Wallace W. Smith knew he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life picking cotton in the sweltering fields of Mullins. The military offered him a better option and also taught him a few life lessons along the way.
Eager to enter the U.S. Army, he enlisted at age 16 with the signature of a reluctant mother.
“I lied about my age and went in the Army when I was 16. I stayed in the Army for three years. I got out of the Army, stayed out of the military for 90 days and went in the Air Force the same year I got out the Army and stayed in the Air Force for 18-1/2 years,” Smith said.
He performed his basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia before heading to Fort Lee in Virginia, where he received his advanced individual training. His next stop was Korea as an infantryman.
“I got there in January of ’55 and I left in July of ’56,” the 81-year-old said, recalling the body bags he initially knew nothing about.
“When I got to Korea, I had never seen a black bag and I didn’t know what they were. I had no idea as to what a black bag was used for. I seen all of these empty black bags. I asked one of the guys, ‘Why do y’all take these black bags out?’
“Every morning I would see them, about 10 guys would get a bunch of empty bags and put them on the truck and go out. And I asked them, ‘What were they for?’ and the guy said, ‘Well, I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna bring one back this afternoon and show it to you.’ And I never asked about a black bag again,” Smith said.
He had seen his share of bodies while serving in Korea but had never shot anyone himself.
“I seen bodies. They was going out finding bodies. This was in January of 1955. It was still a lot of bodies. They would go out and bring bodies and body parts back and put them in the bag and put a tag on it. And then they would ship them wherever they shipped them to,” he said.
Smith added, “I was on guard duty, but I never shot nobody.”
After being honorably discharged from the Army on Aug. 26, 1957, he again found himself seeking an alternative.
“I wanted a job and I couldn’t find no job. So I thought about going back in the Army, but then I also had a cousin that was in the Air Force. He was stationed in New Orleans, and he was home every other weekend. I kind of figured, ‘How can you come home every weekend being stationed in New Orleans?’
“He said, ‘Well, we only work five days a week, man, and we off the other Saturdays and Sundays.’ And I said, ‘That sounds good.’ So that was the reason I came in the Air Force,” Smith said.
After entering the Air Force on Nov. 6, 1957, things weren’t always easy for Smith, who continued to deal with, among other things, the ugly face of racism.
“I started off in the Air Force working in supply, ordering supplies or, when they come in, giving them to the right people. Then I switched over from supply to administration. … It was a different world in the Air Force. We worked hard. We did a lot, but it was different. …
“The race thing was the same. You know, they called you those names and all that junk. But the work conditions were different. You’d get an hour for lunch. If you wanted to take an hour and a half or two hours, you could do that with no problem. But in order to do that, you had to be part of the clique. You had to find out how the system works because (at) each base, the system was different,” he said.
Smith, who was honorably discharged from the Air Force as an E-6 technical sergeant, said the pathway to promotion was not easy.
“I worked probably for 25 different people. If I had to do it over again and I had my choice, I would only want to work for five. … The other 20 I wouldn’t want to work for because they was nasty. They was in charge of you getting promoted.
“I came out an an E-6. I should have come out as an E-8 or E-9, but if you wasn’t that special person they liked when the promotion list came out, all they had to do — and you didn’t even know they were doing it — is just scratch through your name. And you couldn’t understand why you weren’t getting promoted” he said.
He nonetheless would get to travel around the world, including Africa and Thailand. He was stationed in 16 different places during his Air Force career, including Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Wheelus Air Base in Libya.
While part of the 7272nd Air Police Squadron at Wheelus Air Base, he was an administrative specialist whose duties included serving as a vehicle registration clerk.
While in Libya, Smith also served as an administrative clerk in the law enforcement and security division, responsible for processing offense reports, traffic tickets and requests for security clearances and access authorizations. He also reviewed personal history statements and prepared requests for personnel security investigations.
He also served as chief clerk as part of the 635th Civil Engineering Squadron while at U-Tapao Airfield in Thailand, where he maintained squadron security files and forms. He was also responsible for receiving, routing and replying to all types of written correspondence.
