Book jogs WWII memories for Valley man
After reading the Stephen Ambrose book “The Wild Blue,” Ray Smith of Gardnerville noticed many parallels between his military career and that of former Sen. George McGovern.
“We were in the same area during World War II and flew the same missions at the same time,” said Smith.
In the book “The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany,” Ambrose describes how, from 1943 to 1945, a million or more Americans went to Italy to take part in an air offensive against the Axis powers.
Most of the men were in their late teens or early twenties, Ambrose said. All the pilots and crews of the B-24s were volunteers.
After reading the Ambrose book, Smith, 78, recognized that McGovern pursued many of the same targets he went after as a bombardier navigator for a B-24 fighter plane.
“We both did bridge busting in North Italy and in Yugoslavia,” he said.
Smith was called to duty for the U.S. Air Force in 1943 and arrived in Naples, Italy, in 1944. He was stationed at a bomber base in the southeastern Italian cities of Lecce and Foggia.
McGovern, who represented South Dakota as a U.S. Senator from 1963 to 1981, was a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II. Also stationed at bases in southeastern Italy, McGovern flew his first combat mission in November 1944.
Smith was 21 when he flew in the B-24. The aircraft’s navigator was 21 and the co-pilot was 22 years old. At 25, the pilot was considered old, according to Ambrose’s book.
At 22, McGovern piloted a B-24 bomber while based near Foggia, Italy. While two members of his crew were older than he, two were 20 and the rest 18 or 19, Ambrose said.
Both Smith and McGovern crash-landed on the island of Vis located off the coast of Yugoslavia in the Adriatic Sea.
“The aircraft lost two engines, so we flew down the center of the Adriatic Sea and got to an emergency field in Vis,” Smith said. “On the sides of the runway were several wrecked airplanes.”
A C-47 plane picked up Smith and the other members of the flight crew.
Ambrose does not elaborate about McGovern’s crash landing on the island.
During their flights, Smith and McGovern both encountered flak, anti-aircraft shells that create a field of shrapnel that can blow up a plane or cause it to lose an engine.
In “The Wild Blue,” Ambrose said the flak McGovern encountered was “solid black except for flashes of red where shells were exploding.”
Smith described them similarly.
“They look like black clouds with red centers,” he said.
Born in San Francisco, Smith moved to Reno in 1949. After serving in WWII, he served in the Air Force Reserves until his retirement in 1966. After that he worked as a a director for the Reno Planning Commission and as a planning consultant.
He bought a ranch in Gardnerville in 1970 but decided to sell it in 1975.
“None of my four sons wanted to work on it,” he said.
In July 2000, Smith moved to the Gardnerville house where he now lives with his wife.
Smith recalls having another thing in common with McGovern.
“We both went for rest and relaxation on the Island of Capri,” he said.
n Laura Brunzlick can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org