Ira Smith, through a soldier's eyes
Ira Smith, right with author Ronald Rabenold.
I first became acquainted with Ira F. Smith back in 1999, when I found the book "Eyes of the War," published in May 1945. Skimming through the 600 pictures, I noticed only a few soldiers identified: Private Harry Emmack of Long Beach, California, Private First Class Howard E. Riller of Portland, Oregon, and a local man named Private W. Chickersky of Bethlehem. But it was Ira's picture that caught my attention. Beyond his bandaged arm and contused scalp, I could see his story floating in the air. Just what was he gesturing to General Leonard? After a call to directory assistance, I discovered a man who had more than just an interesting story to share.
Part 1: Home Front: The Jonathan and Ida Smith family farm, Kistler's Valley near Kempton, Pennsylvania:
Ira, his parents, and older brother, worked their 80-acre farm of wheat, potatoes, corn and hay. With some cattle and cows for beef and butter, and 20-wooded acres for harvesting chestnut for their cook stove, their work was industrious and inauspicious.
They worked cycle to cycle, like the rest of the world works paycheck to paycheck. They got in the fields as soon as the ground was warm and firm enough from winter's thaw, waited for a dry day to knock down the hay, stored the summer's silage, and shucked the corn for the crib in Fall. Cool weather beckoned the butchering and curing of pork. Then they sat and waited with old man winter and prayed they salted enough away.
But the steady sameness changed one day in 1932 when his father unexpectedly passed away. Ida couldn't afford both her boys in school at the same time. Nor could she afford more than one $9-per-month train fare from Kempton to Slatington High School. So Ira had to wait for his brother to graduate before he could resume his schooling. When he did return to school, his morning chores came first, before he set out for the station three miles away. Some days, a dairy farmer would give him a lift and some days, he'd walk.
But Ira never finished school. Ida's health had been declining for a few years. Not seeing any improvement, she eventually went to a doctor in Hamburg. He took one look under her eyelids and optimistically said, "You're full of gallstones." Her home doctor scoffed at the foolish diagnosis. The surgery uncovered 20 gallstones.
Still, her vigor did not return and by 1937, Ida was gone. Ira's half-brother from his father's first marriage became the executor of the estate. He did not attend the funeral, yet one week later arrived to take Ira to see a lawyer. He had no interest in running the farm and Ira helplessly watched his 100-acre home sold. It was the height of the Great Depression. It sold for $5,000.
"He didn't do the right thing by me and everyone just went on their own way," Ira recalled. Loved ones and school were now luxuries. He found shelter, food and work on a neighboring farm as a hired hand. He earned $30 a month and a room to himself above the stables.
It was early 1940, when Ira enlisted. He trained for the life of an infantryman in support of field artillery. In an army still moving field pieces with horses, he soon realized the army had even less than he did. "They didn't have a pot to pee in, or a window to throw it out," he said.
He trained in Arkansas, Shreveport, and Texas. Then it was Fort Myer, at Arlington National Cemetery. Ira worked with the horses used for pulling caissons in military funerals. He was back in Shreveport in December of 1941, when the Japanese attack lured the United States into the Second World War. Soon Ira was in Europe, fighting for his homeland, though he had no hearth or home to call his own.
Part 2: European Theater: December, 1944, St. Vith, Belgium Precursor to the Battle of the Bulge:
Ira F. Smith of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania is attached to the 16th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, part of General Leonard's 9th Armored Division. Their objective: advance forward with all haste to take the last remaining bridge leading to Germany, a bridge the Nazis intend to demolish before the Americans can cross it. This is the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge.
Ira's unit arrives at the temporary U.S. headquarters at St. Vith, a Dutch farm that had been hit by German artillery. The remains of several U.S. officers are still lying frozen in the blood splattered snow outside the barn. Soon they join up with the 106th at Schnee Eifel, "Snow Hill". At one point, Ira went into an open field, to retrieve a half-track abandoned by a U.S. G.I. who was afraid to get it himself. Once it was brought to safety, the G.I. quickly reasserted his claim on the vehicle and Ira needed to find another.
