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Honoring the sacrifice of Sam Smith

U.S. Marine Pfc. James “Sam” Smith travelled nearly 7,000 miles to get back to his hometown of Liberty. Last Saturday, I was privileged to watch him cover the final stretch. 

Perched on the overpass that spans I-55 at Mt. Zion Road, we waited for half of an hour before finally spotting the motorcade’s flashing lights in the glare of a mid-day sun. My husband saw them first – I’ll give him that – and rushed to unfurl our flag over the guardrail. Daughter No. 2 busied herself with photographing the scene, and I found myself flustered by a case of etiquette anxiety. Hand over heart? Hand not over heart? Wave? (Or is that disrespectful?) I admit I did end up waving as the World War II veteran’s remains passed beneath us. Many of the Patriot Guard escorts waved back. Some even honked. And I must tell you, that white hearse gave me chills on an 80-something degree day.

That’s because Sam’s return trip, 73 years in the making, is one that reads like a script from the History Channel.

James Samuel Smith was born Jan. 21, 1924, joining a brood of seven siblings brought into the world by Carey Samuel and Mamie Gerald Smith of Amite County. Sam attended school in Liberty, where he was a star football player and a good student – good enough, in fact, to have hopes of a medical career. College dreams, however, took a back seat to wartime reality. Chosing to enlist in the Marine Corps, Sam left for boot camp in San Diego on Aug. 3, 1942, and at the end of nine weeks, sailed with the Second Marines for the South Pacific. A year later the 19-year-old found himself fighting in one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.

Assigned to an amphibious tractor battalion, Sam was one of 18,000 sent to secure the tiny island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands. (You can find the islands about halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea on a globe.) Although held by the Japanese, Betio would be easily secured, strategists believed. Not so. Low tides proved to be a problem during the 76-hour beachhead invasion. Many of the American landing crafts got caught on a reef, forcing the Marines to wade ashore through chest-high water. Those who did make landfall met great resistance.

Despite heavy losses, the U. S. eventually won the battle. Sam didn’t live to see the victory, though. He died on Nov. 20, 1943, during the first day of fighting.

Back home, Carey and Mamie received word that their son was missing in action. The Navy would make a presumptive finding of death the next year.

Meanwhile, other wars were fought, and life went on (and ended) for members of Sam’s immediate family. Six decades passed. In June 2011, a non-governmental organization dedicated to recovering America’s war dead called History Flight notified officials that they had discovered a burial site on Betio Island. The next year a team did excavation work and recovered three individual sets of remains. Sam’s were among them.

According to Paul Schwimmer of History Flight, the battle for Beito left 1,600 Americans, as well as 6,000 Japanese and 1,000 Koreans dead. “It was so hot and humid that they had to use bulldozers to bury the bodies. They had to work quickly, and then they left,” he said.

Marine registration came in when the war was over, he said, and made an attempt to find the unmarked graves.

“They found a number of them, but we think there are still about 500 boys there, so we’re going keep at it,” Schwimmer told reporters.

And while they keep at it, other volunteers are making sure the return of remains to American soil is done right. On Saturday evening, I spoke with Derrall Foster, a local who rode his Harley Triglide alongside 50 other Patriot Guard riders making up Sam’s escort. He told me the day started out dignified at Jackson International with private planeside military honors for Sam, courtesy of Marines from Baton Rouge. “Our group did a hand salute later,” Foster said, adding that officials closed down the interstate, too. He went on to stress that the whole purpose of “runs” like Sam’s and others the Patriot Guard does is to honor the fallen and bring closure for the family.   

Another big reason Foster and other riders do what they do is found in the words of George Washington, highlighted on the group’s website: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

And as the mom of a 19-year-old Marine who’s stationed not so very far from Betio, I’m thankful for organizations like History Flight and Patriot Guard who made my experience on the overpass possible. It was a privilege to show appreciation for the sacrifice of Sam Smith.

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.