There were times he came upon depressing scenes while serving in the military, including starving children in Africa and Korea, some of whom were eating out of garbage cans.
“There’s a lot of people in different countries in the world that’s having it tough, and we’re having it good. … A lot of people just don’t know how good we have it,” Smith said
He earned two Air Force Commendation Medals as part of his military service, including for serving as head of administrative section while assigned to the 37th Tactical Airlift Squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia from October 15, 1968, to May 29, 1972.
He was cited for outstanding professional skills and leadership abilities, but Smith acknowledged he didn’t always follow orders.
“I was in the Air Force for either 11 year or 12 years, I can’t remember exactly, and they wanted to give me a discharge where I couldn’t get any benefits once I got out. A general discharge mean, ‘Yeah, this guy served, but don’t hire him because he ain’t no good.’ And they did that to a lot of people because of attitude.
“When they gave me a hard time, I gave them a hard time back. It was wrong, but I kind of spoke my mind on how I felt. If you spoke to me nice, I spoke to you nice. If you spoke to me nasty, I gave you nasty. You know, sometimes I didn’t say all I wanted to say, but I said enough so you understood what I was talking about. And they took that and kind of said, ‘Well, we don’t really need this guy,’” Smith said.
He added, “The only thing saved me is I was changing bases during the time. … And then I kind of realized I have too much time to get a general discharge. And I talked to a couple my friends, and they also kind of said, ‘Smitty, you kind of need to know how to play this game. … You can’t say everything you want to say …’”
Smith said he knew he had to make a change, particularly when one of his friends said he was praying for him every night.
“I said, ‘I must be kind of important you praying for me.’ That was kind of a change for me, and when I got to my next base, they hadn’t sent the paperwork (for his discharge) in. … Then I made up my mind I was gonna do a better job, and I kind of switched. Instead of being that nasty Smitty, I kind of did more than I was supposed to do. And because of that, my life really changed in the Air Force,” he said.
For one, his work ethic changed.
“I worked harder. I didn’t blow up when you told me to do something that wasn’t my job. I just tried to do it. If I didn’t understand how to do it, I asked somebody that knew how to do it and could just explain exactly what you want because there was so many ways to do stuff and everybody wanted something different. And they started doing that and because of that, I got promoted. … In three years I went from E-4 to E-6, and I thought that was great for me,” Smith said.
He said he not only learned the value of hard work, but the value of giving back.
“I learned the value of helping other people… Other people is important. You’re not the only one that’s important,” said Smith, who fondly recalled two “special” supervisors, one of whom assisted in the adoption of a child following the death of his firstborn and another who gave him money to be able to travel back to South Carolina upon the death of his mother.
He has currently been somewhat sidelined by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“The only place I go is the doctor, and that bothers me because I like to go,” he said, getting emotional. “I got a friend that had his leg amputated a few weeks ago. I’d like to go see him, but I don’t drive no more. I love to help people,” Smith said.
He became involved in volunteer work after leaving the Air Force, including volunteering with the state Department of Juvenile Justice and in prisons, where he mentored prisoners for more than 20 years.
“I also stayed about 20 years at the domestic group in Columbia that help men to not abuse women, trying to help somebody. I didn’t have to do that, but I did it. I just think that people should do the right thing sometimes,” said Smith, who still receives an occasional call from an individual who he had met while volunteering in the prisons.
“It still got some phone numbers of guys I met in prison who call me. They said, ‘Smitty, I’m out. I ain’t selling drugs no more.’ I said, ‘Man, don’t sell them drugs.’ But some of them listen, some of them don’t. It’s sad,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s grateful for life and hopes to be able to do more traveling with his wife, Orangeburg County Councilwoman Janie Cooper-Smith.
He counts his blessings and said the sacrifices of veterans should always be honored. He also said it is always important to give back, a lesson he learned from his mother years ago.
“I would say a lot of us forgot where we come from. … Don’t forget where you come from. I’m just blessed. I tell everybody I’m blessed,” Smith said.
© 2019 The Times and Democrat (Orangeburg, S.C.)
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