Richard R. Smith was born on Nov. 25, 1944, in Buffalo, the son of Robert and Dorothy (Willett) Smith. The family made their homestead on Freda Avenue in Cheektowaga. Richard's father was a truck mechanic who repaired large commercial trucks for A&T Transport, mostly repairing diesel engines and heavy duty transmissions.
Richard's mom, like all mothers, had the hardest job of all, being a mother and homemaker. Along with his parents, Richard shared his home with one sister, Norma Jean. When it was time for school, Rich was off to the Union Free School on Union Road in Cheektowaga. He spent his high school years at Maryvale School where he played football and baseball, but the sport he excelled in was wrestling.
Richard spent his days with good friends Richard Hyla, Robert Knaus, Buddy Knaus, and Harold Knaus. But in later years, the group would experience the loss of one of their own, when in 1968 Buddy was killed in action by hostile forces while serving his country in South Vietnam.
Richard R. Smith, U.S. Marine
When the day came which made it legal for Richard Smith to join the Marines, he was at the recruiter's office waiting for the doors to be unlocked. Like all new recruits, he was soon driven to Buffalo's Federal Building, and from there a prepaid taxi driver took Richard to the Buffalo train station, where he boarded the train that took him to North Carolina.
That train picked up other recruits along its route, and before it reached its destination in Beaufort, there were enough recruits to fill a bus or two. Their next destination was Parris Island, S.C. There started the recruits' 13 week-stretch of what some considered a living hell. Going through Basic Training, Richard excelled on the Marine Corps rifle range, the expert shot of his 80-man platoon. Shooting expertly and being the best shooter in his platoon in the Vietnam War era meant that Richard had to hit a bull's eye that was 12 inches around from 500 yards. Richard hit the target nine times and his 10th round hit the next closest circle to the marker. Each rifle used during the Vietnam War had a special use. The M-14 was designed for long-distant shooting, with the war being fought in jungles and rice paddies. The M-16 was also chosen by soldiers.
Being the best shot brought Richard his P.F.C. (Private First Class) stripe, a great start to his military career. From there it was off to Camp Lejeune, and then to Memphis, Tenn., for Air Craft Structural School. There Richard was trained in sheet medal fabrication, aircraft structural repair, sheet metal fabrication, and hydraulics and pneumatics. After Memphis, orders for this new Marine dictated he was to report to El Toro Marine base in California. Here the Marines were forming a new squadron, VMFA 513, and everyone there was to be part of the 513th.
At El Toro, the pilots practiced bombing runs in the deserts, and the ground crews kept these brand-new F-14 Phantoms ready. When the areas for bombings were moved, so were the ground crews, and C-130s moved in. Richard's duty at El Toro lasted two years.
New orders came down and the squadron headed to Fallen, Nev., for more bombing practice in the Nevada desert. Rich flew there in a C-130.
At Fallen, the squadron received the title of a Tail Hook Squadron, meaning that the squadron had to be ready to go anywhere in the world with 48 hours' notice. Richard's squadron consisted of pilots, radio instrument operators, electricians, mechanics, and office personnel.
Word was out that the 513 was going to be on the move, and a few days later official word came out with orders that the 513 were to proceed to Atsugi, Japan, where they would relieve a squadron that was in place. In the military, it's called a "rotation," and rotations are used to relieve units who have personnel who are ready to be discharged and to leave the service. In Atsugi the 513 were to be used for security. In Japan, pilots were trained to fly the new F-14 Phantoms.
In 1965, the 513th received orders to go to Vietnam. They were the first Phantom squadron sent there. The Marine Corps felt the fixed-wing style could give the pilots better flying speed, easier handling and better firepower. The 513th mission was to give air support to Marine ground units, harassment and taking out confirmed targets. The squadron instituted the "hot pad," which meant always having two jets in the air and another two jets on the ground loaded with ordinance, and the crew staying within 100ft of their planes. These planes could be in the air within three minutes.
In Vietnam, being with an air squadron didn't exempt you from doing your time on guard duty. As all Marines have to in a combat zone, doing your time on the outer line was common. Richard recalled one night while on the perimeter: Illumination rounds were exploding on his section, and in a few minutes, word came that the Viet Cong were coming through the wire. A section of line guarded by ARVN soldiers was compromised and VC were in the compound. Within seconds, rounds were being exchanged and mortars were dropping everywhere. Here Richard picked up some shrapnel wounds, and the fire fight lasted three hours. The next day, after an investigation was held, it was found that two ARVN soldiers were gone.
Spending his 13-month tour in Vietnam landed Richard and his squadron in Cherry Point, N.C. Here the unit stayed until most were mustered out. Hope of getting his discharge sooner faded away when Richard learned his duty was extended an extra four months by an Act of Congress. It was determined that his military occupational specialty was critical, so he was forced to stay. Before his military career ended, Rich earned numerous medals and awards, including those for Vietnamese Service, Vietnamese Campaign, National Defense, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, a Navy Unit Citation, a Combat Action ribbon, and the titles of Rifle M1 Expert and Pistol 45 Cal Expert. His military occupational specialty title was 6441 Aircraft Mechanic.
After his respectable career in the Marines, Richard once again became a civilian. Coming home, he took a job as a heavy truck repairman at International Body and Collision. Having enjoyed the weather at El Toro in California, Rich decided to move to Phoenix. Here again he worked with heavy duty trucks, but now he also painted them. It didn't take long feeling 118 degrees every day before Richard and his wife Grace Ann (Reig), whom he married in 1967 in Depew, N.Y., decided to move back to western New York. He landed a job as an insurance adjuster with his area being the Southern Tier. Driving through Silver Creek on adjustment jobs, Richard found he loved the little village, with its little park, the church bells ringing, and most of all the people he met when he stopped for lunch. The wish came true when the Smith family purchased their new home at 31 Parkway St., adding children Lisa Marie, Mary Frances, and Christopher to their family. Now that he is retired, Rich enjoys hunting and fishing, visiting with his grandchildren, Lauran, Zachary, Niah, Sophia, Nicholas, and spending time at home with his tropical fish.
It was an honor for me to write Richard's story. Being a Marine, I did my tour of duty in some of the areas the 513th served. We had nothing but respect for those pilots; when we were pinned down and couldn't get our artillery in because of our location, within a minute, maybe two, looking up we could see those two beautiful jets circling around us. The minute the NVA saw what we could do changed everything!
Those planes flew so low we could at times read the pilot's name on his aircraft, and on a clear day, maybe even see the pilot's face. Then we would see a gigantic explosion or feel an extremely hot heat wave from the napalm that they dropped. Those moments made the rest of the patrol seem like a cake walk. All this could not have taken place without the ground crews that made sure these planes would be ready to deliver.
At night, the pilots would shower with hot water from fresh water tanks, then hit their bunks in their air conditioned huts. The ground crews, like Richard, lived in tents, when taking a shower meant carrying five gallons of water from a creek, dumping it into a 50 gallon barrel, and heating it with kerosene. A hose on the bottom of the barrel acted as the shower head. It was a real war.
People were being killed and death was expected. Deaths were the way one could determine who was winning. That's the way the Vietnam War was. There is no other way to explain it.
Thank you, Richard Smith, for serving our country. Welcome home, sir, and, as always: Semper Fi!