1944 Veteran Recalls Fellow Aviator, Bush

Survivor Of Japanese Attack Has A Friend In Washington

March 18, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The rubber around the aviator's goggles has rotted, and the orange-tinted glass is clouded by dust. But the name "Smitty" is legible on the cloth flight helmet, as it appeared on Oct. 25, 1944, when Joseph S. Smith Jr. sat behind the tail gun and watched black smoke shroud his view of the Philippine Sea and the Japanese warship that fired thefatal shots.

"I said, 'I'm going to die, I'm going to die,' " said Smith.

In his Millersville living room, with the aviator's helmet and his flight logs on the coffee table, Smith displays a newly published book, "Flight of the Avenger -- George Bush at War."

The book, by former war correspondent Joe Hyams, contains a description of the day that Smith did not die but lived to be reunited with many of his mates -- including President George Bush -- from torpedo bombing SquadronVT-51.

Turret gunner Smith, now 69, was discharged in 1945 and worked as a watchmaker in Maryland. Bush, 66, who was shot down in September 1944 on a bombing run over the Pacific island of Chichi Jima, went on to work in oil, espionage and politics.

Smith the enlisted man never rubbed elbows with Bush the ensign and later, lieutenant. Smith didn't recognize the vice president, then presidential candidateGeorge Bush, as the same lanky pilot who flew missions in Avenger torpedo-bombers off the carrier U.S.S. San Jacinto.

The revelation came to Smith via television in the summer of 1988, when Bush was running for president. A news story told of Bush's war experience.

Bush? George Bush? Wasn't there a George Bush in the squadron, the one who survived the shoot-down in September 1944? Couldn't be the same one, Smith thought. Had to be, he thought.

He called another veteranof Squadron 51, Arthur Horan of Bethel, Conn. Horan hadn't realized it either.

"I just never thought anybody I knew would be vice president," said Smith. He acknowledges that he knew Bush "just vaguely. Officers and enlisted men, they weren't too chummy." He said he flew with Bush a few times on troop flights but never on combat missions.

The White House did not learn of Smith's whereabouts in time to have him join several other squadron veterans at the Bush inauguration in January 1989. But Smith and his wife, Bette, were invited to the White House in October 1989. Four photographs from that occasion -- one signed by the president -- hang on the Smiths' living room wall along with a watercolor painting of four Avenger aircraft flying over the U.S.S. Jacinto.

There's also an invitation to the inauguration displayed in a frame that sits atop the television set, and a VT-51 inaugural license plate on the Smiths' Chrysler.

Hyams dedicated hisbook to the 66 men of Squadron 51, about 35 of whom are still alive.A dozen members turned out for the squadron's first reunion a year ago in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I've never seen men cry so much," said Bette Smith. "It was very touching."

The next month, members of the crew of the U.S.S. Jacinto, including Squadron VT-51, were reunited in Nashville.

For the first time since the war ended, the threemen shot down on that torpedo run over the Philippine Sea in 1944 were together again: Smith, pilot Dick Playstead of Washington state, and radioman Wendell Tomes of Paducah, Ky.

Tomes was in poor healthand needed a walker to get around. Playstead had recently undergone heart surgery.

Hard to believe, Smith said, that it's been so long.

He remembers vividly the black smoke and the fire shooting out of the plane's single 14-cylinder engine. Then Playstead cut the engine and there was silence -- silence in the headphones, silence until the plane hit the water.

Smith remembers pulling Tomes out of the radio compartment beneath his feet as the belly of the plane filled with seawater. He remembers treating Playstead's facial gash and Tomes'head wound with sulfur.

The three men floated in a life raft for 10 hours, into the night.

Smith remembers holding a smoking flare aloft, and the sweet sight of the destroyer U.S.S. Caperton steaming to the rescue.

"I tell you, 45 years have gone by so darn fast," said Smith, flipping through the pages of the log book, a record of his 92 missions.

"It doesn't seem like 45 years."

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