World War II Interview with Richard Smart

Richard Smart Endures Great Depression, Learns Welding in Navy, Instructs at Huey P. Long Technical College

Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12.  Most of these 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since).

Richard Smart figures he was born as close to the center of town as a man could be in 1923.  For the son of David F. Smart, a railroad man, and Artie Kelley Smart, that arrival happened in their rented downtown Winnfield apartment “with old Dr. Fitz tending to Momma.”

Smart can’t claim lifelong residency of his birthplace, since the railroad moved his dad to El Dorado, Arkansas, where brother Charles (now deceased) and sister Helen were born.  Typical to the industry, the family moved with the railroad again, this time to Little Rock.  

“Daddy was still working for the Rock Island Railroad when the Depression hit,” said Smart as we sat at the breakfast table in his home just south of Winnfield.  “They laid off a bunch of people, Daddy among them.  We were in a pickle.  Nowhere to live.  Nothing to do.”

His mother’s family had a place in Winnfield where the family moved.  “Daddy went all over the country looking for work but there was nothing to find.  He came back here and tried his hand at farming in Gilbert, LA, on a bayou.  He had a great crop going but a big flood killed about half the cotton when the banks overflooded.  It nearly ruined the crop but he salvaged enough to pay the loans and move back here.”

At the time, the state had a Conservation Office, looking after trees and watching for fires.  “Daddy got on with them.  In that period of time, fire towers had been built, maybe every 10 miles.  They watched out for fires from them.  That’s what brought us up through the Depression years.”

Smart was still 5 years old when school started in 1929.  With a December birthday, he lacked a few months being 6 for the September deadline but he was big for his age so they let him start anyway.  “Daddy got a place that the bank owned, near the Sheltons…the bank had a lot of places they had to repossess and didn’t have anything to do with them.  Daddy drove a school bus at Atlanta and the bank was willing to take what they could.  And for nothing down because Daddy didn’t have it.”

Smart played a little basketball during his school years, “because that’s all Atlanta had.  I wasn’t real good but played on the first team.  We didn’t travel and only played in the parish, Atlanta, Calvin, Winnfield, Dodson, Sikes, Gaar’s Mill.  Sometimes Verda.  We’d finish the year with the parish tournament in Winnfield.  That was always a big thing.”

As to grades, he never claimed to be a scholar but “I didn’t fail, either.  I finished second in my class in 1940 but I was a long way from being an ‘A’ student.  In fact, when I looked at my transcript 29 years later, it didn’t look so good.”

The graduate had dreams of going to college but the family couldn’t afford it.  The local Trade School had just opened, with 1939-40 as its first year.  In May, Smart went in and signed up to be in the second year’s class.  But that fall when he went back, he was told the class was full and there was no place for him.

“So I went out and was waiting on a vehicle for a lift back home and me and a friend, Fred Keyes, talked about getting on with the CCC.  They were going strong then.  But when I got home and told Momma, she went ape.  She told me fast why her boy wasn’t going to be in the CCC.  The next day, I went with her to the Trade School office.  When we left, they were happy to find a place for me.”

He said he knew nothing about welding but chose it over the other course options.  From the fall of 1940 until early 1942, Smart said he’d basically finished the course.  “Then, Army camps were going wide open.  In December of 1941 when the war started, someone at school had a radio and we listened to the President.  On that Sunday (Dec. 7), us kids had walked the mile and a half to church.  When we came back to the house, Momma was on the porch, wringing her hands and saying, ‘We’re at war.  The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.’  We didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.  The thing was that she was afraid.  The whole country was afraid.”

Smart got a civilian job at nearby Camp Livingston.  There were all types of shops and he found himself in welding, producing various items for the war effort in Europe.  “When I was called up, Daddy, who had been in the Army in World War I and had been wounded, shelled and gassed, told me to stay out of the Army…it’s tough.”

So at Fort Humbug in Shreveport, booths were set up for the various branches of service.  “I wanted to be in the Air Force to be a pilot.  But I didn’t have enough education.  So I went to the Navy booth.  In my interview, I said that as tall and skinny as I was, they wouldn’t have a use for me but the selection guy said they could use a million like me.”

It took nearly a week for the Navy to find a place for Smart and when he got back to Humbug, there was no transportation to California.  “Those trains were all jammed so they put us up in a Shreveport hotel for four or five days before we got on a train to San Diego.  The Navy yard there was down in a flat bordered by a hill.  As long as you were in boot camp, you couldn’t get a pass to go into town.  But to tell you the truth, by the time they got through with you that day, you didn’t want to go to town.”

