Military ventures took man from Navy seaman to Air Force colonel

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Ed Smith served in the military for more than 33 years during three major wars — World War II, Korea and Vietnam — and saw combat in two of them. He entered as a 17-year-old seaman in the Navy during World War II and retired as a “full bird” colonel from the Air Force with a masters degree in aeronautical engineering.

During his career Smith, now 92, logged more than 6,000 hours in the air as a pilot in single- and multi-engine planes, worked on experimental aircraft and the development of prototypes.

It all started in 1944, after the United States had been involved in World War II for three years. A 17-year-old high school student in Farmhaven, Mississippi, Smith was itching to join his three older brothers — one in the Navy, two in the Marines — in the fight to preserve freedom. Smith had a desire to fly. He wanted to be a fighter pilot and in his a junior year of high school, after he scored high enough on the military aptitude test, he was treated to a plane ride with the Civil Air Patrol.

“I got hooked,” Smith said.

In an effort to delay her fourth of five sons going off to war, Smith’s mother challenged him to finish high school before agreeing to sign the exemption papers. That act of motherly love set the direction for the rest of Ed Smith’s life.

“I thank her for that to this day,” Smith said. “It made a world of difference in my life.”

Smith attended summer school at a local junior college and received his diploma before joining the Navy. He wanted to be a pilot in the Army Air Corps, which became the Air Force in 1948, but by 1944, the Air Corps had enough pilots. The Navy accepted him into its flight program when there was an opening, “but the war ended before my time came,” he said.

After boot camp and electrical training school, Smith was sent to San Francisco, where he boarded the USS Biloxi, a light cruiser, and headed for the South Pacific.

During the crossing, the crew battled numerous enemy submarines.

“We were in the vicinity of Japan when we got word the war (in the Pacific) was over,” he said.

V-J Day came on Aug. 14, 1945, and the official surrender aboard the USS Missouri came on Sept. 2, 1945, changing the mission for those aboard the Biloxi. They transported POWs held on mainland Japan to Okinawa.

“We went to pick up POWs who had been there since the war began,” Smith said. “The ones who could walk, we took. The ones who couldn’t walk went on the hospital ship.”

In the middle of the night, while heading to Okinawa, Smith was called to the quarter deck and transferred to the the USNS Taylor, a transport ship in need of a refrigerator mechanic. He remained on the Taylor until 1946, when he was discharged from active duty. He remained in the Naval Reserves four more years.

During that time, Smith attended a junior college, worked for an oil company and began work toward a degree in petroleum engineering, It took 2½ years to decided he really didn’t want to work in the oil fields. He wanted to fly.

In 1950, the Korean War had just started and the Air Force was training pilots. Smith joined the Air Force and began the career he wanted.

During training in California, Smith met and married Molly. Together they had three sons and traveled the country and the world for more than 2½ decades and Smith flew planes. His first was the F-84 turbojet fighter bomber, the plane he was going to fly in Korea until his orders were changed the week before he was supposed to deploy. Instead, he went to Patrick Air Force Base, where he flew the T-33 single-engine jet trainer while learning to guide missiles to their target using a narrow beam radar, the first of several experimental projects. In Germany, he became a certified flight instructor.

He was given a regular commission to remain in the Air Force and sent back to college to earn an undergraduate degree and a masters degree in aeronautical engineering, which opened even more doors of opportunity. He worked with Boeing designing a spaceplane called the Dyna-Soar. When the program was canceled, he tested helicopters for the Air Force and the Army.

“I thought it was a demotion, but I found out the helicopter is the most complicated machine ever invented,” Smith said.

In Southeast Asia, he flew C-130 transport planes — his first multiple-engine plane — from Taiwan to Vietnam, logging more than 100 hours transporting supplies into Vietnam during the course of 13 months. He trained on the C-130 at Sewart Air Force Base (now the Smyrna Airport).

At Arnold Engineering Center in Tullahoma, Smith tested rockets for Apollo missions. At Norton Air Force Base, in California, he supervised the development of the F-15, the prototypes for the F-16, built by the Air Force, and F-18, built by the Army, and logged more the 6,000 flight hours in his career.

In 1979, Smith retired after 33 years in the military.

Ed and Molly built a home on Tim’s Ford lake, where they lived for 29 years before moving to Brentwood. 

After a year of retirement, “I got bored,” Smith said. He began another career as a pilot for a small apparel company in Tullahoma.

It was so small, “I was their whole flight and maintenance department,” he said.

Ed and Molly recently celebrated 66 years together.


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