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William Smith


William Herman Smith, c. Feb 1944

William Herman “Pat” Smith (“Snuffy” Smith, after the syndicated cartoon character, to many of his Macaw shipmates, though many years later he had no recollection of ever being called that) was born in 1909 in south Georgia, the sixth of nine children of a sharecropper and his wife. The family moved a lot. The children would go to school if there was one within two or three miles. One school they rode to on a donkey. No one seems to know how William got the nickname Pat.

Smith worked from about age twelve to fourteen in a fruit basket factory in Springvale, Georgia, with his brother-in-law Allie Glysson, his sister Emma’s husband. Girls would lay out strips of wood from native hardwood trees in a grid or circle. “They’d take these things down there to the machine, where the fella (Allie) would make a basket out of it.” Allie would put a couple of strips around the wickerwork, and the machine would shape it around a core mold into a basket. “I caught the basket when they’d finish it. I’d get six in a row, when I’d shove ’em over to one side.” Trucks would come at night and take the baskets to the orchards. Pat worked six days a week for two or three years and earned 50 cents a day. “We’d get there on Saturday morning to get paid. … They’d call my name and say ‘Three dollars.’ My father would be there to take the money and put it in his pocket. I never did see it.” Pat’s son Gordon figures all of the kids in the family probably worked. Their parents desperately needed the income.

The family lived for a while outside Springvale. The town was about two miles from the train station. Pat had a close call going home one day, hitching a ride from the station to the town on the back of a flatbed truck. The driver swerved going up a slight hill and sent his young passenger sliding off the truck bed. He began falling toward the left rear double wheels. A fellow passenger, a colored man, reached over and yanked him back up by the back of his shirt, saying “Oh no you don’t.” But for his intervention, “I’da been killed right then an’ there … He saved my life. If that thing had run over me, I’da been killed as sure as you’re a foot high.”

Pat found a rattlesnake six feet long in a dirt road a quarter mile from their house one day. “I yelled for my mother to bring the shotgun, and she did.” But she declined to use it, offering it to him instead. He pulled the trigger, killing the snake but not decapitating it. He hung it by the road on a stake. Every motorist who went by would stop and gawk at it.

After Pat’s father died, Allie got a job as a locomotive engineer on a small railroad in eastern Florida, and it was decided that Pat would go with Allie and Emma, who had no children of their own, to reduce the number of mouths Pat’s mother had to feed. En route to their new hometown, they visited Allie’s sister and her family on their farm in Florida. Pat took immediately to their horse. It occurred to someone that Pat might like to stay there. They asked him, and he supposed he would, so Allie and Emma left him there. Shortly thereafter, Allie’s sister’s husband died, and suddenly Pat, age 14 or so, was basically running the farm, unpaid, while Allie’s sister’s daughter was sent off somewhere to school — an arrangement that did not sit well with various of Pat’s siblings when they found out about it.

After a while, Robert Hilton (one of Pat’s brothers) suggested to George Harley (another of Pat’s brothers) that he go check on Pat. When George Harley saw what was going on, he told Pat to get his things, he would not be staying there. George Harley took him to Robert Hilton’s place in Florida. Robert Hilton was the water superintendent at Beach Park, a housing development six or seven miles outside Tampa. He suggested that Pat go to school. The school people had him pegged at a glance for one of their upper grades, but he failed to perform to their expectations on a placement test, so they put him in fifth grade instead, with kids four years younger than himself. He never complained about this age disparity. As far as Gordon knows, Pat’s classmates did not mistreat him — they probably looked up to, not down on him, Gordon said. Pat, for his part, was an eager and diligent student — he always took advantage of an opportunity to learn. He was in school in Florida about four years. There was no school bus service “out our way,” so Pat rode his red Elgin bicycle six or seven miles each way to school and back every day. He never went to high school, but when he enlisted in the navy at age 19 in 1928, he was well enough educated to pass a test to qualify for electrician training, and he wound up about 25 years later as flag secretary to an admiral.

Enlisting in the Navy was Robert Hilton’s idea. From his vantage point as someone involved in the real estate industry in Florida, he foresaw the Depression and figured Pat would do well to be in the military once it arrived. Having been in the Army, he figured Pat would do better in the Navy. Pushing Pat in that direction was, in Gordon’s opinion, the second huge favor he did for him, the first being sending George Harley to check on him at Allie’s sister’s farm. Had no one done that, Pat might never have gotten off that farm and Gordon wouldn’t have been around to furnish an introduction to his father almost ninety years later.

For years in the Navy Smith was paid $32 a month and would send half of it home to his mother every month, a fact about which the family remains proud of him. By 1939 he had become a chief petty officer. The Navy, foreseeing the war, began testing long-serving enlisted men to determine whether they qualified for officer training. Smith passed the test and got his commission. He spent twelve years aboard the USS Salt Lake City, a cruiser on which he saw action in the Battle of Cape Esperance, a night engagement off Guadalcanal in 1942.

After the Salt Lake City, he was assigned to training in Boston and then to the Macaw as the communications officer. He didn’t think the latter assignment made sense. He’d been trained as an electrician. He contacted the Bureau of Naval Personnel and pointed that fact out. They told him that was exactly why he’d gotten the assignment. The Macaw, being the sort of auxiliary vessel it was, had a lot of electric motors. They figured his expertise that way might come in handy aboard her.

Smith was ashore at Midway when the Macaw sank. Afterward, he was assigned to the USS Fulton (AS-11), a submarine tender. After the war, he served as flag secretary to Admiral Allan Edward Smith (no relation) of the 13th Naval District in Bremerton, Washington. He mustered out after thirty years in 1958, took a job with Boeing in Seattle and bought property in the Yakima, Washington, area, where he had horses and ran cattle. He later moved to Blaine, Washington, near the Canadian border, and finally at about age 90 to a care facility in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, outside Washington, DC, where, as of November 2012 he was still going strong at age 103. His son and daughter-in-law, Gordon and Sharon Smith, live nearby.


William Herman Smith, Nov 2012