Pressing forward in a convoy of Jeeps, under German artillery fire, Ira could see the unsteady leadership of the lieutenant driving the jeep in front of him. "I said to myself, I hope to hell he doesn't stop at that intersection." He did, and a shell dropped so close that Ira could taste the powder's after-burn in his mouth.
Soon after, Ira got pinned down in the crossfire between the 106th and the Germans. A bullet strikes his left hand and wrist. And before he could react, he was in the hands of the enemy.
But the Americans do cross the bridge. The Germans responsible for detonating the charges had been drinking. And as Ira later learned, were promptly executed for their noncompliance.
Ira describes being taken to a "hospital, a dirty old shack" where a German surgeon removed a .30 cal bullet, an American one. A fact not wasted by the surgeon who waved it in his face, telling him how his own men had shot him. He remembers taking sulfur pills and getting "cooties" from the straw mattress he recovered on. Ira still has the bullet and a fused left wrist.
On December 23rd, he was taken to Gerolstein, Germany, to the third-floor of a warehouse. It was a large barren room save a table at its center where the German guards sat. The American P.O.W.s were on the floor around the perimeter of the room, until a German officer entered. He didn't like his men with their backs to their prisoners and ordered them to sit along the wall, putting the Americans in the center of the room.
No more than five minutes later, Ira heard the sounds of US planes overhead. He heard the bomb hit the side of the warehouse, killing the guards who had just exchanged places with him. He remembers one P.O.W. sitting near him who wound up on the first-floor. Ira had extreme pain in his back, later to discover he had two crushed vertebrae and should have been in traction for weeks. But this is war in the enemy's hands. The other G. I. s forced him to walk. They worried he would be killed rather than cared for if he were left behind.
After waiting almost a week, Ira finally arrived at Limburg and Stalag 12A, Germany's largest POW camp. One man, a civilian doctor from Poland, imprisoned since 1939, pressed the Germans to move Ira and others to a hospital for better care. But not before each were interrogated.
Ira noticed some of the G. I. s coming out of the interrogation room with cigarettes, rewards for providing useful answers. "If I could've stood up straight, I would've kicked the kids' asses for talking." When his turn came, he didn't let the interrogator ask a question. Ira rotely gave his name, rank and serial number. But the prodding continued. The guard used information Ira knew to be wrong. Ira said, "If you know all this, why the hell are you asking me?" Ira was released to the infirmary without a cigarette.
Once he recovered, Ira become sociable with a German guard at Stalag 12A. With Ira's Pennsylvania 'Dutch' and the guard's 'Deutsch,' the two were able to talk, often times chiding each other. The guard would say how much better the German planes or tanks were, but for want of 'benzene,' Germany would command the field. To this Ira replied, "Tough scheisse."
The fatherly guard even took Ira's empty lighter home with him at night to fill. Eventually, the guard began making daily reports about the approaching Allied forces. Then, one morning, the P.O.W.s awoke unguarded within the locked gates. Soon they heard the sounds of American tanks and jeeps, leading to their liberation and Ira's encounter with General Leonard.
Upon returning home, Ira recuperated at Valley Forge Hospital and was told how lucky he was to heal as he did and certainly lucky to be walking at all. The bones had fused together by themselves under inhospitable treatment. A recent bone scan didn't reveal any old trauma, though his current posture has a hint of a question mark shape.
Ira returns "home" from the war, settling in Allentown and working at the Trojan dynamite factory near Greenawalts. He raised a daughter and son, retired at 63, and is now surrounded by many grandchildren. He later learned the sheriff who purchased his family farm sold it for $60,000 sometime after the war.
I first called Ira 10 years ago. And through those years, I discovered his was not your typical life story. The unexpected turns, the insults, the friendly fired injuries from both home and abroad could have filled any man with bitterness. What I hear from him is different. In the affable ease of this straight talking Dutchman I hear unexpected treasures of contentment. His tune whistled like a man who lived and lives a happy, healthy life.