At the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London a couple years back, Willard Smith heard some younger tourists nearby speaking Korean and he began to hum the South Korean national anthem, turning to them and greeting them in Korean.
The moment of mutual delight between the 90-something African American, who as a U.S. Army sergeant commanded South Korean and black platoons in the Korean war, and the younger South Koreans is captured in photos Smith likes to share. Proud of the languages he picked up during his Army career – spanning 23 years and duty in three Pacific theaters of war – Smith finds his skills to be a useful peacetime remnant of difficult war experiences.
As the U.S. celebrates Veterans Day, a holiday for thanking living veterans for their service, Smith – now 93 – reminisced about his Army service in war in Japan, Korea and Vietnam without a tinge of emotion.
Rather, he tells war stories – spanning the prosaic details of being a private specializing in automotive parts identification on a makeshift base near the bloodstained shores of Okinawa to the adrenaline-fueled fear of a combat mission in the mountains of Korea that earned him a Silver Star – as simply missions to complete. And he was not just fighting foreign enemies. As a black man in the later part of the Jim Crow era, Smith also was fighting to survive racial segregation and bigotry within the military.
“Segregation was the law of the land," he said.
He received generic chocolate bars while white soldiers got name brands. He was called names by white soldiers. He was denied a battlefield commission by a white superior he had stood up to. He was issued malfunctioning rifles and inferior cold weather gear.
Smith clearly embraces what the military gave him – life lessons and a technical education – but does not gloss over truths that hurt. "To fight was an obligation.” He said. “I wasn't like Cassius Clay, I was a nobody. You did what you had to do to survive – and you can get accustomed to anything if you're exposed to it long enough."
His daughter, Stephanie Ledesma, associate dean at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston, summed it up this way: "Nobody would risk their lives knowing full well that the people for whom he is making the ultimate sacrifice of his life don't give a damn about him. Nobody would do that but for their love of humankind."
He also was good at what he did and taught her a soldier’s strategies for survival.
"My father is a soldier, and soldiers have missions; and missions are either accomplished or not. And given my father's experiences ... if the mission was unsuccessful, it could mean death. His mission was to prepare me to be adequately equipped in a world that had been brutally unkind and unfair to him."
Smith was certainly recognized by the U.S. Army as an excellent soldier. He was one of six African Americans in a class of 200 soldiers selected for officer candidate school at Ft. Riley, Kansas, between World War II and the Korean War. Only three of the black soldiers graduated – Smith was one of them.
He was greeted by a white soldier from Alabama declaring: "I ain't gonna take no orders from no [racial slur]."
But everyone in the class – black or white – took their turn being in charge of formation. And, Smith said, "the only way to shut him up" was to call "'attention,' which means shut up and stand still."
His yearbook from his time in officer candidate school shows him as an achiever – and popular. In one photo, he is sitting jauntily smiling as an elected member of the student council, a single black man among whites.
"I have backbone," he said.
The confidence that put him on the student council also led to what he calls "a run-in with my battalion commander" in 1946, near the end of his first Army stint. When the commander asked him for a smoke and a light, Smith said he didn’t smoke. “And he said a subordinate should have a lighter and cigarettes for their superior,” Smith said. “After that he was after me, so I resigned my commission and got out of the Army completely."
His automotive parts experience helped him get a coding job in the civil service. But, he said, the military still called and he re-enlisted because "three hots and a cot and going where I wanted to go" was better, even if it paid less.
When he was drafted in 1944, not long after graduating from Sumner High School, it was late in World War II and he spent most of his enlistment in Okinawa where the fighting was over. But, he got a vivid glimpse of war there, sinking above his boot tops in ground pulverized by artillery and witnessing bone piles of the war dead.
In Korea, leading platoons in combat, Smith volunteered to "creep and crawl" by himself to an enemy position, eliminating an unknown number of snipers with the accurate toss of a grenade. It won him a Silver Star for gallantry in combat. And later, he led what he was informed – after the fact – was a "suicide mission" to get his platoon across a river under fire. He lost one man. (Efforts by superiors to give him a battlefield commission were nixed by that commanding officer who wanted a smoke.)
In Vietnam, he wasn't in combat, but picked up enough Agent Orange exposure to have a 10 percent disability.
His experiences did give him nightmares overwhelming enough that he once hit his wife in his sleep, he said. His solution to post-war trauma, he said, is "you gotta have goals." Working toward something important occupies your thought and time in healing ways.
After retiring from the military in 1967 (with 23-plus years of service), three marriages and a second career in the U.S. Postal Service, Smith retired completely and settled 30 years ago in St. Peters with his fourth wife, who has since passed away.
He keeps a tidy house, uses an iPhone, has a big-screen TV to watch series re-runs and – despite war wounds, heart surgery, and a knee replacement – he still gets around on his own, driving a shiny, black 2016 Cadillac. "I'm not rich," he said, "but what I buy, I buy quality stuff."