Tags: Top of page
May 13, 2014 | 04:10 PMCharlie Smith doesn’t wear his Army dress uniform much anymore.
“It doesn’t fit like it used to,” he said.
But the 88-year-old said he wore it all day May 3, when he toured the war monuments in Washington, D.C.
“It was just the perfect day, beautiful,” Smith said of the one-day trip.
Smith was one of 49 World War II and 65 Korean-era veterans on the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight May 3.
The honor flight program brings veterans to the U.S. capital to see the monuments, and returns the veterans home with a mail call.
“I was just one little man,” Smith said. “They made us feel like kings when we came through the airport, all that cheering for us.”
Smith said he used to joke with his two daughters that he won the war by himself, with the help of 16.1 million others.
Drafted at 18 years old, Smith was sent to Germany as a combat medic in December 1944.
“I was drafted in April 1944 and had about 17 weeks of tank training,” he said. “Everything a tank can do, I learned to do. It was very intense.”
Because of Smith’s family history in medicine — his father was a veterinarian — he was also trained as a combat medic.
He served in the 1st Armored Division, Old Ironsides, for about two years.
An honorable day
Smith said his honor flight day started early, at about 2 a.m.
“We went to the Milwaukee airport, and we were just met with crowds,” he said. “I probably shook about a thousand hands that day.”
Smith and his “comrades-in-arms” visited the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Washington — “beautiful” — and Lincoln — “magnificent” — monuments and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“We saw the changing of the guard (at the tomb),” Smith said. “There were two Marines, and a drill sergeant. We were all hush, hush, quiet. It was exciting.”
And the group spent some time at Arlington National Cemetery.
“They said about 20 to 25 people are buried there each day,” Smith said. “There are just thousands and thousands of stones. I was there once before, in 1963. That was before most of these monuments were put up in Washington.”
Smith said the whole day had a “patriotic essence” that surrounded the men.
“I met a lot of nice guys on the trip,” he said. “They were all comrades-in-arms. We all were, well, we didn’t run off to Canada.”
Smith shares memories of his deployments mingled with memories of his day in Washington.
“Europe was smashed to a million pieces,” he said. “It was quite an experience, really, seeing that. And it was quite an experience to be in Washington. At first, I was hesitant to go on the trip. I wasn’t sure I could handle it.”
Smith is wheelchair-bound, and he said he thought the trip might be too taxing.
“But, we persevere,” he said. “Of course, I had a guardian by my side. We all had a guardian, each veteran, for his every whim and need.”
Smith was escorted by a retired Milwaukee firefighter, who “took his photo at every memorial and monument.”
Smith said his daughters had photos and videos of the day before he even came back to Milwaukee.
“On the flight, they gave us all these huge packets of letters. I had letters from kids, written in crayon, ‘thank you for your service, be a good boy,’” Smith said, laughing. “It really made you feel like a king.”
A little war
Smith, who said he always tries to keep things positive, said he learned all about U.S. military history when he was younger.
“We had World War I, and then we took a little break, then we had World War II, and we took a little break,” Smith said. “It seems like we just have to have a little war on a regular basis, just to keep things interesting around here.”
He has some war dates and casualty numbers in his head, too. Numbers he said he can’t forget.
“War is hell, but that’s the way life is,” Smith said. “I wasn’t planning to live to 88, but I don’t make those decisions. But now, I think I’m going to live to 100. I just think there’s still something better coming for me.”
Smith and his wife both live at the Artisan Assisted Living facility in Lake Geneva.