CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
John F. Smith was born in July, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. Smith was visiting his aunt in December, 1941 when he learned of the Pearl Harbor attack. After graduating from high school in June 1942, Smith worked for several weeks wrapping packages in a department store, and he then enlisted in the US Naval Reserve as a seaman second class. Smith subsequently volunteered for the aviation cadet pre-flight V-5 program. As a participant, he spent two months at Colgate University learning to fly a Piper Cub. Smith had to provide his own uniform and was not paid to attend the program, but he received free room and board.
Smith reported for active duty at naval aviation pre-flight training school at the University of Georgia in Athens in January, 1943. After training there, Lambert Field in Saint Louis, and Corpus Christi, Texas, he was “washed out” of the naval air program before completion. In October he was reassigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois as an apprentice seaman. After a brief home leave, Smith had three months of training as a PT boat torpedoman and then shipped out from San Francisco for the Pacific Theater of War. His troopship took twenty-one days to reach Hollandia, New Guinea, where he was assigned to PT boat base squadron #10. Each PT boat in the squadron had a crew of fourteen men and two officers.
Smith’s PT boat operated off an island in the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), setting out on regular night patrols to attack Japanese vessels carrying supplies and reinforcements to their island garrisons. On one occasion his boat destroyed an enemy land based gasoline dump. It was a dangerous area to be afloat in. In an unfortunate incident, the PT boat was mistaken for an enemy craft by an American B-25 bomber and was strafed. When the incident was over, there were over 600 bullet holes in the boat’s hull. Smith and another torpedoman were slightly wounded and evacuated to an army hospital on an island where both Japanese and American troops were in action against each other. Smith recalled that the hospital was bombed every evening by a Japanese plane, that some Japanese soldiers infiltrated a patient film audience one night, and that food was not very good,. After his release from the hospital, he was issued new uniforms and fed better food, and then was transferred to the Philippines.
Smith arrived at a Philippine island PT boat base after a rough voyage through a typhoon. He then moved on to Borneo and other Indonesian islands and was assigned to a composite force of American, Australian and New Zealand soldiers and sailors. Smith recalled that the Australians loved American cigarettes and eagerly swapped their strong beer for them. He also remembered that the PT boats used to drop off Indonesian volunteers on Japanese held islands. The Indonesian guerrillas would kill Japanese soldiers and collect their ears for bounty payments. In turn, he said, the Japanese offered bounties for the death or capture of the guerrillas.
During this period Smith acted as a top deck gunner on PT boat 167 and was often in storms that doused his ammunition with saltwater. The whole crew, he recalled, were experienced volunteers who maintained very high morale. Sometime after the end of the war he boarded a troopship for home. After twenty-six days of travel, enduring largely saltwater showers, he landed in San Diego, and then boarded a troop train for a nine day trip home and a two hour hot shower! When Smith left the Dutch East Indies, the temperature was 115 degrees. When he finally arrived in New York, it was snowing. Smith recalled that he matured and became self-reliant in the navy. He also grew physically. On enlistment he was five feet ten inches in height and weighed 160 pounds – on his discharge in December, 1945 at Lido Beach, Long Island, he was six feet two inches tall and 185 pounds. During his time in the navy, John Smith earned the Purple Heart, Combat Action, Good Conduct, WWII Victory and American Defense medals, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign with one battle star, and Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one battle star.
Back in civilian life Smith attended the University of Vermont on the GI Bill, and earned a B. Sc. degree in chemistry. He then went to work for the Colgate-Palmolive Corporation, where he spent thirty-nine years until his retirement. Smith indicated he would serve again if he were asked and able. He showed the interviewer pictures of PT boat 167, with sailors removing barnacles from the boat’s hull and relaxing.
John “Jack” Smith passed away on June 13, 2017.