Hawley Dwight Smith
Private First Class – Army Airborne Infantry;
17th Airborne Division, 194th Regiment;
82nd Airborne Division, 194th Regiment – Glider & Paratrooper
World War II (1944-1946)
Hawley Dwight Smith was born on October 26, 1924 in Denver, Colorado. As a child he lived in Denver, Connecticut, and later in Palo Alto. His father died when Hawley was only two and his mother had to take care of his siblings and him.
When Smith first tried to enter the service, he did not pass his physical, but he later “begged his way into the Army.” Smith was in the Army Airborne Infantry, 17th Airborne Division, 194th Regiment as well as the 82nd Airborne Division, 194th Regiment when the 17th Division merged with the 82nd Division in World War II. He served from 1944 to 1946. He enlisted in the Army because he did not have much choice. As a senior in high school, he saw his peers entering the military. Before entering the military, he had received his high school diploma and participated in ROTC. His family supported his decision to enter the Army.
When he started his military service Hawley attended Norwich Military Academy in Vermont for engineer training, as promised by the Army. The war heated up and the Army needed more people in Europe, so this program was closed. Men from the program were sent to basic training in Georgia, which was coincidentally the headquarters for paragliding and paratroopers.
Smith attended basic training for about two months in Georgia. He felt that basic training camp was helpful and it “separated the men from the boys.” Smith said that it got the men in the best possible shape. He volunteered for and completed the paratroopers training. Paragliders were needed, so the Army trained him in that as well. The Army was constantly training to keep soldiers in their best possible physical shape. Smith also received training in weapon handling.
There was a great need for soldiers in Europe, so Hawley was sent to England. He was stationed in Swindon, England for 4 to 5 months. The conditions there were cold but the food was good and they could sometimes go into the nearby town where there were bars for entertainment. His rank was Private First Class at the time. He recalls his duties to be “taking orders and doing it.” He thought his fellow personnel were fine, mostly high school graduates. The lieutenants and higher were college graduates but they didn’t have that much more training.
From England, soldiers from the 17th Airborne were flown to an airport outside of Paris; then they traveled 27 hours in an open top truck amidst terrible weather to the northeast tip of France. Here, he took part in what is known as The Battle of the Bulge. The conditions there were very tough. He went 43 days without a change of clothes, or a hot meal and he lived out in cold winter weather, which included 18 inches of snow. He spent a good deal of this time marching and digging foxholes for cover. When they could, they would take over a farmhouse or sleep under a farmhouse to keep warm. Many of these farmhouses kept animals below to keep the house warmer. Hawley and others would also try to sleep there for warmth. They were on the go and constantly in threat of being shot or killed. Their job was to go through and clear areas; this meant that sometimes they would kill people. Hawley recalls that he was sent out from a farmhouse one time to draw sniper fire but survived. Hawley estimated the casualty rate of US soldiers in the Battle may have been as high as 50%.
In the next major military movement, the 17th Airborne moved through Germany toward Berlin. Smith was in the forefront of this movement and paraglided into Wesel, Germany. The paragliders landed in a field and they were there really on their own. The paragliders were at much greater risk than the paratroopers. Paratroopers could maneuver themselves more easily and were dropped from about 300 feet, offering less time for Germans to shoot at them. Paragliders descended from a higher altitude and were much more vulnerable. They were more encumbered as well by the equipment and more visible.
In Wesel, one of Smith’s duties was to protect the company from German fire and tanks. Smith said it was easy to distinguish the German tanks when you heard them. They operated on diesel and had a shift transmission. Standing in an intersection in Wesel with little to protect himself, Smith and one other soldier took a bazooka and shot at an oncoming German tank. Simultaneously the tank shot at them. The explosion temporarily blinded Smith. A nearby medic saw what happened and treated Smith. By the next day his eyesight returned. Some of the other soldiers they fought with there had not had infantry training. Smith said, “They didn’t know better and stood up when they went to take a leak.” This drew enemy fire on the entire group.
The morale of his unit was good. He described it as a team effort and they wanted to protect the ones they were around. The 17th Airborne merged into the well-established 82nd Airborne Division with little disruption or change of duties for Smith. He was motivated to keep going by disciplinary action threatened by his commanders if he was “slacking off.” As a 17 year old, he didn’t try to gain power but just kept his head down and did was he was told to do.
After some “R&R in France,” the war ended and the 82nd Airborne was flown to Berlin for occupation duty. He described how Berlin was sectioned with England, France, Russia and the United States, each administering their zone. The French and Germans had long hated each other and that was still evident. What few Americans realize is that the Russian soldiers were “real mongrels” and raped, stole and pillaged there. Americans felt threatened by them and were careful not to go into their section of Berlin for fear of being robbed.
While in Berlin, they marched; if they heard of former SS soldiers around, the U.S. soldiers would seek them out to kill them. While there, Smith volunteered to teach English to American illiterates; he found it most gratifying when he saw his students read the Stars and Stripes newspaper for the first time. There were many women their age who were starving. These women outnumbered men in their quarter by 15 or 18 to 1. Smith said, “The U.S. soldiers didn’t have a problem getting a date.”
Smith described the end of the war as a great relief. The sacrifice was definitely justified. He felt proud and felt that they saved the country. He thought it would have been very embarrassing at that time not to have been in the military. Soldiers received a completely different reception when they returned home after WWII as compared to the Vietnam War.
In recognition of his service, Hawley received a Bronze Star for shooting the German tank in Wesel. He received a second Bronze Star when his company was recognized for heroism in the Battle of the Bulge. A Purple Heart was awarded for his injury when confronting the German tank in Wesel. He received a good conduct award and ribbons for participation in the European Theater.
After the service, Smith spent two years at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and two years at Stanford University where he received his BA. He went on to have a successful career in commercial real estate.
Looking back over his service, Smith said the toughest experience was the Battle of the Bulge and going 43 days in such tough conditions. One of the scariest times took place when they were attacking a small town in France. He was told to clear a house by throwing a grenade into it, making sure Germans were not hiding there. Smith threw in a grenade but it never detonated. When Smith returned to his unit his sergeant yelled at him for not doing what he was told. So, Smith had to go back and throw in a second grenade knowing if Germans were in the house, he was an easy target coming back. When asked about humorous memories, he remembered the Sunday in Swindon, England when he was hitchhiking into town. A colonel gave him a ride. Smith did not have a pass and was so glad the colonel never asked.
The 17th Airborne is “blasé” about reunions but Smith has participated in some. He enjoys getting together with 4 or 5 friends from the Division and has joined the American Legion 313th Unit in Larkspur, CA.
Smith believes every American should serve the country in some way, whether it is in the military or in the Peace Corps. Such service gets people out of the house and gives them discipline and better prepares them for the workforce.
Interviewed by James Stanton Leavitt on November 23, 2011.