Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

December 2, 2012

Smith survived against the odds

Glasgow Daily Times

GLASGOW — World War II Army Air Corps veteran Edwin F. Smith has told his story of survival many times over the years, but instead of getting easier, Smith said as he gets older, he gets more emotional about the experience.

His senior year of high school, the year after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Smith enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He couldn’t start until he had a high school diploma, so he and a classmate signed up on a deferred enlistment plan and entered the Air Corps immediately after they got their diplomas in the spring of 1943. Smith graduated training as a 2nd Lieutenant on Dec. 14, 1944. He headed to Florida to fly B-17s, and was then sent to New Mexico in April 1945 to train with B-29 bombers.

By summer 1945, Smith’s crew already had orders to join the war in Saipan, but training continued. Ironically, Smith said the Air Corps was losing too many men and airplanes due to what was deemed insufficient training, so Smith’s crew was to finish its training before heading to the Pacific.

Aug. 17, 1945, is the night Smith has carried with him for 67 years. It was the night that ended his chances of seeing combat in WWII, and also ended his hopes of a college football career after the war.

Smith’s 11-man crew was assigned to fly a training mission from Clovis, N.M., to Fort Worth, Texas, where they were to complete five radar-controlled night bomb runs.

“When we went on a training mission, the only thing we could take with us was our dog tags,” Smith said. “ ... Nothing that would give the enemy any additional information.”

The B-29 arrived at Meacham Field a little after 9 p.m. As the crew made its first bomb drop, Smith noticed the altimeter was fluctuating as much as 200 feet above and 200 feet below their intended 15,000 feet while on autopilot. Smith told the airplane commander, who told him to get on the override switch and keep the plane at a steady 15,000 feet.

“I undid my seatbelt, which was a violation of the rules and regulations in flight on a B-29, you just don’t do that,” Smith said. “I undid my seatbelt, so I could lean forward and watch that rate of climb indicator a little bit closer.”

Taking off that seatbelt probably saved his life, Smith said. As the plane made a box turn in order to come around and do its second bomb drop, Smith said he happened to look up and saw a green light flash once.

“And then there was a tremendous crash. We had hit another airplane,” Smith said.

Smith’s first thought was fear that their bomber had hit an airliner full of people. Later, he found out that they had collided with another B-29 on a training mission, and the other plane took out the No. 4 engine and took the rest of the wing off Smith’s plane.

“I was thrown around all over the place, and finally, I knew the only way to get out of it was through the co-pilot’s exit window,” Smith said.

The only time an airman exits a B-29 through the co-pilot’s window is when the plane is doing a belly landing on sea or water, Smith said, because if Engine 3 is still running, an airman climbing out that window will go right into the turning propeller. He managed to get the window open and crawled out to his waist. The B-29 was “just a big burning bunch of fire” around him, he said, with pieces of the plane falling off and the bomber hurtling toward the ground.

“I looked, and sure enough, there was No. 3 still turning,” Smith said.

There was no way to get out without going into the propeller, Smith said, but then the slipstream around the aircraft pinned Smith to the fuselage. He was stuck, half inside and half outside the plane.

“I knew that it was all over, I knew I was dead, because there’s no way, no way to live in a situation like that,” Smith said. “Because if you go out, you go into No. 3 engine, and if you get back in and ride it down, you’re headed for the ground with power on and on fire, the whole thing was on fire. I knew my life had ended.”

Sure that he was about to die, Smith’s only thought was going with the less painful death.

“I had some kind of crazy notion that it wouldn’t hurt as bad if I crawled back inside when we hit the ground, isn’t that silly,” Smith said.

As Smith moved to go back inside the plane, his right thumb got hung in his rip cord and opened his parachute while he was still stuck in the window.

“What it did was just absolutely rip me out of that window,” Smith said.

Since the airplane was spinning, instead of flying back into the propeller, Smith was pulled back up over the engine and away from the plane.

“It knocked me unconscious, just briefly, and when I regained consciousness, everything was absolutely quiet, you could hear a pin drop,” Smith said.

Smith initially thought he was dead, but he then felt a breeze on his legs. He pulled his rip cord, thinking he was free falling. When he didn’t feel the parachute open, he looked up to see what went wrong, and realized the parachute was already open above him.

“To me, that was the most frightening part of the entire thing, was that falling through darkness and not knowing when you’re going to hit the ground,” Smith said.

Smith started to think about how he could land, but almost immediately he had already landed. Slumped in the parachute, Smith hit the ground head-first and landed on his back, knocked unconscious for the second time. The next thing he knew, people were shining flashlights on him, Smith said. One identified himself as a doctor, and told him he’d been unconscious for 45 minutes to an hour. Smith had a dislocated shoulder, a broken right leg, broken left foot, a pulled back and lacerations on his legs from being jerked out the window. The doctor relocated his shoulder right there, using the morphine in Smith’s first aid kit to help with the pain. From there, Smith was taken to an Army hospital at Camp Wolters, at Mineral Wells, Texas.

Smith asked about the rest of his crew and the other airplane. Those who had been conducting the search said they had not found any other survivors.

“I was very, very upset. I couldn’t keep from crying,” Smith said. “I was very emotional about it, knowing that all my crew had lost their life.”

Later that night, Smith found out that gunner Earl Wischmeier of his crew also survived, and he was able to talk to him at the hospital.

Reflecting on the crash, Smith said, he prayed to God as the plane tumbled though the air, but he didn’t pray to be saved.

“I prayed to God to forgive me of my sins, ‘cause I had sins,” Smith said. “And after that, after I prayed, and I knew I was gonna die, I wasn’t fighting. I wasn’t screaming. I didn’t pray for God to save my life because I knew that that was just not possible. There’s just no possible way that your life could be saved at that time, but evidently God had a different idea, That’s when he slipped my thumb, apparently, into that ripcord … Maybe God said, look I’ll show you there is a way.”

Surviving that crash has made Smith more spiritual throughout his life, he said.

“I can’t question that God didn’t have a say-so [that night],” Smith said.

Smith was at the Camp Wolters hospital for 33 days before he was released to go home. That December, he was discharged. After the war, he used the G.I. Bill to get a degree in accounting with a minor in English. He graduated in 1949 and took a job with the Internal Revenue Service in Indiana. He married Mary Jane Walker and they moved to her hometown of Franklin, Tenn., where Smith worked for Chevrolet. Mary Jane died in 1968, and in 1969 Smith married Bobbe Smith. The Smiths returned to Glasgow in 1972, and he spent the rest of his career working in real estate. Ed and Bobbe Smith had one daughter, and Bobbe had two daughters from her first marriage. They have seven grandsons, one granddaughter and two great-grandsons.