Veteran’s account of the day he witnessed attack on Pearl Harbor
By Sparta Live | December 7, 2018 5:52 am
Last Updated: December 7, 2018 at 5:53 am
By Kim Swindell Wood
Editor’s note: The following story was published in The Expositor, in December 2003, which provides a first-hand account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941. One of White County’s native sons, Richard Smith, was there and vividly remembered the horrific events of that day. Mr. Smith passed away Jan. 10, 2006. SpartaLive is proud to publish this story once again in memory of Mr. Smith and all veterans who have so proudly served their country.
It was a calm, serene Sunday morning and most everyone was still asleep, but early-riser Staff Sgt. Richard Smith vividly remembers the day that forever changed the face of history.
It was Dec. 7, 1941, just before 8 a.m., when the striking force of 353 Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Smith, who joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1939 and was stationed at Hickam Field, had already risen from bed and was going about his daily routine when the devastating attack began.
Smith and his squadron had been at the field only seven days prior to the attack. The dive-bombing Japanese planes attacked with so much synchronization, it took Smith and the rest of the military personnel at Hickam Field a few minutes before they realized what was actually happening. There had been no formal declaration of war.
“I was standing right beside my first sergeant when he was shot and killed,” said Smith. “I’ll never forget it.”
Both men had quickly surmised the seriousness of the situation, and the first sergeant had just requested Smith to retrieve his family from their housing on the base and take them to safety in the downtown area. Within minutes, the first sergeant was dead.
“We had been on exercise and had machine guns already set up,” said Smith. “We knew they [Japanese] were coming. We just didn’t know when. It wasn’t a surprise, but we had no inkling it would be with such fury.”
“We were standing targets,” said Smith, as he clearly recounted the details of the attack.
Eighteen Army Air Corps aircraft, including bombers and fighters and attack bombers were destroyed or damaged on the ground. However, Smith said the adjacent Pearl Harbor Naval Base suffered the greatest amount of damage as the invading forces crisscrossed from one field to the other. Ground fire and U.S. pilots from various military installations on Oahu shot down a total of 29 Japanese aircraft.
“There was very little excitement, except we knew we were hit,” said Smith. “We were all scared to death, but we had a job to do, and we knew what to do. There wasn’t any panic, at least from my viewpoint. We were just scared.”
Within minutes of the first report of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Smith said fighter planes from Wheeler Field, which was approximately 20 miles away, were airborne and began a counterattack on the Japanese aircraft.
The day following the attack, military personnel began the daunting task of identifying the casualties. Although Smith survived the attack, he was reported missing for three days. Now, 62 years later, Smith shrugs off the error and attributes the mistake to an 18-year-old boy who worked for him and was “simply scared to death.”
As a direct descendant of Scottish immigrants who came to the Eastland community of White County to work in the coal mines, Smith had been raised to endure the trials and tribulations of life. However, his parents’ firm and loving guidance did not prepare him for “a day which will live in infamy.”
Smith had an outstanding military career. He participated in both the Pacific and European theaters during World War II and served during the Korean Conflict. He met his wife Elizabeth in 1943, and they were married in 1945. They are the parents of three children, who have blessed them with several grandchildren and great grandchildren.
The couple has lived in numerous locations, including, Ohio, Macon, Ga., Albany, Ga., Alaska, Smyrna and Prattville, Ala. In September 1960, Smith became the sergeant major of the War College, where he remained until retirement on Dec. 31, 1961. The Pearl Harbor veteran has 14 service awards and the accommodation ribbon.
Smith returned to White County immediately following retirement and has resided in the Eastland community surrounded by his family history. He especially loves to keep active, which is evident by the handmade creations from his woodworking shop.
He jokingly refers to taking orders now from his own personal “general” as he mischievously smiles at Elizabeth. She has grown accustomed to his sense of humor and can quickly reply to his boyish witticisms.
Although 62 years have passed since the day when thousands of lives were lost, Dec. 7, 1941, will remain a permanent part of Richard Smith’s memories.
“To say I was really scared at Pearl Harbor would be putting it lightly,” he said. “Everybody did their job. They did a wonderful job. You’d have been proud of them.”