A Hero's Last Request - JuniperCivic.com
Serving Middle Village and Maspeth since 1938.

Originally published in the September 2001 Juniper Berry Magazine

A Hero's Last Request

James Smith

James Smith, 83, of Elmhurst needs your help. Smith proudly served his country during WWII from March 1941 to June 1945 as a Corporal Technician, Rank T5. He was a member of the 5th Armory, 34th Division, 34th Cavalry Re-Con Troop and spent much of his service gathering information throughout Europe and Africa.

Now, more than 50 years later Smith is asking for the Medal of Honor and Silver Star that were promised to him after he saved the life of a fellow soldier.

"The medals would mean a lot to me. I'd wear them everyday...I haven't got long so I'd make sure I enjoyed it," Smith offered.

His Story

On the morning of September 21, 1943, Smith, then 25, was traveling aboard the United States Ship "Liberty" as it made its way towards Italy.

Less then one hour outside of Italy, a German submarine opened fire on the American vessel causing its mates to abandon ship before it sank.

During the torpedo attack, Smith hit his head on the ship's gun rack rendering him unconscious. "I could hear people talking, but I couldn't talk," Smith recalled. Smith regained consciousness and managed to jump ship. Fighting for his survival in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean and still reeling from the wound to his head, Smith found himself in the vast ocean with nothing more than a life preserver.

"I kept praying to St. Jude, my mother and my wife [Jennie]," Smith recalled. At the same time, Smith was later told, "My mother woke up screaming, 'James is hurt,' I don't know how she knew it," he added.

He struggled with his own wounds, a fellow American soldier came floating by. Smith doesn't recall the soldier's name, but he does remember his story. The young man said he has managed to slide down the "Liberty's" anchor chain, but in the process had cut his life preserver jacket and opened a gaping wound in his stomach.

"He was bleeding bad, I held him for five hours before we were rescued from the water by the British," Smith said.

While waiting in the water, Smith received another wound to his leg. Despite his own wounds, he steadfastly made sure the bleeding soldier remained afloat.

Following the attack, Smith was told by an unidentified lieutenant that he was going to recommend him for the Silver Star. Later he was told by a captain that he would also be recommended for the Medal of Honor.

Smith spent five months in the hospital recovering from those wounds and then went on to serve another year and a half before being honorably discharged from service.

Its been 56 years since his discharge and Smith has yet to receive the medals he was promised.

Aside from the two medals he was promised, Smith did receive numerous other medals. He was awarded the European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three stars (one for each major campaign), the WWII Combat Medal, the American Defense Medal, a Good Conduct Medal and the Purple Heart.

For our interview, Smith wore all five medals for the first time in his life. For many months following his discharge, Smith tried to figure out a way to claim the two promised medals, but soon that crusade began interfering with his work schedule. Smith was expected at his job at Bloomingdale's by 7:00 a.m. and could no longer spend his mornings in communication with the United States Army. Smith gave up. "I used to say to myself, 'I'm not going to get it...I'm not going to worry about it,' he explained.

Renewed Hope

About one year ago, a local furniture designer, "Fast" Eddie Currie, found out about Smith's plight. The two spent many mornings on Smith's steps talking about the veteran's WWII recollections. Currie became so interested in helping Smith receive the two promised medals that he began a letter writing campaign to a few local politicians. The politicians have yet to respond, but Currie continues to look for ways to bring Smith's story to light.

"James is truly a hero, I don't think it's fair... especially when someone fights for his country," Currie said.

Currie has also written letters to local newspapers and has contacted the US Army and the History Channel. Part of the problem seems to lie in the fact that some records were destroyed when the "Liberty" sank and Smith does not remember the names of the lieutenant or captain who promised him the medal. According to Smith, the aftermath of the attack was so chaotic that he was never even told what became of the soldier whose life he had saved.

At 83-years-old, Smith realizes that he does not have too many birthdays left. It would mean a lot for this veteran, who just celebrated a birthday on Flag Day, to be awarded the two promised medals.

If you can help, Currie can be contacted at 718-899-7533. Despite his long wait, Smith remains modest and almost seems embarrassed by the fact that others have taken an interest in his story.

"I told Eddie he has done so much for me already," Smith said.