After the unit of about 140 men were taught the basics, most of them were shipped out to other assignments.  But Smart stayed in San Diego for a 16-week course in most of the trades, concentrating in boiler making.  They emerged as third class firemen.  “There were 134 of us that they put on a ship.  They didn’t tell us anything.  It was a baby flattop (carrier).  Most of the fleet had been destroyed at Pearl.  They converted some of the cruisers into baby flattops.  It turned out that they were too short for the planes to land but they could transport planes.”

They arrived at Pearl Harbor where they were housed.  Smart watched over the next weeks as 132 of his unit shipped out to various assignments.  “They called the last two of us down one morning and took us to a 200-foot bunkhouse, with bunks as far as you could see.  I got one next to a boy from Rayne.  I asked how long he’d been there.  Ten months.  I said, ten months, I don’t have ten months, thinking I needed to be fighting somewhere.  Well, 25 months later, I finally got out of there.”

Sharp had landed in what was called the Ships Repair Unit.  “You’d think you’d repair ships but we did very little of that.  We weren’t set up for heavy work.  We were set up like a construction crew that did all sorts of work around the island.  The chief petty officer was superintendent of ironworkers, carpenters and all.  Each day, we’d go out to work, come home and clean up, then go to bed, just like regular workers.  I won’t tell you about all our work but there are a few.

“One day they started calling names, six of us.  They took us to a big hole in the ground and informed us we were about to build a swimming pool.  Well, we’d never done that before.  We were a crew that had put steel rebar to reinforce concrete.  But all the steel was straight and the pool wasn’t. We’d have to fabricate it.  I was the only one with any skills in reading blueprints and none of us had tied any steel.  By the time we were finished, most of us got good enough to get the job done.  It took several weeks.

“Another job was at the original coal docks, from back in time when there were coal-burning ships.  We cleaned that up and made a huge shop.  Machines and all.  Civilians took that over when it was completed.

“We had a dry dock, the second largest in the world.  We laid a keel to build a big barge, all welded, with a diesel-electric crane to lift smaller boats out of the water to work on them.  We worked 24 hours a day.  I caught the 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. shift.  When we got it to where it would float, we fired it up to see how it would work.  It had an 80-ton block on the main hook and a 20-ton on the jib.  It was a little unsteady so they filled the hull with concrete and said it was fine.”

While Smart was at Pearl, wreckage was still being cleared from the attack.  “I saw them raise the Oklahoma and bring it to dry dock.  You wouldn’t believe the damage.  The sides appeared to be six-inch steel but torpedoes had busted holes right through.  They were hauling it back to the States for a museum or something but the line broke and the Oklahoma sank again.”

Not all was work.  Some of the boys played various instruments.  Piano, banjo, fiddle, harmonica.  Some became professional after the war.  Smart was recruited when their bass player was moved out.  “I wasn’t much good but I picked it up.  We got good enough to pick up an open pass to play for civilians.  Pearl to Honolulu was maybe 10 miles.  We’d go there, eat at the cafeteria and, during the season, they’d have baseball games.  Actually, most were Big League players.  Well, Stan Musial wasn’t in my barracks but he was in our unit.  He loved our accordion player and he’d often sit over there in the corner and listen to us practice for an hour or two.”

One day, Smart was busy welding rocket launchers onto the sides of LSTs that were used in the islands when a friend came running, jumping up and yelling, “The war is over.  They dropped a bomb on Japan.”  Smart said it took an hour or two for the reality of the announcement to sink in, together with the wonderment of how our country had a weapon with such destructive power.  

By November 1945, he’d earned enough points to get out.  At Oakland, the Navy tried to get him to re-enlist but he’d had enough.  “I just wanted to get out of California and kind of hobo my way back home.  But they put me on a train to New Orleans where I was discharged.  That was Nov. 25, 1945.”

With six million returning soldiers trying to enter the work force at the same time, jobs were scarce.  Our returning navyman worked here and there until he hooked up with an expert meat-cutter in Shreveport and learned enough to hire on as a butcher.  Then he did iron work and construction, but the jobs didn’t last long.  He ended up in Monroe where he worked about 20 years.

Then in 1966, a slot opened for a welding instructor at the Huey P. Long Technical College in Winnfield.  He wasn’t too sure since the job paid less than he made in Monroe, but it was home.  So he took the instructor position and worked there 22 years before retiring in 1988.

In the late 1940s when Smart was in Winnfield, he knew some folks who were going to the new church over there, Laurel Heights Baptist Church. “I started going over there and a young lady, Louise Frazier, caught my eye.  We dated a little but I had travel off to work a lot.  After about five years of this, she said we’d either have to get married or move on.  We married.  It was hard for me to settle down.  My mother-in-law had told me before the wedding, ‘You realize, that’s a mighty long job.’  It’s been 50-something years now but it’s still going.”

The couple has four sons, Timothy, Clause, Wayne and Larry.  They also have 10 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren (plus 2 more on the way).