Bravery under fire
Flyer recounts 33 missions to war-torn Europe
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
A smudged and faded pocket calendar from 1944 bears evidence of the close encounters with death 1st Lt. Rudolph Smith experienced during World War II. An entry he penciled in under May 29 reads as follows: 7:40 a.m. – Kiel – lots of flak, some fighters.
Smith, an 89-year-old Hartselle resident, flew 33 missions over Germany, France and Normandy from April until November of that year as the pilot of a B-17 bomber. In recognition of his combat service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters and the European African Eastern Theatre Medal with three bronze stars for Normandy, Northern France and German campaigns.
Although they flew at altitudes of 25,000 feet or higher on their bomb runs, Smith and his crew of nine—co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and six gunners—were constantly threatened by enemy gunfire. They were targets of German fighter planes in the air and anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
When they were over the target area the B-17’s were in danger of being disabled or knocked down by the flak from ground fire. He said it was not uncommon for planes to get destroyed or damaged and have to struggle to get back to their base, which was located north of London.
But nothing else compared to the time he and his crew nearly lost their plane during a bomb run over Paris.
Smith also sustained a flack wound to his left hand but refused to report it for fear he would be taken out of the flying rotation.
Smith said a typical bombing mission would involve as many as 1,000 planes and last up to nine hours. “There were times when we’d be coming in from a mission and other crews would be starting theirs,” he said.
Smith was born in Madison County Dec. 4, 1916. His father, Frank T. Smith, was a Baptist preacher who spent several years of his ministry as pastor of Hartselle First Baptist Church. His maternal grandparents owned and operated a large farm in the Harvest area.
He was a member of the Morgan County High School Class of 1936 when the school was closed because the state had no money to pay its teachers. With civilian jobs hard to come by, he joined the Army/Air Force in May 1940. After completing basic training, he was assigned to Craig Field in Selma as a flight line mechanic, where he advanced to the rank of sergeant. Later, he was accepted for flight school and spent several months training as a single engine, twin engine and four-engine pilot. He was assigned to the 385th Bomb Group in England in the spring of 1944.
A romance between Smith and his wife Jean took flight while he was overseas. She received an engagement ring from him while he was flying bombing missions and they were married less than a month after his return home from the war in November 1944. They will celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary Dec. 10. They have three sons, seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
Smith retired from Western Auto Supply Co. in 1978 after 28 years. He was a retail store merchant for eight years and served as a district sales representative for 20 years. Prior to joining Western Auto, he owned and operated a grocery store in Hartselle and worked for the late Hubert Mitchell’s Keller Car Co. in Huntsville.
The Smiths bought the house they lived in as a newly married couple and moved back to Hartselle 28 years ago. Until a couple of years ago he spent a lot of time in his garden and yard but his activity is now limited because of a disease that affects his legs. He still enjoys watching sports on TV, especially the Auburn Tigers.