Retired Lt. Col. Bryant Smick is often reminded of the time he spent flying B-24 bombers over Europe during World War II and of the time he spent as a prisoner of war in Germany and Poland.
More than 60 years later, he still looks up whenever he hears an airplane, no matter how far away it is. Occasionally, a nightmare full of burning planes and dying airmen visits his quiet bedroom in St. John, Wash. And certain foods, such as sauerkraut, remind him of the starvation diet of the POW camps.
Smick, 85, is among a dwindling population of World War II veterans who’s around to tell his own story, though it takes a little prodding to get it out of him.
“I’m really not a hero,” Smick said, sitting under the Silver Star and Purple Heart that stand out among the neatly framed medals on his living room wall.
Smick was born in Endicott, Wash., on Feb. 27, 1922, to farmer parents. After bouncing between Walla Walla College and Eastern Washington College of Education, Smick joined the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force. He’d gotten hooked on flying after taking civilian pilot training at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
“You could get your license for $25,” he said. “It was government sponsored; that’s why it was so cheap. I’m pretty sure it had a stipulation that you should join the Air Force – they got you hooked and then they wanted you to sign up.”
He enlisted in 1942, and he loved basic training at Santa Ana and primary training at Blythe, both in California. Learning to fly bigger airplanes was exciting.
And things were going well for Smick, who quickly progressed to twin-engine training at Roswell, N.M.; married Marjorie Lagreide Smick, who soon became pregnant; and in 1943 became an officer. Ultimately, it was a desire to live in Albuquerque, a bigger and more exciting town, that dictated his choice of airplane: the B-24 bomber.
“I was given the choice of B-17s at Hobbs (New Mexico) or B-24s at Albuquerque, or a secret mission,” Smick said. The secret mission was tempting, but he turned it down in favor of something he knew: flying bombers.
He later discovered that the secret mission was flying along the shores of Florida looking for German submarines, an assignment he never envied.
After more training at bases across the United States, Smick left for Manduria, Italy, in May 1944. An officer at age 22, he was often the youngest guy on the crew.
“From Manduria we flew missions to southern Germany and we covered all of the Balkans,” Smick said. Southern Germany was heavily defended as Smick’s missions sent him to bomb Munich and many other German towns.
Of his 10-member crew, he says, all the others were killed during the war or have since died.
“The easiest missions were when we bombed in Italy. (Allied ground forces) hadn’t even gotten up to Rome yet, so we bombed quite a bit up there,” Smick said. “We called them ‘milk runs’ because they were easy. There usually wasn’t much flak or many fighters.”
It was on a mission to Munich on June 9, 1944, that Smick ordered his crew to bail out of their badly damaged plane.
“To tell you the truth it gets pretty scary, with the flak bouncing all around you and the fighters coming out of nowhere,” Smick said. “I was shot down over the bay of Trieste. We bailed out, but not all of us made it. I was swimming to shore thinking it was the Yugoslavian side, but it wasn’t.”
Smick came ashore below a German anti-aircraft battery. A German soldier swam out to help the exhausted airman, who had been sucked under by his parachute and swallowed a lot of saltwater.
“Not that he had to,” Smick said. “I could have made it.”
Uncertainty about his future was one terrifying aspect of Smick’s capture. Another was going cold turkey off the drugs Smick said he’d gotten hooked on.
“They gave us waker-uppers that would get us up at 3 a.m., and you could have all you wanted,” Smick said. “You got so high you couldn’t sleep at night and then they’d give you all the sleeping pills you wanted. Boy, I missed my pills when I was captured.”
Intense interrogation and isolation in Verona, Italy, made Smick lose track of time.
“They tried to soften you up I guess, but I was just a first lieutenant and I didn’t know anything,” said Smick, who later rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. “I made it a point not to know how many airplanes we had on the field, just in case. I couldn’t tell them anything important.”
Smick could hear a firing squad outside his prison.
“That wasn’t much fun. You could hear them all ‘Ready, set, fire’ and pop-pop-pop,” Smick said. “And I was hungry. We didn’t have anything to eat. And nothing to drink. You can get along without food but without water, oh boy, it was terrible.”
