EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.
The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is James D. Smith. I grew up on our family farm at Mt. Peak. My friends call me Jimmy D.
I was the next to the youngest of eight children. Me and my younger brother Bobby, did a lot of hunting, fishing and running around when our parents didn’t have us working. We all worked around the farm to help out mom and dad.
We raised cotton, corn, wheat and oats, the hard way. Our dad was from the old school, having moved to Ellis County back in the 1800’s. We didn’t have those fancy new tractors. We had mules.
Raised on a farm, we sort of learned to pull our own weight. Those were hard times, but good times.
I went to school at Mt. Peak up until my last two years of high school when they transferred us to Midlothian. I had always enjoyed sports and at Midlothian High School I was on the basketball team, track team and football team.
The school superintendent there at Midlothian was a good fellow. Mr. L.A. Mills knew all of us by name and he even knew our parents names. He took a real interest in us.
I reckon my best sport was football. I played right end, offense and defense. My brother always said that I was tough as a pine knot. My senior year, I was voted co-captain of the team.
After graduating high school in 1940, I decided to join the Army Air Corps. It wasn’t hard to see that we would be in a war before long and I figured that I might as well volunteer and get in the branch of service that appealed to me. I liked flying.
Two of my good friends from Mt. Peak also joined up about the same time. We all figured that the Air Force was the place to be when the war came. A way for us to make something of ourselves, we figured.
I was sent to Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., for my basic training. That fall I played football for the Ft. Sill team. The army said that football was a builder of morale, body and courage. Sounded good to me.
That fall, I earned a letter, and our coach gave me a plaque for achievement on the team. The coach also gave me a yellow and orange letter sweater. I was fairly proud of that sweater.
I was attached to the 15th Observation Squadron there at Ft. Sill. We learned to fly trainers and grasshoppers. Maybe someday they will let me move up to some of the bigger planes.
One weekend, three of us had flown home to Dallas. We landed at Hensley Field by the North American Aviation plant in Grand Prairie. It was always good to visit home.
Late Sunday afternoon we headed back north toward Ft. Sill. By the time we had crossed the Red River, we began to run into a blue storm front. We had reached the point of no return, fuel-wise, so we pressed on through the storm. Our plane was being bounced around pretty bad by all this wind and rain.
We radioed back to Hensley Field for the other planes to stay put. No need for the others to try to fly in this.
We radioed the field at Ft. Sill when we were about five miles out. The weather was only getting worse and it was getting dark.
When we reached the landing strip, the lights were out. We circled over the field three times waiting for those landing lights to come on, only getting decent glimpses of the airfield during the lightning flashes. Almost out of fuel and with the weather about to land our plane anyway, it was time for us to land this bird.
When we came around the fourth time, we were out of gas for real. The time to land had come, one way or another. With the storm winds blowing us from side to side, almost dark and no landing lights, we guided the plane down toward the landing strip on our last fumes of gas, straining to see through the blowing rain and clouds.
Cleared the fence and saw the runway…
It was Sunday night, the 28th of September 1941, and I was 19 years old.
Mr. Mills, our superintendent, delivered the telegram to my parents.
We were Airmen once and young.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2011 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.