Smith Looked Death in the Eyes

Friday the 13th, in October 1944 is one day Captain Luther Smith of the Tuskegee Airmen will never forget. Smith’s all-Black 332nd Fighter Group, based in Italy, was protecting bombers returning from Blechhammer, Germany, until they crossed the Danube River near Budapest, Hungary.

After returning the group to the Danube, the fighters sought targets of opportunity. They flew over an air force base full of parked aircraft near Budapest. Smith, who destroyed 10 enemy aircraft in 132 previous combat missions, quickly destroyed two German bombers before sensing danger. He dove his P-51 close to the ground to begin a tight turn when he saw tracer bullets narrowly missing his wing tip. He waited for the impending fall of his aircraft, but made it through the protection of ground smoke.

Smith then spotted a freight yard of oil tank cars, followed another aircraft in and watched as his gunfire struck car after car. A fireball erupted in front of his plane, blowing out his cockpit windows, buckling the wing surfaces and destroying much of the tail assembly. As flames enveloped him 600 miles from his base, he abandoned his aircraft.

Before Smith could exit, the aircraft went into a tailspin causing him to fall partially out of the cockpit. His right foot was wedged between the rudder pedal and brake so he couldn’t get into or out of the plane. After losing and regaining consciousness, he remembers seeing a badly torn parachute canopy. He had pulled the parachute rip-cord while still trapped in the aircraft. The parachute pulled him from the plane, but also fractured his right hip.

Falling headfirst, connected at the hip to the parachute by one strap, he awoke from unconsciousness crashing through trees. His canopy caught the top branches of the tree, preventing him from smashing into the ground.

He was suspended in a tall tree, unable to move with a fractured hip but alive after cheating death four times in an hour. He spent the last seven months of the war in German hospitals and prison camps. His injuries required 18 operations and three years of hospitalization.

Smith is a member of the World War II Memorial Architect-Engineer Evaluation Board which hopes to honor the 400,000 Americans who died in the war, the 16 million in uniform and a nation that united to defend democracy.

For information or to donate contact: American Battle Monuments Commission, World War II Memorial Campaign, 2300 Clarendon Boulevard, Suite 501, Arlington, VA 22201 or 1-800-639-4WW2.

from World War II Memorial Newsletter