Hugh Smith keeps the relics of his year soldiering across World War II Europe with the 101st Airborne Division in a tattered, brown leather suitcase.
Years of surgeries to repair shattered ankles and correct low blood-flow to his brain slow Smith’s efforts to lift the case, but he braces himself against a walker and heaves his spoils onto a table at the Spokane Valley assisted-living apartment he shares with his wife, Anita.
“There it is,” Smith says, flipping through a scrapbook detailing the exploits of the 101st, who dropped behind enemy lines before the D-Day invasion and were present when Adolf Hitler’s German chalet was captured in May 1945. He’s come to rest on a page showing former Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower conferring with troops before dropping into France, his finger jutting toward the khaki-clad, sunglasses-wearing figure who would later become president. “He pinned my Bronze Star on me.”
Ike wasn’t the first president the Almira, Wash., native can recall meeting. Smith said his father was a carpenter employed on the Grand Coulee Dam project, a vocation the younger Smith would later mimic, earning the same pay as his father in lieu of graduating from high school in the heady days of the Public Works Administration. Long before he picked up carpenter’s tools, however, he remembered sharing a slice of watermelon with Franklin Delano Roosevelt on one of the president’s trips to the site.
“Watermelon was 10 cents, and there were these great big watermelons,” Smith said. “Finally, (Roosevelt) comes down and he said, ‘Hey, one of you kids, give me some watermelon!’ ” Smith chuckles at the memory.
But work at the dam dried up in 1942 and Smith found himself eligible for the draft. He parachuted into France as a bodyguard for corpsmen with the 502nd Parachute Infantry Service Company based out of Fort Benning, Ga. Smith said he packed a Thompson submachine gun and quickly displayed a keen knack for requisitioning jeeps.
“He refused to walk, so he’d steal your jeep,” Anita Smith said.
“The Airborne didn’t have very many jeeps,” Hugh Smith explained. “If you got out of (a jeep) and turned your back, I could get into it and put two wires together and drive it off.”
Smith said he’d also smuggled a decal with the division’s logo. Some white paint on the hood would make the subterfuge complete.
Smith found himself in the midst of several major events of the war, he said. He picked up in his jeep the body of Reardan native Joe Mann from the Holland battlefield where Mann, arms pinned by bandages after wounds sustained fighting the Germans in Operation Market Garden, threw himself on a grenade to spare the lives of surrounding men. Smith remains bitter to this day about the delay of British tanks, which could have turned the tide of the assault and saved Allied lives.
“We could have taken the bridge real easy if they’d have been there when they were supposed to,” Smith says. The failure of the operation led to the war dragging on past Christmas 1944, when Allied leaders thought they’d be celebrating the New Year in Berlin.
Instead, Smith found himself fighting in Bastogne, a southeastern Belgium town near the Luxembourg border. Nazi forces encircled occupying Allied troops, and Smith slept in a foxhole during the fighting. When he and Anita returned 40 years later, Smith said, his foxhole was still there, along with trophies he’d stashed on the second floor of a nearby tavern.
“Where we stayed in that bar, there were two Lugers hidden upstairs,” Smith said, referring to the standard-issue pistol carried by German officers. “They were still there.”
Along the way to Hitler’s Berghof, Smith and his colleagues stumbled upon several German and French banks stocked full of “invasion money.”
“You want to be a trillionaire?” Smith asks with a wink, unfolding a spool of multicolored currency, featuring the visages of dukes and queens and kaisers, taped together at the edges like measuring tape. “It took a lot of dynamite, TNT, to blow that vault,” he says.
His squad missed out on a lot of the spoils of Hitler’s chalet, including the art, wine and guns. A different group of soldiers beat them to it, Smith said. But they took several of the Fuhrer’s cars out for a spin on the highways, waiting for orders to fly to Japan for what was considered an inevitable invasion.
That was before August and the atomic bomb. Smith remembers packing his bag, including a safety razor he’s kept that’s no larger than a pocket cigarette lighter. But the call never came, and Smith returned to Washington for a life doing odd jobs and marrying Anita.
The couple never had children, though they remain involved with the Scottish Rite, and Hugh Smith is involved with the Shriners. They stay up nights talking about the war sometimes, and their apartment is littered with films and books detailing battles and figures from the time period.
“We’ve had a good life,” Smith says. “We had no kids, so then, we’ve done everything we’ve wanted to do.”