At one point, while transferring trains as POWs were being moved north, Smick was marched through a small Italian town that had just been bombed. A mob was gathering, some with ropes, shouting and spitting at the Americans.
“The German guards had their guns trained on the mob, but I imagine they wouldn’t have done much had things got out of hand,” he said.
A train ride lasting a couple of days took Smick and other POWs to Oflag at Stalag Luft III – a POW camp near Sagan, Germany – now Zagan, Poland – made famous in the movie “The Great Escape.” “Stalag was out in the woods, and we never were bombed,” Smick said.
According to the Geneva Conventions, officers couldn’t be made to work so they made their own cards, played a lot of bridge, and did their best to bide their time, until they were forced to march to different camps.
POWs kept track of the war’s progress over radios smuggled into camps piece by piece, in mail and cigarette packs.
“We could listen to BBC. Every night we’d gather in one room and listen,” Smick said. “I didn’t get in on how they hid it during the day.”
Hunger was constant.
“We were fed crud, and you’d scrape the worms back in – they were good eatin’, they really were,” Smick said.
In January 1945, Smick and the other POWs were marched in freezing cold to a POW camp near Nuremberg. The Russian army was so close that Smick could hear the cannons, and the Germans were doing what they could to move the prisoners out of the way.
Throughout his captivity, Smick kept a sporadic diary that couldn’t grow bigger than the scraps of paper he’d gathered.
He wrote on March 17, 1945: “Fleas, starvation, dirt, air raids. Situation improved somewhat by Red Cross parcels hauled in by our own trucks. Air raid last night blew the hell out of Nurnberg but missed us. That silt trench outside the window really felt good. Fleas are driving me slightly batty. I’m so damn skinny that sleeping on the (bed) boards is impossible. I guess I weigh a good 140 lbs. German rations have been cut again. 1/7 of a loaf of bread. No salt or sugar. Potatoes have been cut to almost nothing. Hope we make it.”
“The bombs got pretty cockeyed close,” Smick said; one knocked him out of bed.
One last march took Smick from Nuremberg to Moosburg, where he arrived on April 18, 1945. Gen. George Patton liberated the camp 11 days later.
“Old Patton came in his tank, real dramatic, pow! Right through the prison gates,” Smick said. “He made a dramatic appearance. And of course we loved it.”
Smick’s first taste of soft white bread didn’t sit well: “We’d gotten used to that brown bread made out of sawdust. To us that was a lot better.”
Smick was transported to France where he was supposed to wait for a boat in Le Havre. Instead, he said, he found a nearby airstrip and managed to board a plane to London. The war was over, but he still hadn’t made contact with his family.“I got a uniform and $40 and I was in London for two weeks,” Smick said.
He got on a civilian ship to New York City and from there – after a cross-country train ride to a debriefing in Seattle – finally back to Spokane.
“My wife and little daughter was there – it was just so nice,” said Smick, who’d left a newborn and come home to an almost 1-year-old. “Then I started farming and I was active in the reserve until I retired.”
He put his flying skills to use, crop-dusting as a sideline.
Smick’s transition to civilian life was rough at times.
“You have rotten dreams, bad stuff, for quite a while, what do they call it? Post traumatic stress syndrome. I guess that’s what we had,” Smick said. “You still have them, once in a while.”
Decades ago Smick went back to Europe and visited the POW camps.
“Most of them are gone,” Smick said. “Some areas have been reforested, some have been reforested with buildings and apartments – but we could still tell where we were.”
Today, so many years later, life is quiet in St. John.
“My wife had a lousy stroke three years ago and she lives down the street in an assisted living facility,” said Smick. “I guess it’s not too bad. I can go down there and have dinner with her every day.”
Reflecting on his POW experience, Smick has this to say:
“I worried I’d return and people would say I was a coward, because I was captured and I didn’t put up more of a fight. But I couldn’t. They took my gun. And actually, people were real nice to me here when I got home.”
Perhaps the last line in his memoirs, which he wrote in 1992 at his daughter’s urging, summarizes it best.
It reads: “PLEASE LORD, NO MORE WAR.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.