HOUSTON – Dr. Herman K. Smith will pause on July 4 and remember a different day and a different time and place.
“We came ashore on Utah Beach on July 4, 1944,” said Smith a retired dentist from Houston. “It was about a month after D-Day and everything was still torn up and the front was only about 30-miles inland.”
Loaded on trucks, Smith and his buddies with the 28th Infantry Division were quickly sent to the lines in preparation for “The Breakout” in late July that would see U.S. and British forces fight in the hedgerows of France.
“The hedgerows were terrible,” said Smith. “The Germans had been in France for almost four years and had all these locations zeroed in and pin-pointed.”
Smith had been in the Army since 1941. He was a sergeant and had trained recruits at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Ala.
“It’s not until you get into combat that the real training starts,” said Smith. “You learn real quick it’s all about survival. You have to think that way to protect your life and the lives of your buddies.”
And twice it almost caught up with Smith.
Herman Kavanaugh Smith was born in Calhoun County in 1922. His family planted sweet potatoes in spring, hauled hay in the summer and cut timber in the winter.
“We did pretty good until the Depression hit,” said Smith. “I ended up getting a job with the NYA (National Youth Administration) and we built the gym in Vardaman and sodded Highway 8 right-of-way.
“I was a teenager and they sent me to Norwich, Conn., to work in an airplane plant,” he said. “I got homesick and came back to Calhoun County. In those days you had to register with the draft board every time you moved. It was shortly after I came home for a visit that my number came up by the local draft board.”
It was off to Camp Shelby for basic training and then to Ft. McClellan where Smith was tapped for duty as an instructor.
“They handed me a rifle and saw I knew how to use it,” said Smith. “We were country boys, healthy, strong and didn’t flinch from hard work or anybody.”
Smith taught recruits how to use hand-grenades.
“There is more than pulling a pin and throwing a hand-grenade,” said Smith. “It is an excellent weapon if used correctly. Used incorrectly it will kill you and everyone around you.”
In 1943 Smith’s unit was shipped to New Jersey and put on the Queen Elizabeth.
“They sent me to Ft. Dix and gave me a pair of EE shoes and taught us how to use a 60-mm mortar,” said Smith. “I guess I should have known then I would be doing a lot of walking and see battle.”
And in the summer of 1944 Smith stepped ashore in France.
“We went north and went through this town that had been leveled,” he remembered. “When we got to the other side it started raining and then the shelling started.”
Smith said the Germans would retreat at night and shell the Americans all the next day as they advanced.
“As mortar men we would get as close to the line as possible, set up and go to work,” said Smith. “One of the first rules of combat is if the enemy is in range, so are you.”
And it would be a mortar that almost killed Smith the first time.
“We were getting shelled and had jumped off the trucks to dig foxholes,” said Smith. “I had just stood up when the mortar landed right next to my foxhole.”
The explosion knocked Smith out. He woke up with a hole in his helmet the size of a quarter, a hole in his forehead and a piece of shrapnel in his neck.
He was covered in blood.
“They put me on a stretcher and put me on the back of a jeep and took me to a field hospital,” said Smith. “The ride on the jeep to the hospital was about the scariest part.”
The injury would keep Smith from being with his unit when they marched down the streets of Paris to liberate the city.
It didn’t keep him from fighting in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest during the fall and winter of 1944-45.
He talked briefly of minefields, machine gun nests and being bombed by the U.S. Army Air Corps. He said he saw V-1′s buzz over his head and at night they saw V2′s launch into space on their way to Great Britain. And he talked about the cold.
“The countryside was hills and valleys and beautiful little towns,” said Smith. “But the forest was thick and the enemy could sneak up on you.”
One morning Smith woke up to see his buddy marching a captured German past his foxhole.
“I guess that should have let us know how close the enemy was,” said Smith. “That’s when I got hit in the leg.”
It was a high-powered rifle bullet and Smith said, while it didn’t hurt as much as his first injury, it did a lot more damage.
That wound saw Smith shipped back to England for extensive treatment and lengthy recovery.
“They put me on limited duty and I showed training films and guarded buildings,” said Smith. “We got this pass to London and that was the time when Germany surrendered. It was a giant party you wouldn’t believe.”
But things soon got back to normal and Smith was charged with transporting American soldiers who had broken the law to Europe to prisons and courts there.
“I know people will think all I did was party over there,” said Smith with a smile. “But we had carried prisoners over and we got a pass to visit Paris. That’s where I was when Japan surrendered.”
Smith was not one of the early ones sent home and when he got back to Calhoun County all the good jobs were taken.
“I heard about this job at a hospital in Greenville and rode a potato truck over there to talk with my cousin who was a nurse,” said Smith. “I was sitting in the cafeteria drinking coffee with her when a whole bunch of nurses came walking in.”
And one of those nurses was Mary Jane Williams.
“She was dating this pilot and even had a ring,” said Smith. “One day my cousin pointed out she had taken off her ring.”
The two later married and Smiths began planning their future.
“Mary knew these doctors who helped me get into college at Delta State and then med school,” said Smith.
Upon graduation Smith drove to Houston to look around.
“I stopped at a gas station north of town, told them I was a dentist and who did I need to talk to about opening a practice here,” said Smith. “He told me I needed to talk to this young Jaycee named Billy Smith. He pointed me to Dr. Dyer.”
Smith would end up renting space over Pearson’s Drug Store with Dr. Dyer’s help.
He and Mary would end up building his practice, raising six children and becoming an integral part of Houston.
“July 4th never comes around that I don’t think about those days in the army,” said Smith. “Things have changed – the world has changed. But those memories are still there and I am glad I was a part of it.”