NO. 17611 • 22 June 1928 - 6 February 1951
Died February 6, 1951, as the result of an aircraft accident at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Aged 22 Years.
The afternoon was warm with the smell of spring. The sun shone with a happy brilliance from the azure sky overhead. In the meadows, the grass was shaking off its winter brown, and the flowers in the woodlands peeked shyly through a carpet of dried pine needles. It was spring. The world was throwing away the dreariness of the recent winter and was seeking the happiness of life renewed. It was on this particular day that a sorrowful group of people gathered around a freshly dug grave under a grove of aged oak trees draped in the silver of Spanish moss. Before this group of people lay a casket covered with our nation's flag. In silent reverence they stood with bowed heads. Overhead in the massive oaks, one could hear the melodious songs of the birds, and from a distance drifted the happy chatter of playing children. But for this group of people and for all others who knew, there was no happiness in their hearts; Jim Smyly had come home for the last time.
On the 22d of June, 1928, a squalling baby boy was born to Lieutenant James W. Smyly, Jr., and Mrs. Mazie Padgett Smyly at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The proud parents christened their first baby James W. Smyly, III, and immediately introduced him to the beginning of twenty-two years of service life. Consequently, as a youngster Jim saw many foreign lands and strange people which most children never have the opportunity to see - the Philippines, China, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and Germany, in addition to many different sections of this country.
When Jim was only four years old, he used to tell his Chinese amah that there was no cost involved in buying one's daily needs, his Daddy could "just sign it up". The next year at Fort Benning, his father tells about visiting the kindergarten which Jim was attending: "I visited the school one bright morning and wondered about how young Jimmy was doing, whereupon the school mistress became excited, and Jimmy crawled out from under a table where he had been placed for punishment and announced: 'That's my Daddy'. Seeing that the situation was becoming more tense by the second, yours truly bowed out, but fast".
Early in his life, Jim began to surprise people with his ability to accomplish what might seem to be the impossible. One of the first to be surprised was his father. Colonel Smyly recalls that it was a couple of years later in Puerto Rico when this happened: "It was there that Jim got into trouble with an air rifle in violation of post regulations. ln addition to his one and only tanning (the rod), he was given what I thought was an impossible task for his school work. At the time I had appointed, I checked him and could find scarcely any mistakes, whereupon I had him moved up to the next grade in order to give him something to do".
Jim attended a number of schools before he reached college age. Part of his high school days were spent at the Queens Royal College in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where he was introduced to a system of grading and ranking of students which is very much like that at West Point. There was no differentiation between the students because of color, race, or religion, and it was at that time Jim began to accept each person accordIng to their merits rather than their backgrounds, as so many persons are inclined to do. Next came prep school at Carlisle where Jim was a cadet lieutenant and a member of the Honor Committee. When he had finished Carlisle Jim was too young to enter West Point, so he went to The Citadel to wait until he could secure an appointment and fulfill his childhood ambition. When the coveted appointment finally came through, Jim was a junior and a cadet lieutenant.
It may seem strange to some people why Jim almost finished one school of very strict discipline to go to another. Yet it would not seem so strange if one knew that Jim was one of the most determined people I have known. Throughout his life he was a competitor. When he knew what he wanted, he went after it with everything he had. It was that way with his future career in the Service. He wanted to prepare himself the best possible way in order to be of the greatest service to his country. Jim showed that part of his character with most force on the swimming team at West Point, but one could see the same traits in a more subtle way from day to day in his ordinary activities. It was with quiet humility and an easy going manner, but with a heart full of ideals, that Jim won a place of high esteem in the minds of his fellow cadets. It was they who ranked him high in military aptitude, which gave him the rank of cadet lieutentant during his last year at West Point.
Before Jim entered the Academy, he had never done any competitive swimming. Why Jim did not go out for swimming in plebe year is a question which the Coach and all of his teammates have asked themselves to this day. The answer can be found in Jim's humble way; he did not think he could make the team. Yet, when persuaded to try out the next year, Jim did so with the determination not only to stay on the team, but also to be one of Its regular starters. To those persons who followed the success of the swimming team for the next three years, the results are well known. During his first year, Jim became the star freestyler of the team. At the end of his second year on the team, Jim was one of the best in the East. His last year found Jim a feared competitor throughout the nation, captain of the team, and elected to the All-America Swimming Team by mutual agreement of the coaches of the nation. One only has to look at the record board hanging in the varsity pool at West Point to know how good Jim was. One had to watch but one tough race to know that Jim would swim until his heart burst to win for the team. That great heart of Jim's took him far, for though one can have faultless style, there is a limit to physical endurance. It was at that limit where Jim's heart took over to bring him to the finish ahead of the field. The members of the swimming team called him the greatest of all "firemen" because he pulled so many meets out of the blaze of defeat.
