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Veterans Day Salute: Highly Decorated Opelousas Veteran Flew 50 Missions in World War II

Photograph: Photo of Second Lieutenant Wilfred L. Smith after he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps. (2nd Lt. Wilfred Smith photo collection, courtesy of Bobby Ardoin.)

Editor/Consulting Writer

Editor’s note: The following story about the World War II experiences of U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. and longtime Opelousas resident Wilfred L. Smith is being told through his own wartime photographs, several newspaper articles from 1943 and personal letters discovered about 12 years ago just before his military remembrances packed into garbage bags on an Opelousas street corner, were destined for the parish landfill. Smith and his sisters Marian and Anette Smith are buried in the St. Landry Church cemetery. Staff Sgt.Richard Smith, the brother of Wilfred Smith and his sisters, fought in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II)

When it came to watching the course of World War II through combat among the clouds and the narrow scope of bomb sight, U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Wilfred L. Smith of Opelousas probably saw it all.

Smith, who grew up in Arkansas, lived in Opelousas, ended the war as perhaps one of the most decorated World War II airmen in St. Landry Parish.

By the time he had spent 14 months beginning in 1942 as a bombardier flying in B-17 and B-25 aircraft from air bases in England and North Africa, Smith survived 50 combat air missions and received the Army Air Corps Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Heart medals, European Air Medal and 10 Oak Leaf Clusters provided for service and heroism aboard his aircraft.

According to several websites the Distinguished Flying Cross is the second highest honor awarded for valor and extraordinary achievement by the U.S. Air Force and ranks just below the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Smith returned to the U.S. in 1943 and from his numerous wartime photographs provided in several albums claimed from the garbage, it is evident that Smith sometime afterward rejoined the war effort in Europe, serving with the 387th Bomb Group and a squadron attached to B-26 attack bombers who performed missions over France, Holland and Germany until 1945.

Because of severe shrapnel injuries which occurred inside a B-17 during a bombing raid over Palermo, Italy, Smith spent 2 ½ months recovering in a military hospital set up in North Africa.

Bullets from a German fighter tore through the plane according to an interview Smith provided to several  Louisiana newspapers including the Shreveport Times, New Orleans Times Picayune, Opelousas Daily World and Alexandria Town Talk, and cut through his right arm during the Palermo mission.

“I got hit with about two minutes to go (before he released the bombs) and I had to operate the bomb sight with my left arm. I then had to take over one of the guns, bandage my right arm and then come to the aid of our navigator, who was also wounded,” Smith said.

Smith added that portions of the shrapnel from the fight plane attack were still in his arm after he was released from the hospital because the metal was located too close to a nerve.

The B-17 missions containing Smith and his crew were flown in a plane nicknamed Superman, which eventually became one of the most decorated planes of WWII. It survived the war intact according to war records researched by St. Landry Now and it was reportedly flown from England to North Africa by Paul Tibbetts, who piloted the B-29 atomic bomb runs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After he returned home in 1943, Smith was reassigned to teaching young bombardiers how to use bomb sights at Alexandria Air Base and other air bases from Nevada to the West Coast.

Then afterward he was recalled and sent to Europe for the rest of the war.

In one article Smith described how he felt as his plane lifted off and headed for another bombing mission.

“I would still get tense when the next (mission) came along. It was sort of the same feeling I used to have before a football game. Once you get into the air, the tightness leaves you and the job seems to sort of take over your brain,” Smith said in a Shreveport Times interview.

Smith recalled bombing raids on German submarine bases off the coast of France, along the Mediterranean Sea Coast and in support of the North African campaign during at the Kasserine Pass.

Before he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, Smith graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1937 with business and accounting degrees.

Photo of Wilfred L. Smith in flight school after his enlistment in 1941. (2nd Lt. Wilfred Smith photo collection, courtesy of Bobby Ardoin.)

Smith was working for Standard Oil Company and Carter Oil Company in north Louisiana when he joined the National Guard. He went to flight schools in Sarasota, Fla, Albuquerque, N.M. and Fresno, Calif., before being deployed to England in 1942 and serving with the famed Royal Air Force Pathfinder Squadron.

The Smith family, according to several articles, settled in St. Landry Parish sometime during the 1930’s, when Smith’s father, James Smith, relocated in Sunset and then Opelousas.

Photo of Wilfred L. Smith is uniform near the corner of Railroad Avenue and West Grolee in 1941. (2nd Lt. Wilfred Smith photo collection, courtesy of Bobby Ardoin.)

Several of Wilfred Smith’s letters that were part of the photographs and albums are addressed to his father who was apparently living at 113 North Walnut Street in Opelousas in 1945.

One of the discovered letters from Wilfred Smith to his father mailed on June 14, 1945, indicates that Smith was still in France, awaiting orders to return to the States.

In one article Smith describes the essence of his war experiences inside a bomber.

“We came home on a wing and a prayer plenty of times after our ship had been shot up badly. We always managed to make it home and we had the same crew we started with after 50 bombing missions, with the exception of two men,” Smith said.

Photo of Second Lieutenant Wilfred L. Smith (back row middle) with his bomber crew in North Africa (2nd Lt. Wilfred Smith photo collection, courtesy of Bobby Ardoin.)