“Duty, Honor, Country,” were the ideals uppermost in the life of William Franklin Smith, Jr., killed on July 28, 1945 when his twin-engine bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in a heavy fog over New York City. He was returning from the Bedford Airport in Massachusetts on a routine flight when he met his untimely death. “An English day if I ever saw one,” he had said to his wife just before taking off, but he smiled and waved goodbye as he taxied down the runway. Bill was like that; he took everything in stride, and with a big smile.
Bill, the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. William Franklin Smith, was born in Latham, Alabama, on June 3, 1918. When his folks moved to Birmingham, Alabama, he attended and graduated from Woodlawn High School. At his graduation Bill was class orator and the theme of his address to his classmates was taken from a poem by Carlyle, “This above all—to thine own self be true.” This theme became an inherent part of Bill Smith. He believed in himself and knew what he wanted. His mind set on a military career he entered Marion Military Institute in September, 1936, and was Regimental Adjutant at his graduation in May, 1938, when he received his appointment to the United States Military Academy.
When Bill entered the Academy in July of 1938 he stood on the threshold of a brief but brilliant career as a soldier. To look back on that career we wonder if he knew that his time was short. He wanted to do everything in a military manner, but fast and well. He seemed to acquire a new nickname every week, but “Nig” finally stuck. “Nig” had never played football before but it didn’t deter him from going out for it at the Academy and he gave it, as everything else he did, all he had. In his senior year a ruptured appendix during the Army-Harvard game terminated his gridiron aspirations, but “Nig” had already won more than enough fame as an athlete on the Lacrosse field. Here he “rocked-and-socked ‘em”, playing defense, and was nominated “All-American”. The Tactical Department also recognized Bill Smith’s military ability by placing him on the list as Cadet Lieutenant, First Class Year. While recovering from his appendectomy “Nig” fell in love with his nurse, Lt. Martha Molloy, A.N.C., and they were married at the Chapel on Graduation day.
Bill knew then that he wanted something else; he wanted to fly. He went to Ocala, Florida, for Primary training, then to Greenville, Miss., for his Basic and on to receive his wings and First Lieutenancy at Lawrenceville, IL. He loved the “Big-babies” and graduated from the B-17 school at Sebring, Fla.
After intensive combat training Bill received his promotion to Captain and went to the European Theatre of Operations as Squadron Operations Officer in January, 1944. Based in England, the “17’s” of the 457th Bomb Group hammered at targets in central Germany and Bill looked down on the invasion routes of the oncoming allied armies. He was awarded the Air Medal in April and the Presidential Citation. In May, Bill received his Majority and became Commanding Officer of the 750th Bomb Squadron. In August he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and in October he flew home for a rest leave and got his first glimpse of “Bill III”.
Returning once again to England Bill became Group Operations Officer for the 457th. In March he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and became Deputy Group Commander. He was decorated again with Oak Leaf Clusters to the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Croix De Guerre with Star from the Government of France. Hostilities ended in the European Theatre and once again Bill came home. It was “Colonel Smith” now,—”Nig” was on his way! He had a brilliant start and the military career he had chosen was a success. Everything that life held for him was within his grasp and he had come through the war unscathed.
At 8:30 on the 28th of July, 1945, “Old John Feather Merchant” breezed easily down the runway and wafted into the sky and the thickening gray clouds and fog that swallowed her up. It was “Nig’s” last flight.
One of the many tributes to the memory of Bill Smith, was a letter from Lieutenant General Ira C. Eaker, who wrote in part:
“With deepest regret I have learned of the death of Lieutenant Colonel William Franklin Smith, Jr. It has come to my attention that Colonel Smith who graduated from the United States Military Academy, had an enviable reputation in his command. Throughout his training at George Field, he followed a course which later helped him attain his ambition to become an outstanding airman. A strong, resourceful leader, possessing a fine spirit of cooperation and friendliness toward his comrades, he was a respected and honored officer who is greatly missed by those who knew him well. For his Country, he gave his utmost.”
Officers and men under Bill Smith’s command in combat have said that he knew most of them by their first names and was the only commander they knew of who could send them out of a briefing for a mission,—with a smile. His meteoric rise in his profession was proof of his belief in himself as well as his outstanding ability, and his sudden and tragic passing leaves a gap that will long be remembered in the ranks of the Black, Gold and Gray.
Funeral services with full Military honors were held on August 2, 1945 at Birmingham, Alabama. As taps sounded in the stillness of the evening Bill was laid to rest in the spot he had so many times said was the most beautiful on earth,—Elmwood Cemetery. Bill is survived by his wife, Mrs. Martha M. Smith of Watertown, Mass., his son William F. Smith III., his parents Mr. and Mrs. William F. Smith of Birmingham, Alabama, and his brother Robert B. Smith, Lt. Jg., U.S.N.R., now stationed in Japan.
—John J. Molloy
- COL & Ms. Jerrold D. Snow USA, Retired