PDT Staff Writer
John Clay Smith, Scioto County's only World War II Flying Ace, said nothing about airplanes when he graduated from Portsmouth East High School in May of 1938.
The United States was still three and one-half years away from declaring war on Japan and Germany following Japan's Dec. 7, 1941 sneak attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
John Clay, who had been a multi-sport star for the Tartans, went off to Ohio State to study art.
He was on the swimming and track teams and once raced against the legendary Jesse Owens.
The story of his brief and adventuresome life is told chiefly by two of his relatives: a niece, Paula Smith Sturgeon of Wheelersburg, and a nephew, James "Snuffy" Smith of Portsmouth.
John Clay's parents, lifelong residents of Eastern Avenue, Sciotoville, were Arthur Mercer Smith and Lucy McCormick Smith.
He had two brothers who were also in the war: Arthur Marion Smith, James "Snuffy" Smith's father, who died in 1981; and Earl Ray "Red Bill" Smith, Paula Sturgeon's father, who died in 1995.
Jim Smith's mother, Helen Smith Ebert, 87, lives in Florida.
John Clay's story came to the front again after they read a story in the Sept. 22 edition of the Portsmouth Daily Times about Horace Edward "Jack" Withrow, a 1939 graduate of East, who, as a mechanic in the Army Air Force during the war in New Guinea, worked on John Clay's plane and visited him in his tent at an airstrip in the jungle just weeks before he died.
"His parents - which of course are our grandparents - and Paula's father and mine all died knowing nothing about what happened to him except that he was shot down," said Jim Smith.
Much of the two's additional information came from a Web site on the Internet that posted information on World War II's Flying Aces.
"We suddenly started getting e-mails from people wanting to know if we knew John Clay Smith and were related to him." said Paula Sturgeon. "I guess people read the Withrow story on the Internet."
Jim Smith was only two and one-half years old when John Clay got home on a short leave before reporting back to the South Pacific. He has a photo of him sitting on his young uncle's knee and wearing his Air Force-issue, fleece-lined flight jacket.
Using information passed down from family members, he said Lucy Smith had a difficult time trying to reel in her son from his adventuresome spirit that she feared would get him in bad trouble.
"John Clay became a Christian at an early age and treated everyone right, but he enjoyed doing one thing or another just to prove he could do it," said Jim Smith. "There's one report, unverified, that he rode his bicycle across the top of the Northern Railroad Bridge crossing the Ohio River at Sciotoville.
"He was a rebel in the true sense of the word. During a summer vacation from Ohio State, he headed for the World's Fair in New York with just his paints and brushes and $10 in his pocket. Lucy told him he was not going. He told her she could rant and rave and stomp her feet if she wanted, but he was going. He went, earned his money by painting signs for vendors, and stayed six weeks before returning home triumphfully."
Jim Smith said John Clay told somebody when he got home from the war he was going to borrow a plane and make a flying loop around the railroad bridge, the bottom of the loop taking him under the bridge.
But he never came home from the war.
HIS WAR EXPERIENCE
John Clay Smith dropped out of Ohio State after two years to join the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet in early 1942. He took preflight training at fields in California. While stationed at San Diego, he became engaged to Consuelo Marion De Ridder of San Marino.
He was commissioned and received his wings on Jan. 4, 1943. He was deployed for a while at Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma with the 2nd Photographic Group.
On July 10, he was transferred to the Southwest Pacific, where he joined the 433rd Fighter Squadron, 475th Fighter Group at Amberly Field, Australia. On Aug. 14, he moved to Dobodura, New Guinea.
His plane was the P-38. a two-engine, twin-tailed plane that was one of the fastest fighter planes in the war, capable of speeds exceeding 400 mph.
He shot down his first Japanese plane on Sept. 2, 1943, in a pitched dogfight in the air over New Guinea that lasted about 20 minutes. He wound up being shot down in that battle himself.
He tells about it in his own report filed back at the base on Sept. 22, one of the many papers saved by his mother that were handed down to Paula Sturgeon's mother, Dorothy, now 82 and living in Sciotoville.
"I picked up a couple of Nips from my left. One got in a good burst on my right wing. I shot into the clouds and headed for home," John Clay wrote in his report.
He was running out of gas and decided to crash-land the P-38. He cut off the switches, stalled the plane, and landed in a clearing without suffering any serious injuries. The plane was discovered later, mostly intact.
He walked through the jungle, infested with huge snakes and crocodiles, for nine days, living on mostly bamboo shoots.
He said he thought almost every night about how the cook at the fraternity house at Ohio State would have mashed potatoes with chili beans every Saturday.
"I thought about that stuff and all the nice steaks I ever had, and about my folks and about my girl."
On the ninth day, some New Guinea natives took him in.
"They put on a dance and a feast for me. There was a mission-trained native who was a teacher and a preacher. I'd tell about my plane and how I was hit and he would relay it to the others. They would talk and point at me. After that, every time I passed a house the natives would come out and join the parade. I sat by the hour telling them about the United States. They ate it up. It was the only time in my life I ever got the attention I deserved."
He was rescued and back at the base on the 10th day. There was great rejoicing back on Eastern Avenue in Sciotoville. His parents had received word he was missing in action and had steeled themselves for the worst.
After a short rest in Australia, Smith had another P-38 under him and was back in action, eventually downing five more enemy aircraft, giving him one more that the total needed to become an ace. He also had downed a seventh, but it was never confirmed, so he was credited with six kills and a probable.
HIS LAST MISSION
On Nov. 9, 1943, 1st. Lt. John Clay Smith, 23 years old, flew his last mission. He and his fellow flyers met an enemy force larger in numbers than they were. Smith and two other American pilots were killed.
According to the report on the Web site, Smith and Danny Roberts collided while chasing an enemy bomber. It said both were buried in the military cemetery at Manila, in the Philippines.
His plane, identified by its tail number, 179, was mostly intact on the ground.
On Nov. 14, 1943, Lucy Smith received a letter from General Headquarters, South-west Pacific Area.
"I cannot express to you the poignancy of my regret at the death of your son, First Lieutenant John C. Smith," it said. "I have lost a gallant comrade-in-arms and with you mourn a splendid gentleman."
The hand-written signature at the bottom of the letter said simply, "Very faithfully, Douglas MacArthur."
John Clay's medals included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal with three oak clusters.
A granite monument on the school grounds at the old Portsmouth East High School carries the names of John Clay and 12 other East students who gave their lives in World War II.
It wasn't until five years after the war his body was exhumed and brought home to Sciotoville.
His remains, in a copper casket tightly fastened with screws, were buried Dec. 3, 1950, in the Smith family plot in Memorial Burial Park in Wheelersburg.
"I was nine years old," said Jim Smith. "I can still hear that bugler playing taps and it echoing so hauntingly out over the cemetery."
"Probably nobody ever put so much living into so few years," said Dorothy Smith.
The Rev. Lowell W. Rupp, in his eulogy, said "No one could be more in love with life than he was. He loved living. Life to him had tang and zest; it was a glorious adventure, for life to him was significant. It had meaning and purpose, for he believed in God, in Christ, in man, in immortality.
"Truly, his sun has gone down while it is yet day."
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.