Jim Smith did not suspect a thing, even when he arrived at the Korean War Veterans Memorial and saw that Bob Dole was there.
Smith, a Harford County, Md., resident, thought he was attending a reunion with some of his World War II comrades from the 513th Parachute Infantry to mark National Armed Forces Day on May 15. They were holding it at the Korean memorial because one of the members of the regiment, Frank Gaylord, went on to become the sculptor of the memorial's 19 statues.
Smith, a retired high school football coach and public school administrator in Harford County, was impressed that Dole, the former Senate majority leader who was severely wounded during fighting in Italy in World War II, would attend such an event. "Bob Dole?" Smith thought. "Boy, this is going to be a really big deal."
It was a big deal, but not for the reasons Smith imagined. Smith was awarded the Silver Star for heroism during the Battle of the Bulge in a surprise ceremony arranged by his World War II buddies.
One of those who arranged it was John Erdman, the man whose life Smith saved during the battle, and his friend to this day.
On a freezing day in January 1945, outside Bastogne, in southeast Belgium, Smith, a sergeant, led a four-man patrol, including Pfc. Erdman, behind German lines. The four began crossing an open field of snow when they were met by fire. "We were raked with machine gun fire," Erdman recalled.
Smith managed to make it to a wood line, but the three others were trapped in a depression out in the open. Erdman covered the two other soldiers as they ran for cover, but one was hit by mortar fire and killed. Realizing he could be next, Erdman started belly-crawling his way toward the woods, but he was hit five times by sniper fire.
Smith managed to reach Erdman and saw that his condition was grave. He was bleeding profusely and was in shock. Smith remembers Erdman's face being as white as the snow on which he lay. "I said, 'I'm not going to leave you,' " Smith recalled. Exposing himself to enemy fire, Smith pulled Erdman onto his back and carried him piggy-back to safety.
"I looked to my left and saw a sight I'll never, ever forget," another soldier who was there, Derk Strikwerda, wrote in a witness statement. "With all hell breaking loose around us, Jim was carrying John Erdman on his back."
In the chaos of the war, paperwork recommending Smith for a medal was never completed. But during the last year, Strikwerda and Erdman worked to correct that oversight. After the Army agreed Smith should receive the Silver Star, the two contacted Dole, who agreed to present the medal. The 82nd Airborne Division sent an honor guard to the ceremony to salute a fellow paratrooper.
When Smith, now 74, arrived at the ceremony, looked at the program, and finally realized the whole gathering was in his honor, he shed a couple of tears. "It's nice for my family," he said. "I'm in the last quarter."
But Smith still does not think he did anything special. "I did what I thought a soldier should do for another soldier," he said.
Location, Location, Location
Where should the national United States Army museum be placed? Certainly not at the Washington Navy Yard, if Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) has his way.
Thurmond, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently introduced legislation that would place the long-discussed national Army museum at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County.
Other places that have been considered for the museum include the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, a parcel of private land in Arlington County near the Potomac River and a site in the town of Carlisle, Pa. The defense budget now being considered by Congress does not include any funding for the museum, so the concept remains a way from reality.
"We're more concerned about getting a place that's appropriate for the Army museum," said John DeCrosta, a spokesman for the senator.
In a statement read on the Senate floor last month, Thurmond heaped particular disdain on the idea of placing an Army museum at the Navy Yard, which he claimed is "situated in a part of the District of Columbia well off the circuit" traveled by visitors to Washington.
"The Washington Navy Yard is situated in a difficult-to-get-to part of the District, on the Anacostia River, as well as on a precarious 50-year flood plain," Thurmond said. "Because this area floods so often, a Washington Navy Yard Army museum--I will repeat this awkward location--a Washington Navy Yard Army museum might well suffer the embarrassment of being closed due to flooding."
Added Thurmond: "To locate the Army museum in an old Navy yard, which sometimes may be underwater, would send a clear signal to visitors that choosing a home to their history was nothing more than an afterthought. Finally, it is simply not appropriate to have a museum chronicling the history of the Army at a Navy facility. The Army museum belongs on an Army installation."
Thurmond liked the idea of placing the Army museum near a similar one planned by the Marine Corps. The Marines formally announced plans this spring to build a heritage center at the Quantico Marine Corps Base farther down Route 1.
Placing "the Army and Marine museums in the same geographic area would create a military history 'zone', so to speak," Thurmond said.
Admirers of the Washington Navy Yard should not get their noses bent too far out of joint by Thurmond's slight. The venerable facility, the oldest shore installation in the Navy, certainly has enough history of its own without housing an Army museum. Destroyed during the War of 1812, the Navy Yard is marking its bicentennial this year with a series of events, including a visit by tall ships the weekend of June 19.
Military Matters appears every other week. Steve Vogel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org via e-mail.
CAPTION: Flanked by his wife, Beth, and former senator Bob Dole, Jim Smith, left, wipes away a tear during a surprise ceremony at which he was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in World War II. Below, Beth Smith pins the medal on her husband's lapel.