Johnny Smith, a lifelong resident of Wyoming County, always had the dream of going to Vietnam since his brother, Jimmy, died there on Feb. 15, 1071.
Smith, a Clear Fork resident, started his journey on Memorial Day weekend and returned on June 3.
Smith said he always respected his two older brothers, Teddy and Jimmy, for their service to their country
Teddy completed three tours of Vietnam and Jimmy was a 1969 grade of West Point Military Academy. This prompted him to follow his older brother’s footsteps and join the Army in 1969. A cousin, Gary Cochran, who served along with Jimmy in Vietnam and escorted his body back to the United States, was tragically killed in combat three months after Jimmy lost his life in the war.
The story begins on the evening of February 15, 1971. According to the documentation in the book, Six Silent Ment, Lt. Smith, after having previously been wounded durin a rescue attempt of a Ranger team in November 1970, volunteered for amother harrowing rescue mission during extreme weather conditions on Feb. 15, 1971.
After reaching the distressed team by helicopter, Lt. Smith, along with five other brave volunteers, sent a Maguire rig ladder rope down through the jungle canopy and made a success extraction of the wounded soldier.
All went well during the difficult operation until the final approach of the helicopter to their base camp in Phu Bai. Poor visibility, due to a driving monsoon storm, forced the helicopter to drive very slowly with the wounded soldier dangling from the Magquire Rig.
As the aircraft continued toward the base camp, the pilot radioed that he was “losing it” and couldn’t see the ground. He was experiencing vertigo, a total loss of one’s sense of direction, even to the point of not being able to tell up from down. Unable to recover his senses, or to correct the situation, the pilot flew the aircraft straight into the ground, killing everyone on board along with the gravely wounded ranger, dangling from the rope below.
The next morning, after the weather broke, a recovery team flew out to secure the crash site. They recovered six bodies. Surprisingly, Lt. Smith’s body was not close to the crash site. After a search of the area, Lt. Smith’s body was recovered.
May 23 to June 3, 2014: The following events tell the experience of Johnny Smith on his trip to Vietnam.
After a few days of sight seeing and learning the history of the country, I was ready to complete the mission of finding the site were my brother died.
Through extensive research, I had the coordinates of the location of the crash site. On the fifth day of my visit, I arrived at a remote village with my guide. It was an extremely hot day, with the temperature at 102 degrees.
We walked down a trail and and came upon three men on bicycles. My guide started asking questions and one of the men said he remembered stories from older villagers. He even admitted to taking the rotors from the helicopter and selling them years later.
I learned that this was a common practice for the villagers. They became scavengers and collected anything that could be of value before the military arrived to clear crash sites.
As were talking, another villager joined us. My guide asked him if he had any information about the crash and to my surprise he excitedly said, “I show you, I show you!”
We followed him along a narrow trail for approximately 400 yards. He stopped abruptly and pointed to the ground.
My adrenaline and excitement were unexplainable at this point. Buried deep in the ground was one of the pilot’s seats. The villager attempted to pull the seat out of the ground for me, but the roots were embedded too deeply, causing the seat to break about 10 inches from the top.
The villager led by my guide and I to another village about 50 yards from the crash site. He had in his possession three parts of the rotor gear. Through the interpretation of my guide, I negotiated a price and was able to purchase one of the parts to bring home along with the helicopter seat.
Later, we discussed the actual evening of the crash. The villager pointed to an area approximatley 150 yards away from the crash site and told that older villagers remembered seeing a soldier jump or fall from the helicopter.
My family and I will never know what happened, but I feel that Jimmy jumped from the helicopter. According to his fellow rangers and commanding officer, they too speculate that Jimmy jumped from the helicopter, knowing it was his only chance for survival. Jimmy was president of the West Point skydiving team and has recieved award for perfect scores in skydiving jumps.
After my return from Vietnam, my wife Susan and I attended a ceremony in Washington, D.C., at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, honoring the 18 fallen classmates of the 1969 class of West Point. It was a solemn ceremony, including songs sung by the West Point Alumni Glee Club and the roll call of the fallen, followed by the playing of Taps.
Several classmates and their families attended, as well as retired three and four star generals.
After the ceremony, we attended a brunch at the home of retired Major General Robert M. Kimmett, one of Jimmy’s classmates. General Kimmett is a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and also former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. I learned at this event just how highly Jimmy was regarded by his classmates.
The United States Military Academy Preparatory School (USMAPS) will be showcasing memorabilia of Jimmy’s many accomplishments with a shadow box display case for one year. A special ceremony will take place on August 8 to commemorate the occasion.
As his brother, I’m deeply honored to have such a well loved and honored hero, First Lieutenant James L. Smith.
Johnny has a younger brother, Bobby, who also resides in Wyoming County. Jimmy, Teddy, Johnny and Bobby are the sons of the late Andrew (Buster) and Billie L. Smith and are all graduates of Pineville High School. Their mother, who is 91 years young, resides in Beckley, WV.