Reader's Comments

Bud and Susan Day Barber     Clarksdale, MS
My husband and I met Gene Smith while spending the winter in our AZ home.  We had instant friendship with this fellow Mississippian.  Gene has told us of his years as a POW in Hanoi and we are impressed with his great attitude.  That attitude and his faith in God are the stabilizers he needed to endure the endless years of unkind treatment.  We are thankful for the undying devotion Gene has shown protecting our country.  We are proud to have him as a friend.

RaNae Vaughn     Iuka, MS
Thank you for your service, Lt. Col. Smith.  You will never be forgotten.  I appreciate your sacrifice from the bottom of my heart!

Pam Presley Cousar     New Albany MS
Thank you so much ! It is great honor to hear about your sacrifice for this country ! I can not imagine what you POW went threw .....God Bless you  and Thank You !

Ricky Fields      Corinth MS
Lt. Col. Smith - Reading stories such as yours makes me proud to be an American, and even more proud to be a Mississippian.  Thank you and your family so much for what ya'll gave for me and my family!  God Bless!

Mary Ann Robertson     Aberdeen, MS
Lt.Col. Smith it is with Great Honor to know your Heroic Honor and Service to OUR country, and for the sacrifice you endured for it. May the Lord continue too Bless and Keep you and your Family....

Arthur "Sonny" Kelly     Starkville, Ms.
Gene Smith also went on in civilian life to contribute greatly.  He was Director of Golden Triangle Airport for many years prior to retirement and I was fortunate enough to serve on his Board of Commissioners.  He is one of the most honorable, patriotic men I know and my life is much richer by having the opportunity to know and work with him as he laid the cornerstone for that great operation in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi.

Bob Jones     Water Valley
Lt. Col. Smith .........  Many thanks to you for your heroic service & sacrifice for this nation.  You are obviously a man of great character & honor.  May the Lord richly bless you & your family in the days ahead.

Tim Childs     Baldwyn, MS
Dear Lt. Col. Smith,
I really enjoyed reading about your brave service to our country. May God bless you. Thank you for being such an inspiration to so many.

Ricky Lesley     Mooreville, MS
God bless you and yours for the sacrifice that you made for the great U.S.A. and all it stands for. I salute you from the deepest of my heart.

Mike Armour      Tupelo MS
We have truly enjoyed 40 Days of Honor. Thanks to the men and women in uniform and all who made this happen.

Sharon Tallman     Tupelo MS
There are no words to express my thanks to this man for his service and all he endured as a POW.

Lt. Col. Gene Smith (USAF Retired)
West Point, MS
POW in Vietnam from October 25, 1967 to March 14, 1973

Today we honor Lt. Col. Gene Smith who grew up near Tunica, MS in the 1930s. He made Eagle Scout by the time he was 13 years old, the youngest boy in America to do that at that time. After graduating from Mississippi State in 1956, he entered the Air Force. He went to Vietnam in 1967, flying 33 missions before being shot down. He then spent five and a half years as a POW. He now lives in West Point, MS.

Lt. Colonel Gene Smith has the kind of voice you would expect from an old fighter pilot, especially one who grew up in Mississippi. It has a deep tone, a rough texture, and a subtle Southern drawl. It is the type of voice you might expect from a cowboy in the old west. Not one of those cowboys played by a movie star pretending to be tough, but a real cowboy whose steel had been tested time and again. The only difference was that Gene Smith never rode horses through the Texas hills chasing banditos. But he did fly fighter jets over Vietnam, hitting his targets with bull’s eye accuracy.

On October 18, 1967, Lt. Col. Gene Smith  flew in attack formation with three other F-105 Thunderchiefs. In spite of heavy anti-aircraft artillery, Lt. Col. Smith directed his bomb right to its target. As soon as it hit, he pulled his F-105 up and engaged an enemy plane that was drawing a bead on his flight leader’s aircraft. In a matter of seconds, Major Smith not only scored a direct hit on his target but also successfully drove away the enemy aircraft. One week later, on October 24, 1967, Lt. Col. Smith was a part of a group of pilots that virtually erased a North Vietnamese air base. It was an exhilarating and exhausting six day stretch, making multiple runs at various targets.

