It was a delight, pleasure and honor to interview this week’s Veterans Spotlight feature subject. At 97, Russ Smith, charter member of the Greatest Generation, still has an unbelievable memory and a terrific knack for details.
Sergeant Russ Smith bravely served his country in World War II from 1941 to 1945 in the US Army’s 14th Armored Division, nicknamed “Liberators.” I realized immediately that this was to be a very special interview as Sgt. Smith began to tell his story. He enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was sent to Aberdeen, Maryland, where he worked as an artist. “We did artwork on armored equipment, which they sent out to different bases. I worked with a lot of Disney artists,” he recalled.
Sgt. Smith was then sent to Norfolk, Virginia, then to North Africa under the command of General Smith in the 14th Armored Division. “We were backups to Patton’s 3rd Army. I learned all aspects of tank equipment; how to drive and repair them. Had a big problem with the Arabs there. They stole everything from us,” he remembered. Sgt. Smith recalled seeing British soldiers in a circle, surrounding 12 to 14 Arab men. “Some of them had two to three layers of clothes on. They didn’t shoot them, though. They stripped them naked and sent them back to their village, which was worse,” he said.
As the Allies drove into Italy and took Messina, General George Patton arrived early and set up a huge parade. “Boy, was [British General Bernard] Montgomery really [angry]!” he remembered.
Sgt. Smith told a story of how the men were given some time off by General Mark Clark. “He was in charge of everything in the Army. We put up a huge screen to watch a movie…about 1,500 of us. About midway through the picture, two Messerschmitts came out of the sky and started shooting at us. Luckily, nobody got hurt,” he said.
Sgt. Smith also recalled being at the Battle of The Bulge, one of the war’s bloodiest battles. “The winter was terrible. It was unbearably cold. We lost a lot of men,” he said sadly. I asked him about the holidays and if he was ever afraid. He replied, “We didn’t know there were any holidays. We were too busy fighting. I was always afraid—especially at night. I don’t remember what I ate."
He told a horrifying story about US soldiers who were captured by the German SS. “They lined them up and shot them in cold blood. Eighty-five of them got away. That’s how we knew it happened.”
I asked him what he thought of General Patton. He chuckled and came back with, “He was very direct. Didn’t hold anything back…never pulled any punches…I think he used words he didn’t need to.…The Germans were afraid of him.”
Sgt. Smith also recalled a story about how he and his fellow soldiers were coming into Munich and ran into another commanding officer who told them, “You’re not going to like what you see.” The officer was referring to the Dachau Death Camp. Sgt. Smith’s 14th Armored Division liberated more concentration camps than any other division during the war, hence their nickname, “Liberators.”
He also shared a story about being in a field in Germany: "We were walking along, then we stopped. A German police dog came out of the woods and walked right by us. Next thing we know, bullets started flying and we hit the ground.” (The dog alerted a German battalion that was hiding in the woods.)
As the US Army poured into Germany, Sgt. Smith and fellow soldiers found themselves in Berchtesgaden at the Eagle’s Nest—the summer retreat of Adolf Hitler. “I dropped a grenade in the toilet. I didn’t care,” he said seriously. Upon hearing that the war was over, Sgt. Smith said, he threw his helmet as far as he could.
Summing up his service he said humbly, "I consider myself a survivor because I was in a lot of combat.”
Sgt. Smith earned five Battle Stars during the war. He worked as an engraver for more than 30 years for Smith & Wesson. His clients included J. Edgar Hoover, Elvis Presley and President Ronald Reagan.
Sgt. Russ Smith, thank you for your service to our great country.