Retired Navy Capt. Charles R. Smith Jr., 78, a pilot who flew combat missions in the Korean and Vietnam wars and who piloted the first Navy reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam, died of heart and lung disease July 22 in Sandusky, Ohio.
During nearly 30 years as a naval aviator, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, the Bronze Star for Valor and the Air Medal 14 times, among other decorations.
Capt. Smith was born in the small Texas Panhandle town of Dalhart. He volunteered for service during World War II and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1945, graduating in 1949. He also attended the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and received a master's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960.
He held several commands as a naval officer, including commanding officer of Heavy Attack Squadron 6 (bomber jets) and Reconnaissance Attack Squadron 3 (reconnaissance jets). While with Squadron 3 in 1967, then-Cmdr. Smith lost an engine on his RA-5C jet during a routine exercise over central Florida. After ordering his co-pilot to eject, he managed to land safely.
The local newspaper claimed that he saved the local high school and the students in it, but Capt. Smith maintained that the school was never in danger. Some Navy cohorts lobbied for him to receive a Bronze Star, but, as his son Paul Smith recalled, he put an end to their efforts by asserting that he would not accept a star for the incident.
It was an RA-5C, the most advanced spy plane in the Navy's arsenal, that Capt. Smith, as squadron commander, flew over North Vietnam shortly after the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964. He gathered information that was more detailed and more current than satellite imagery was able to provide at the time.
He became a "plank owner" as executive officer on the maiden voyage of the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier when it was commissioned in 1968. His commanding officer, Rear Adm. Earl P. Yates, credited him with helping spearhead changes in the Navy's system of commissioning new ships that permitted the Kennedy to deploy, combat-ready, within six months of commissioning. It was the shortest deployment by several months in the history of modern aircraft carriers.
According to Yates, speaking by phone from Virginia Beach, where he lives in retirement, he and Capt. Smith managed to find a way to cut through Navy bureaucracy.
"Charlie was a brilliant guy, administratively brilliant and technologically brilliant," he said. "I could not have chosen a better executive officer, and I had the entire Navy to choose from."
"The fun of the Navy," Capt. Smith told The Washington Post in a 1971 interview, "is being one place or another, meeting people and enjoying yourself. . . . This business is of change in place and time, being part of a larger scene from where I started, and the scene keeps expanding. And I'm always fascinated by what I see as the scene does expand and the way it expands."
Capt. Smith also served as commanding officer of the ammunition and supply ship USS Detroit, with a 510-man crew, and then as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Independence. He retired in 1978 as chief of the U.S. Naval Mission to Greece.
He lived in Crystal City for two years after his retirement and then relocated to Hania, Greece, where he worked as a consultant to Northrop Grumman. He was the company's senior representative in the Mediterranean.
His marriage to Helen H. Smith ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 24 years, Chrissa Smith, who lives in Crete, Greece; eight children from his first marriage, C. Ross Smith III of Sandusky, Thomas H. Smith, H. Lynn Smith, Peter W. Smith and Michael J. Smith, all of Richmond, D. Paul Smith of Swampscott, Mass., P. Kathryn Smith of Hilton Head, S.C., and Stephen M. Smith of Outer Banks, N.C.; 10 grandchildren; a brother and a sister.