In total, Lt. Col. Smith made 32 sorties into enemy territory and returned 32 times. As dangerous as they were, none of those flights brought the kind of reaction that the target on October 25, 1967 brought. The target list went from a remote airfield to a bridge in the heart of Hanoi. At that time, Hanoi was the most heavily defended city in the history of aerial warfare. No other city in the world before or since had as many anti-aircraft guns protecting it.

Gene’s target that day was the Doumer bridge, a railroad bridge that was a vital link for supplies. He dropped the nose of his F-105 and set his sights on the bridge below. Every gun in eyesight was eyeballing him. He pickled the switch that released his bomb, scoring a direct hit and splashing the first span of the bridge into the river below. But the enemy’s aim was true as well, and Gene Smith’s aircraft was tattered by flak. Unable to control his F-105, Lt. Col. Smith ejected, getting hit in the lower leg by flak and further injuring it by the force of being thrust out of the cockpit. When he hit the ground in the middle of the city, he was shot again twice in the leg. The pilot had hit his target, but so had the enemy.

Badly injured, Lt. Col. Smith was carried to the Hanoi Hilton. He never received any medical treatment for his wounds. Actually, he experienced the opposite. For the first several days of his captivity, they bound him with ropes and tortured him in an effort to extract information. They then put him in an a tiny isolation cell. For the next five and a half years, from October 25, 1967 to March 14, 1973 would live as a POW in various prisons in and around Hanoi. He would go through what almost every other POW would experience, a regular diet of torture, isolation, and abuse. But he would also come to know several men who would influence him profoundly for the rest of his life.

One of the camps Lt. Col. Smith lived at was called Son Tay, a prison on the outskirts of Hanoi. In November 1970, a group of green berets conducted a raid on the camp attempting to rescue the 65 U.S. POWs being held there. Unfortunately, the POWs had been moved to a different camp a few miles away just three days before. The Green Berets executed their plan perfectly, but there simply no Americans to rescue. Had the POWs still been in Son Tay, they undoubtedly would have been rescued in one of the most daring military operations ever undertaken.

The raid on Son Tay actually made life much easier for the POWs. The North Vietnamese decided to close down the prisons on the outskirts of Hanoi, concentrating the captives inside of Hanoi itself. The men went from living alone in cells to living together in large, open barracks. The Son Tay raid also brought international attention to the plight of the POWs and the cruel treatment they had received. That treatment improved somewhat after November 1970.

Lt. Col. Smith lived as a POW for another sixteen months. On March 14, 1973 he was released with a large group of POWs in Operation Homecoming. Several of the POWs who had been captured prior to Lt. Col. Smith had already been released the previous month. He said words cannot describe the overwhelming joy that was running through the C-141, dubbed the “Hanoi Taxi”, as it left Hanoi. The moment the landing gear of the aircraft left North Vietnam soil, a loud cheer went up. The ordeal had officially ended.

They were flown to Clark AFB in the Philippines and then ultimately back to the United States where he was reunited with his wife and children after nearly six years of separation. It was a moment he will never forget.  A half decade of pain and punishment was washed away in the arms of his family.

In the months following his return, POWs were given the option of returning to the cockpit, reassignment within the Air Force, or retiring from the Air Force altogether. For Lt. Col. Smith the choice was obvious. He was a pilot before being shot down and six years of torture had not changed that. He went back to flying school, earned his ratings back, and ended up as a Squadron commander at Columbus AFB in his home state of Mississippi. His final job in the Air Force was preparing young student pilots for the rigors of life in the cockpit.

When you ask Lt. Col. Smith about his time as a POW, he often deflects attention away from his experience, saying it was "rather routine" as far as POWs go. Instead, he honors many of the men that he served with in Hanoi, including Smitty Harris and another friend named Mike McGrath. Today, the plaza outside the training command in Columbus AFB bears his name, The Richard E. Smith Plaza. It is a fitting tribute to a man whose life and leadership have left a legacy to the future pilots of the US AIr Force at Columbus AFB.

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Lt Col. Gene Smith kneels in front of his F-105 in 1967. He flew 33 missions over North Vietnam and lived as a POW for five and a half years.

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This is a model of Son Tay Prison. This photo was taken inside the Hanoi Taxi as it left North Vietnam. The men inside are returning home from life as POWs in Hanoi.