MEET OUR VETERANS: James Smith ( Van, Texas )
James Smith was born on September 9, 1936 in Sulphur Springs, Texas. He had two brothers and one sister.
“He had an older brother named George that was killed. He was only about 18 or 19 years old when someone shot him,” said Byrd McCracken a lifelong friend. “I think he was in El Paso when that happened. He had another brother pass away recently named Raymond and he had a sister named Jo Ann. We were friends from Junior High all the way thru Senior High School. He was a very likeable person, a very good friend and dependable,” recalled Byrd over the phone.
“His brother told me one time, he didn’t have to do any homework, bring a book home and he made above straight A’s,” said his daughter, Samantha. “My math teacher said I wasted a year of school, because I was so good in math,” smiled James. “In my senior year I took five math courses.”
He made the National Honor Society in both his Junior and Senior years in High School. His Senior year he was named President of the National Honor Society.
“A couple of friends of mine and neighbors I grew up with also joined the Military. Their names were Colonel Dave Jackson, and the other was a Captain in the Army and pathologist Doctor Thomas McConnell,” recalled James.
Dr. Thomas H. McConnell III is a Pathologist and on the faculty at UT Southwestern Medical School where he teaches a pathology course. He went to medical school there and graduated in 1962. Dr. McConnell was in the commercial laboratory business for 25 years and sold the business in the 1990s.
“I have the highest regards for Smitty as we called him,” said Dr. McConnell over the phone. “We were really close together in High School. Both of us weighed about 160 lbs. when we played on the football team. I played center and he played left guard. He, Joe Williams and I were captains of the football team.”
“Dave is from Sulphur Springs and Dr. McConnell lives in Dallas, “recalled James. “Both of them played football with me in High School. Dave was called “Flash” in High School, he was the running back and Thomas was the center on the team. I played left guard,” said James looking thru a High School yearbook.
“We ran an old single wing and in those days, we called it the Michigan State multiple offense. It was a Y formation with an unbalanced line. Smitty would have to pull on some of those plays, believe it or not I was the pulling center. That always confused them. We really just had a great relationship.”
“He was an outstanding player,” said Byrd. When he was in the 9th grade they brought him up to play on the varsity ball. He was All-District in football and played with the likes of Don Meredith.
He was also President of the National Honor Society, he was top two percent in his class. He could do about anything, he was very smart,” recalled Byrd.
“I was offered a football and academic scholarship five years after graduating from high school and serving in the military. Texas Tech wanted me to play football but I was not in very great shape then and didn’t think I would be able to make the team. I was out of condition. I had gained weight and wasn’t as fast as I used to be. I didn’t think about the academic scholarship,” said James thinking back to his days as a player.
“It does not surprise me in the least that Smitty was a bright guy, he was a really good student,” said Dr. McConnell.
“He had that all-American country boy life,” said his daughter, Samantha. He was handsome, very smart and kind,” she said. “He had great humor and personality. For him, God is first, then his family, then the Marine Corps, in that order,” she said. “He very much loves his country. He is generous, to a fault.”
“During High School he did a lot of different jobs, he worked for a dairy supply and worked in a drugstore,” said his best friend, Byrd.
James continued, “I worked as a carpenter right out of high school and then worked for Chance Vault Aircraft Company. I was a tool tryout man and built tooling parts for the aircraft. I joined the Marine Corps when I was 20 years old. I wanted to join the Air Force, but they told me they were full up right now.”
James was 21 when he went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.
“Physically he was in top shape and he used that to his advantage when he went into the Marine Corps,” said Byrd. “That’s what he wanted to do at the time.”
“I was getting ready to be drafted by the Army and I said no thank you and ended up joining the Marine Corps instead. Boot Camp at Parris Island was the “Hellhole of the World.” I stayed stateside my entire time in the Marines. From Parris Island I went to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for ITR (Infantry Training Regiment). I was stationed at Camp Geiger in Camp Lejeune for several months. From there I went to Jacksonville, Florida Naval Air Station. I went to the Air wing of the flight school to learn air traffic control.”
James told me he did not learn to actually work as an air controlman until he joined the reserves. He made private first class in Jacksonville and from there they sent him home.
“I spent three years in the Marines, one year in the active military and two years in the reserves,” said James.
