JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas -- Family, friends, senior leaders and pilots gathered Aug. 24 to honor a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress pilot during an award ceremony at Randolph's famed Taj Mahal where he was award the Distinguished Flying Cross medal.
Second Lt. Samuel Smith was assigned to the 360th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Molesworth, England, during the Second World War. He flew 24 bombing missions over Nazi Germany during the war, one of which earned him the DFC nearly 70 years later.
"It's not often in one's career, and for most careers it never happens, where you have the opportunity to learn so much about a group of men and women who literally changed the world," said Maj. Gen. Timothy Zadalis, Air Education and Training Command Director of Intelligence, Operations and Nuclear Integration, during the ceremony.. "A group of men and women who became known as the world's greatest generation and today we're here to honor one of those tremendous giants, (Smith), for his airmanship..."
Smith was awarded for his piloting prowess while landing a crippled B-17 upon returning from a bombing mission to Hopston, Germany, March 1, 1945. The B-17's undercarriage and landing gear was damaged by flack from anti-aircraft gunfire.
Somehow Smith was able to make a hard right turn upon landing in order to clear the runway for approaching aircraft, saving the lives of his crew members and fellow bombers in the process.
"If you could imagine the airfield, it's just a concrete runway; aircraft maybe 30 seconds in trail, all of them low on fuel because there was no extra weight on those aircraft to travel," said Zadalis. "So any problem on the runway probably meant aircraft ditching or trying to divert or significant problems for the aircraft behind."
Zadalis praised Smith's and his fellow war fighters' efforts for helping to make the U.S. Air Force the world's great airpower.
"I would share with you, in the 70 years since then...our Air Force has changed tremendously. We dominate the air, we dominate space and we're into all kinds of domain including cyberspace...but there is one thing not a single one of these young men and women up here or I or anybody in uniform will forget and that's we stand on the shoulders of giants, we stand on the shoulders of men and women who gave our freedom and to this day are an example of service and selflessness."
After his speech, Zaladis presented the award, which Smith humbly accepted. Smith went on thank his ground support crew for the maintenance of his airplane. "I owe them a tremendous amount," said the Texas native.
"It's amazing to me that you could have a bunch of teenage guys in their late teens and early 20s from all parts of this country and you could put them together and form an air force and a group of people that could be trained and they could actually go to Europe and we could whip the Luftwaffe...and I'm fortunate to be one of that group," said Smith.
To Smith, who will be 88 years old Sept. 11, the award was bittersweet. His crew wasn't able to see him get the award.
"In lots of respects I'm sad too, because none my crew members can be here and most of them have already passed away and they were with me when all of this action took place," he said. "We flew 24 combat missions together and I was fortunate in that I was able to bring the same crew back home after the war ended in Europe. I honor them also, because us pilots without the support of your crew and ground personnel you can't do all the things that you do."