In his everyday life, Jim lived the same way he swam - determinedly, fearlessly, honorably, and humbly. He loved only one other woman besides his mother. The girl wrote: "I think the thing that won him my love so quickly was that he seemed to prize it so highly, and it always stayed that way. He was all the things that I would like to be - unselfish, even tempered, and charitable. I can't remember him saying anything unkind about a person. He even avoided saying things that were true if they weren't favorable. . .
"Being quick tempered, I used to get furious with him when there was a chance for him to get ahead and he wouldn't push. Of course he was right. He had the brains and the ability that would get him there anyhow. Because he never pushed and was so patient, everyone liked him. . .
"It was funny, he would give in to me on all the little things, but he could be stubborn as a mule about the things that really mattered to him, like flying and the Air Forces".
No, Jim would not give in on flying or the Air Forces. With the same self-sacrificing determination to serve his country as he felt when trying to win for the swimming team, he reported to Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, for hls basic training in August 1950. A few weeks later he wrote a letter which tells of the thrilling love he had for flying: "The big day finally arrived - I soloed this morning with twenty-one hours. It surely is a wonderful feeling when the instructor crawls out, gives you a final bit of hell, and says, 'You've got it.' Boy, I can't get over this elated feeling. I tried to keep a straight face as I walked back from the plane, but I just couldn't".
Yes, even now I can see the sheepish grin Jim had on his face as he walked back to the flight room. None of us needed to ask him if he had soloed. We just grabbed him before he could run, spread-eagled and tied him with chocks, and then tried to dampen some of his enthusiasm with a stream of water from a hose.
The other woman in his life was his mother. One of his roommates wrote that, "He loved his mother, respected his father, and worshipped his little brother". In that short sentence is a lot of truth and deep meaning. Colonel Smyly said it this way, "Jim and his mother were about as close as mother and son ever get to be. He always told her about his troubles and love affairs, and she was always faithful to the trust".
For his father, Jim had all the respect and admiration in the world. Jim wanted to be like his father, and he never failed to defend his views that his duty to his country was in being in the Service regardless of the dangers involved. Jim went to school during his younger years with but one purpose - to prepare himself for West Point and his career afterwards.
Jim and his younger brother achieved a bond of devotion and companionship for each other which many brothers never feel. The two of them had many happy times together. When Jim would talk of home he never failed to mention something about duck hunting or swimming with Dune. Many times when I have been sitting in my room, Jim would pop in with an air of breathless pride to show me the latest clipping about Dune's success in swimming. Jim always wanted the best for Dune. He always wanted the best for all his friends.
When the news of Jim's death had spread, many of his friends wrote letters to pay him tribute. It is interesting to note that all the letters expressed essentially the same feeling of his genuine character. One of his roommates wrote from Germany: "Jim believed in a lot of things we all do, but he never spoke much about them. He was simply a straightforward character who inspired confidence, I think mostly because of his easy going attitude. He was not lackadaisical, be was certain and positive in every thing he did, and yet it was done in an affable manner that was almost disarmIng. . . I suppose that this makes him sound normal, almost mediocre, and yet there was something that 'Smirkie' had that caused others to look toward him. We all gained something from living with him, some intangible substance that I think will make us review almost every project we undertake in this life and say to ourselves, 'I wonder how Jim would have done this?'"
Just ten days before dying from wounds in Korea, Jim's other roommate wrote, "I will say that usually never does one person leave so many people with such a good impression and warm feeling for having known him".
Although Jim had many different homes in the Service, it seems remarkable that he always spoke of Ruffin, South Carolina, as the place he really called home. Ruffin is only a crossing of a railroad with an ordinary country road and two or three general stores, but to hear Jim speak of it, it was the crossroads of the world. Both Colonel and Mrs. Smyly grew up there, and Jim spent a number of his boyhood days there.
That was Jim as we knew him - serious, but full of clean fun which made it nice to have him around. It is difficult to find the proper words to express what one person means to another. A stranger could never know the warmth of the feeling we held for Jim. On that day in February as we waited in the flight room for him to come back to the field, sorrow and fear tore at our hearts. Now I wonder whether that sorrow and fear was for Jim or more for ourselves in losing someone who meant so very much to us. Jim would have gone to the top of his profession in life. He was the type people want to follow., Our country has lost one of its better officers, our civilization has lost a potent leader, but we who knew Jim have not lost him at all. Although the memory of his physical presence will fade with the years, his spirit is with us always, for Jim is in the company of God, and God is with us all.
- D. L Rogers and J.J. Baughan