After World War II ended, Houston Smith used his opportunities to build a life in Virginia.
MARTINSVILLE – He only had a ninth grade education, but that didn’t stop Houston Smith, Sr. from earning a college degree. What happened in between is the stuff Hollywood makes movies about.
Born in Rockbridge County, Smith grew up in Staunton as one of four children to a single mother. However, a full-fledged education didn’t call his name as a youngster. Work did.
“He always worked. It seemed like paper routes and just anything that he could do to help raise money. He was kind of more independent growing up than I was,” said Houston “Hugh” Smith, Jr., Houston’s son. “He left high school to go work in the Norfolk shipyard.”
At the shipyard, Houston worked in an apprenticeship role.
“That’s where he was at when Pearl Harbor happened,” Hugh said.
The veteran’s son explained that as tensions heated up and the war effort continued over the next few years, Houston stayed stateside and remained at his Norfolk job. However, as the U.S. embarked on its third year in World War II, Houston sensed Uncle Sam nearing.
“Essentially, everybody was being drafted. There was no real volunteering,” Hugh said. “About the only thing you could do was see if you could try to get into the type of service you wanted to be.”
Houston volunteered in March 1944 and found himself in the Army Air Force. The Air Force wasn’t a separate branch until three years later.
Joining the fight
The army inducted Houston in Roanoke and he did his basic training at Keesler Field in Mississippi. They had a waiting list for getting into gunnery school, so his group recycled through basic training two-and-a-half times before space opened up at the B-24 gunnery school at Tyndall Field in Panama City, Florida.
Houston served as a waist gunner on a B-24 called Betta Duck, part of the Carl W. Falk Crew. He was part of the 785th Bombardment Squadron, 466th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, based out of Attlebridge, England, near Norwich.
The veteran completed four missions before the war in Europe ended. From the day it ended came Hugh’s favorite wartime story his father told growing up. The tale took place thousands of feet above ground, when Houston and his comrades heard the news while training.
“They all started saying, ‘Well, what are we going to do to celebrate?’ What they ended up doing was a very foolish thing to do. They buzzed London. Of course, I remember as a kid asking, ‘Well what does buzzing mean?’” Hugh said. “When they got back and landed, it was quite a group waiting for them. Someone had gotten their tail number when they did this and had reported it. The officers were charged, you know, the pilot and the rest of the officers. But they did eventually drop the charges.”
Even though the war ended in Europe, it still raged in Japan. The army wanted Houston to attend a B-29 gunnery school. However, the school closed before he even attended the first class. That’s because the war ended in Japan. Houston received an honorable discharge as a staff sergeant, U.S. Army Air Force, on May 11, 1946.
Following the war, Houston went back to the shipyard. However, he wasn’t looking for another apprentice.
“He wanted to get an engineering degree,” Hugh said. “Of course, they had the G.I. bill that had the benefits of helping pay for it.”
However, the veteran lacked an essential document to get into college. Houston needed a high school diploma.
“He went and talked to the principal at his high school about what kind of – or how much – credit he could get toward getting his degree. The principal said he would check into his records and see what he could do,” Hugh said. “I think dad also got him the information on the apprentice program he was in.”
Much to Houston’s surprise and delight, the principal did the veteran one better.
“Essentially, the principal ended up giving him enough credits that he got his degree,” Hugh said.
Houston went on to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and earned a college degree in mechanical engineering.
He landed a job at DuPont in Martinsville, where he eventually retired.
“The thing that impressed me was he took advantage of the opportunities that were there. Through a lot of hard work, he was able to do that,” Hugh said. “I’m just also impressed that with having a single mom who was working – and she was busy herself having four kids – that he was able to do as much as he did and do it so well.”
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]