“I was transferred to Hensley Naval Station in Grand Prairie after leaving Jacksonville and continued my service in the Marine Reserves. I was working as an air controlman at the base for the rest of his time in the Reserves. At that time the military were flying the F-8 jet and the Corsair prop plane. I just enjoyed being an air controlman. I was the high finder. It was a dark room and I wore headphones,” recalled James.
“The Marines were going to give me a commission to become an officer in boot camp but I didn’t want to spend eight more years in the corps. I took a test and I scored two points higher than my Commanding Officer. I think I made a 28 and he made a 26.
I received an honorable discharge from the Marines on February 7th 1961. I was a Private First Class.”
His friend Thomas McConnell, center on the High School football team took a different route in the military. He joined the Army.
Dr. McConnell went into the military in the summer of 1963. He was stationed at the Pentagon originally and was there when Kennedy was shot.
“I volunteered for Airborne Ranger School. I was posted to the 101st Airborne Division in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. I really liked the military and came very close to being a career military officer. I just didn’t want to be a pathologist in the Army. When I got out I was a Captain,” said Thomas.
Samantha told me, “I know my father loved the Marine Corps. He was very pleased that my brother went into the military service too, BUT he went into the Army, not the Marines, said James,” and they both laughed.
According to her, “he really loved the friendships he made with his Marine Corps friends. He is very proud to be a U.S. Marine. He wants a military funeral and wants his two high school friends, McConnell and Jackson, to be pallbearers.”
“I remember one thing growing up, my father could sing,” said Samantha. “His brother could sing and play almost any instrument and his sister could sing and play the piano. “I couldn’t play the radio without getting off the station,” laughed James. “My favorite song and I love to sing, Amazing Grace,” said a smiling James. “He could sing anything, but his go to music was old time Christian music,” said Samantha. “He also loves country gospel,” she said.
“He loved to sing,” added Byrd, “mostly those songs from the 50s, he also liked the country and western music.”
“I don’t remember him singing, but I sure would have loved to been there to hear it,” laughed Dr. McConnell.
OWNED THREE CONSTRUCTION COMPANIES
“I was in the dairy farm business for about three years on the other side of Sulphur Springs right after I got out of the Marines. I was working 24 hours a day seven days a week. That is a tough business. I milked those cows twice a day,” recalled James.
After the Dairy Farm, James started working for Bird Lumber Company as a carpenter. He also worked at Dahlgren Manufacturing Company which was a printing press company located in Grand Prairie, Texas. “He was extremely successful at that business,” said Samantha.
James Smith has owned three construction companies. The first was James Smith Construction Company, the second was Smith Brothers Construction both located in Irving, Texas and the third company, HESS Corporation, was located in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“We built homes, apartments as well as Churches. I was the CEO and President of each of the companies. We built houses and housing projects in Los Alamos, New Mexico. We were also painting houses inside and out in Los Alamos,” said James recalling all the businesses he owned.
“I always liked to fish and enjoy fishing for Catfish and Bream. We had three ponds on our family’s farm and I love to Perch fish. I remember when I was a boy we took some metal off a barn and made us a boat to fish with,” he laughed.
“His mother was the best mother. She loved to cook, and when we went to her house, you ate. She loved to cook biscuits and gravy. My daddy would not leave the house until she made his biscuit and gravy,” laughed Samantha.
“He and I used to travel a lot together back in the 60’s,” recalled Byrd. “We went out to Phoenix and visited with an old high school friend out there. He liked to get into contact with those he went to school with. That spoke a lot for him because he did care for others.”
“He is what I would call a “Foxhole Buddy” meaning if the chips were down I would want him in my foxhole. That’s about the highest compliment I can pay anybody and that is the category I put him in,” bragged Dr. McConnell.
“On my bucket list I would like to buy a 93-acre tract near Ben Wheeler someday. I want to build a 5-bedroom and 3-bathroom house on it. I am going to call it Star Ranch.
I want to raise Brangus, which are half Brahma and half Angus there,” said a smiling James.
“JG Wentworth said they will finance it,” he laughed.
He absolutely does have a great sense of humor.
Thank You James “SMITTY” Smith for your service to our country.
GOD BLESS OUR VETERANS AND GOD BLESS AMERICA
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