far East.”
The unit, however, was diverted to Panama to protect the canal, and fought through North Africa and Italy.
Smith fought valiantly and rose through the non-commissioned ranks. In 1944, during a battle in the Po Valley in northern Italy, Smith’s commander ripped some tattered master sergeant’s chevrons off his sleeve and said, “You’re not going to need these anymore.”
“Pop thought he did something wrong,” Andy Smith said. “But they made him a lieutenant in the field.”
After World War II, Smith went on to fight in Korea with the 3rd Infantry Division. In a press clipping from 1952, the Charleston Gazette wrote that Smith “fought in Italy from the tip to the top. But his greatest danger occurred at Hungnam Beach when there was hardly a Communist within shooting distance.
“The Navy was evacuating troops from the beach when several thousand rounds of ammunition, including grenades and phosphorous shells, caught fire and began exploding.”
Smith told the paper, “I was never so scared in my life. I never had to face anything like that in battle.”
Smith was wounded, but was credited for taking control and restoring order on a section of the beach. He received a second Bronze Star for Valor and his second Purple Heart.
By the end of the Korean War, he had been promoted to major.
‘He always took care of his soldiers’
But it was in Vietnam that Smith received his highest awards.
In addition to being an accomplished infantryman, Smith also had a love for flying, James Smith said. He received his pilot’s license in 1947. After Korea, he learned to fly helicopters at Fort Rucker, Ala.
When he went to Vietnam to join the 25th Infantry Division, James Smith was already in-country and was summoned to meet his father at a change of command ceremony.
“A call came over from a division commander that they wanted me out of the field,” James Smith said. “There was my father. It was surreal.”
In spring of 1970, Smith was flying a command helicopter for the division with two gunships in trail during an attack near the Cambodian border. He was trying to knock out some heavy North Vietnamese machine guns that were causing mass casualties.
Smith’s chopper had just refueled, and when machine gun fire punctured the fuel tank. Smith and his co-pilot were drenched in fuel.
“To avoid an explosion, they turned the power off in the helicopter,” Steven Smith said.
Smith then tried to land the helicopter by a method called auto-rotation.
“It is controlled chaos,” Steven Smith said. “As you fall the blade continues to turn and you can in a sense somewhat glide by changing the the pitch of the blade. It’s a controlled crash.”
When the helicopter landed, Smith ordered the two door gunners and the crew chief not to leave the aircraft, because of the danger of them being killed or injured by damaged, spinning rotors. They did anyway, dousing Smith and his co-pilot with fire extinguishers.
Smith then directed the rest of the battle from the ground.
“He recommended the crew members for medals for bravery, but he jokingly said, ‘I’m going to give them to you at your court martial for disobeying my orders,’” Steven Smith said.
Smith was awarded both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Star. Upon his retirement from Fort Jackson in 1975, Smith had amassed numerous awards including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with V Device and the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.
“He always took the tough jobs,” Steven Smith said. “And he always made it seem like he had the best job in the world. And he always, always always took care of his soldiers.
“He was tremendously proud that we all followed in his footsteps,” he added. “What a role model to grow up with.”
Smith was buried at Greenlawn Memorial Park.