Al Smith: Last man standing
Ontonagon County's last remaining veteran of WWII (Part 2)
Part 2 of 2 (Read Part 1 here)
By Bruce Johanson
Note: As Smith told his story, we tried to follow the order of events. Whenever we can, we use his actual words or close paraphrasing.
When the war ended, there was a scramble to decommission vessels that were no longer needed for the war.
Smith went on; “I was on a destroyer, a destroyer escort, and then was transferred to a new destroyer…there was equipment I had never seen. We were given only a few days to learn how to operate things…there were manuals but all we could figure out was how to turn it on and find the frequency. We had to learn how to operate the jamming equipment. As we were in port, we practiced on a local TV station and jammed it.”
This effectively took the station off the air temporarily.
There was quite a shortage of Naval personnel and Smith was called back for the Korean conflict after a year and a half, during which he had worked as a lineman for the Ontonagon County REA.
“I had signed up for inactive reserve….I was called back in early 1950. I was stationed on a carrier…the USS Wasp.”
“Shortly before the big carrier was put back in commission, we redesigned the electronics and the flight deck.”
Al now related one of those incidents that make for an unforgettable episode at sea.
“On the shake-down cruise, one evening we had two aircraft out and one was a twin-engine jet. One of the engines went out….(the engine that provided power to the brakes on the aircraft.) We were moving at flank speed (24 knots). The aircraft was approaching from the stern, without brakes. We had the USS Hobson (DD-464 Gleaves class) a destroyer, doing pick-up duty to rescue the pilot. We turned and hit the destroyer cutting it on two. 176 personnel on the Hobson went down but we saved about 61. The aircraft did make a successful landing aboard the carrier and hit the crash barrier.”*
“We lost 80 feet of the bow of the Wasp…..after picking up survivors, we headed back for the Brooklyn Navy yard. The weather began to get bad and the bow section was threatening to break off completely and then broke off, hanging onto the ship. Finally, it broke free. Personnel in the front quarters had to leave and some had to sleep on the hanger deck. One of my other jobs was finding a place to sleep. I found a perch high in the superstructure.
The seas got so bad we headed for New York in reverse to avoid caving in the forward compartments. This incident took place in April of 1952.”
Upon arriving back in New York, Smith related, “The WASP was next to the USS Hornet, a sister ship which was in the same yard awaiting similar repairs to the bow. There was a complete bow section waiting to be installed on the Hornet. Instead, the new bow section slated for the Hornet was now fitted to the WASP. “
We asked how long it took to make the repairs to the Wasp, and he recalled it was only about two weeks.
Going on, “After being refitted, the Wasp was sent to Cuba….I was sent ashore in Cuba for advanced training in radar communications at Guantanamo, the Marine Base there.
The radar training school was located on a mountain top. Smith’s record showed no formal training.
“My schooling was described as the school of hard knocks.”
It seems that the radar instructor was a bit skeptical of Smith’s qualifications, but he was proved wrong.
Smith grew a bit pensive before relating the next part of his story.
“Back on the Wasp, I was given the keys to the radar department. I was summoned to the quarter deck…I was introduced to two fellows from Hudson Motor Company. I was told by the officer on deck to show these guys around the ship and allow them to photograph anything and everything. Parts of the ship were restricted areas…especially the radar and new antennas, etc. The officer demanded that I follow his order to show these civilians around. When I protested, I was told that if I didn’t, he would write me up.
I took these civilians around and they took their pictures…I was also directed to explain the operation of the equipment. There wasn’t a piece of equipment that wasn’t photographed in that department. I fired the radar up and ran some navigation programs. I didn’t do anything that I didn’t absolutely have to do and explained as little as I could get by with.”
Smith explained that none of the other officers in charge were aboard or available so he had no recourse but to follow the orders of a single officer on deck and no way to double-check on this business of letting unauthorized personnel into high-security areas.
“I finally told them to get out when they wanted access to the top security area. I later told the operations officer about the photographer and note taker who had invaded the ship. I was asked to repeat the story to a higher officer….word for word. Several days later my division officer was asked about the conversation while on the quarter-deck. He was told to never bring the subject up again.”
This breach of security has continued to haunt Smith for nearly 70 years and he feels still a bit of guilt about complying with the order he had been given. The officer who had ordered him to violate the security areas was not identified and Smith does not recall seeing him aboard the ship again.
“I was out of the Navy in 1953. I had always had an interest in aviation. I used my GI money and learned to fly at the old airport. Signe, my future wife was in nursing school at Marquette. I had a small Taylorcraft at the time and would fly over to Marquette to see her. We were married in 1954. Our children are; Linda is the oldest, then there is David, James, Steve, Nancy, and John.
I started with the REA as a lineman in 1949, then to the Navy again, then back to the REA and then to UP Power Company.”
Al retired in 1970 and continues to live in the house where he and Signe raised their six children. His recollections of his war years are clear and he tells a vivid tale of tragedy and possible intrigue. To our best information, Alfred D. Smith is the last World War II veteran in Ontonagon County… the last man standing.