Had he survived a car crash, perhaps Dale Smith would be telling his tale today – at 96 – about flying over the skies of Nazi-occupied France as a 21-year-old, helping clear the way for the Allied D-Day invasion that started 75 years ago today.
Tragically, after surviving World War II and several lifetimes’ worth of stunts and dodging enemy flak and fighter pilots, Smith was killed driving on the highway, on the way back from Milwaukee, on the pre-Interstate highway.
According to family members, it was a head-on crash, and even though he was dying of internal injuries, when the ambulance arrived, Smith told them to take care of others first. He died by the roadside.
Smight had risked his life for others, both in war and back home, but as happens with history, much is lost with time. The Oregon Area Historical Society has a few clippings and bits of information about him, as well as some anecdotal family history, but no information could be found about the date of his death, which happened sometime in the years following his return from the war.
Before the war, he was known for driving a homemade car and flying a biplane. During the war, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with 12 oak leaf clusters, and Purple Heart.
His story as it’s recalled today is a compilation of newspaper clippings, military logs and childhood memories.
‘A bit of a daredevil’
Dale Charles Smith was born in Oregon in 1923, the son of Ethel (Thompson) and Guy Smith, a World War I pilot. The elder Smith, who died in 1941, helped himself and his son gain a bit of notoriety in 1935, when they were featured in a Capital Times story about a miniature car he built for Dale (although Guy used it to run errands around with village).
Often accompanied by his dog, Muggins, Dale delivered newspapers from the machine, capable of 18 miles an hour and powered by an air cooled, quarter horsepower, single-cylinder engine made from an old washing machine motor.
OAHS president JoAnn Swenson said Dale was friends with her older brother Merle and was considered a family cousin.
“Over the years, we heard many stories of Dale’s adventures,” she wrote the Observer in an email. “He was a bit of a daredevil.”
Swenson recalled when she lived on a farm on Sand Hill Road, just outside of Oregon, her “cousin” acquired a biplane, which he used to “buzz” their farmhouse.
“He would cut the throttle and coast in over the house and then reverse the propellers and take off,” she said. “It makes a very loud noise and rattled the dishes on the table (and) would upset my mother greatly.”
Joining the ‘Marauders’
Smith graduated from Oregon High School in the spring of 1941 and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a year before enlisting in the Army Air Corps on Jan. 2. 1943. Records state his skilled occupation in “production of bakery products, single, no dependents.”
He attended basic pilot training, and was the subject of a brief, unidentified article in the OAHS collection that he was one of five fliers there with the surname “Smith” hoping to graduate in October.
This Smith did, getting his wings and leaving for Europe in March 1944. He was a 21-year-old 1st Lieutenant commanding six crewmen and flying B-26 Marauder bombers with the US 394th Bombardment Group out of Boreham, England.
With the self-titled “Bridge Busters,” he flew in campaigns in Normandy, Northern France, the Battle of the Bulge and Germany.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Smith and 400 of the “bridge-busters,” flying in boxes of six for protection, bombed German coastal gun positions at Varreville, with Smith listed as flying aircraft “No. 1-2.” According to the 394th’s log, B-26s and A-20s from the group bombed “coastal defense batteries, rail and road junctions and bridges, and marshalling yards,” delaying enemy reinforcements.
Later in the battle, Smith’s unit flew missions in support of the 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment and 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, tasked to seize critical beach exits and destroy German heavy artillery.
An unlikely souvenir
An undated story from the Wisconsin State Journal in the OAHS collection (likely late 1944 or early ‘45) printed part of a letter home from Smith.
It said he completed his 14th mission over German-controlled areas, and looked forward to ”transferring to a fighter squadron so he can buzz Tokyo with a P-38 after the Germans give up the ghost.”
The story talked about how on just the third mission with the 394th, his B-26 suffered heavy damage before reaching its target, with part of the wing and body partially shot away. Upon reaching the safety of home, Smith had crafted part of the damaged plane into a small cross for his mother, which he sent back home to Oregon.
During that mission, the plane’s bombardier and gunner were the most severely wounded, and Smith save gave the latter first aid treatment to help stabilize him. The bombardier was so badly injured, he didn’t fly again.
Smith was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for “meritorious work,” and the story said since then, he’d completed 47 additional bombing runs, “but not once has he brushed so closely with death.”
Smith returned to the United States in April 1945, where he continued to serve in the Army Air Corps until 1946.