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Robert T. Smith - Respect for the fallen, duty for the survivors

Reprinted with permission of Iowa History Journal

“Airplanes fall up not down is the opinion of American Graves Registration Service and Recovery personnel now operating in the New Guinea area.  Teams of volunteer personnel are based at Fineshhafen, New Guinea where the temporary National Cemetery for the Southwest Pacific is located.  This work is the attempt to investigate all isolated air crashes and infantry burials where there is sufficient leads to warrant a search.” wrote Sergeant Robert T. “Smitty” Smith. 

Smith, a native of Des Moines, Iowa spent World War II and years following up to the Korean War in the Graves Registration branch of the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps.  His duty took him from the 113th Cavalry’s Red Horse Armory in Des Moines in 1941 to the South Pacific from 1943 until 1949.  He spent his service searching for the remains of downed airmen and ground troops killed in action or declared missing.  His discoveries, while often fragmentary, could provide closure to the families of American servicemen lost in the war.  His story is found in the archives at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum and in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of Anthropology.  Smith left three years of journals, letters, papers and ephemera that document his time working in the jungles of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Since the Civil War, the care of deceased military personnel and the maintenance of National Cemeteries were among the duties assigned to the Quartermaster General.  Sixteen million Americans served in World War II and more than 400,000 died according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.  At the end of World War II there were 79,000 Americans unaccounted for.  This included those buried as unknowns, buried at sea, lost at sea, or missing in action.

Following World War II the United States initiated “The Return of the World War II Dead Program”  This program was to locate crash sites, re-examine battlefields for isolated graves, and disinter temporary military cemeteries around the world.  The U.S. Army created the American Graves Registration Service to take up this task.  Smith could have gone home after the war, but he extended his service with the Graves Registration Service and stayed combing the jungles in New Guinea.  

Smith was born in Des Moines in 1918.  He and a younger sister, Mildred, were adopted by Nellie Dooley.  Mrs. Dooley was a nurse by occupation.  The 1930 census shows them living on Illinois Street along with three boarders. At the time Mrs. Dooley was divorced.  Smith graduated from North High School in 1937.  Next to his senior picture in the North High Oracle yearbook he indicated his ambition was to become an interior designer.  His occupation was listed as “helper” or “assistant” in the Des Moines City Directories from 1939 to 1941.  Joe Wieland, a lifelong friend and donor of Smith’s papers to the Gold Star Museum, wrote that Smith was an “excellent artist and worked as a display designer in downtown Des Moines before the war.” A bronze plaque from the Younkers Department Store in the collections of the State Historical Society of Iowa (catalog # 2005.050.108) list Smith as an employee in service during World War II.  It is clear that he never returned to designing store displays.

Smith and his friend Joe Wieland were both members of the 113th Cavalry and were mobilized at the same time.  Wieland stayed with the 113th and deployed to Europe.  Smith was reassigned to the 8th Corps and went to the Pacific.  A photograph in the February 4, 1944 edition of the Des Moines Tribune shows Smith with a collection of framed butterflies.  The caption read, “When the guns stop booming in the Solomons, Staff Sergeant Robert T. Smith of Des Moines begins butterfly chasing.  He completed this valuable collection while resting from frontline duty at an advanced base.  Sergeant Smith is the son of Mrs. Nell Dooley.”  His butterfly collecting is just one indication of a lifelong interest in natural history that is seen in his journals and sketch books.

Mrs. Dooley passed away August 12, 1947.  Her obituary stated her son Robert, stationed in New Guinea, flew by plane to attend her funeral.  A year later, an entry from his journal on Friday, August 13, 1948 stated, “A year ago today I arrived in Chicago on a large DC-6 aircraft and now I am about as far from civilization as I can get with exception of being inland for four more days.”

In an undated document, Smith described his work.  “missions have been carried searchers as high as 9400 feet into the mountains and even 9 feet under in a mangrove swamp.  Many times searchers find themselves in areas very little traveled by white personnel especially Americans.  The majority of these missions are done on foot whether it be a short half day mission or a 21 day mission of 200 miles of mountainous jungle terrain.”

Smith wrote in a letter in 1945, “Since attending a jungle intelligence school on Guadalcanal, May thru July of 1943 as an assistant instructor in maps etc., I have been “bush happy” and had always hoped to an assignment into the bush for a lost plane or something.  Also I had been told once here by one of my C.O.’s that my hobbies came first and the Army second.  On that date I made up my mind to prove that my hobbies would be of use to the army.”

According to one of his journals from 1948, Smith and his guide, Nilibo, spent nearly a month hiking to different villages seeking information and investigating leads on lost aircraft.

“A search team usually consists of two or three men with such equipment as is necessary for a particular mission.  This generally included a jungle pack with two blankets, hammock and toilet articles, a bush knife, first aid kit and an entrenching tool is attached to the pack.  For food the 10 in 1 or new type C rations are preferred.  All packs and cargo are carried by natives.”

C rations were not always standard cuisine.  Several times his journals mention stocking up on canned corned beef.  While on searches meals took on a native flare.  “By the time I returned I was half starved and sat right down to roast taro and a greens soup with three small chili peppers in for flavor.  It was quite tasty…I had been so hungry the old song, “Have you tried your Wheaties” kept running through my head.  The lunch wasn’t quite Wheaties but it sure hit the spot.”

Food was a frequent reference in his writings.  “Large jungle pigeons go nice in the pot if there is a marksman along. (Smith writes on several occasions that he used his standard issue M1 carbine to shoot game for food.)  Additional food can be purchased from the natives if you don’t mind their menus.  Razor blades are generally used to purchase food as they are light to carry and in much demand.  Three razor blades are equal to 16 cents – the Australian shilling (Australia had administrative authority of New Guinea before and after the Japanese occupation in World War II).  Two heads of cabbage can be obtained for one blade and chickens for three to six blades.”

“A good searcher is schooled for his work in the necessary subjects such a Pidgin English – the inter-island language, map reading and drawing, native psychology, jungle lore, teeth charts, and knowledge of bone structure and aircraft identification.  But most important the man must like to hike and forget about the civilized part of the world.”

Bougainville is an island in the Solomon chain east of New Guinea and northeast of Australia.  In late December 1943 the 182nd Infantry arrived to engage the Japanese forces that were entrenched on the island.  For two months patrols clashed with the Japanese.  American forces set up an observation post on the top of Hill 260 in a 125 foot Banyan tree where observers could see for miles around.  In March 1944 the Japanese launched a massive counter attack against the American forces and took the hill.

From March 19 through March 28, 1944 the 182nd fought to retake Hill 260 and succeeded.  The cost was great however.  Company G of the 182nd had 147 men on duty at the beginning of the offensive and only 85 remained at the end.  The others had been killed, wounded or otherwise incapacitated.

Smith was sent to Bougainville in July 1945 to search for the remains of missing infantrymen on Hill 260.  He along with ten native searchers recovered the remains of twenty-eight soldiers.  Nine were unidentified and nineteen were positively identified.  Unidentified bodies were identified as American by uniform parts, equipment such as canteens, or in some cases, the weapons found with them.  Weapon serial numbers might be traced to the soldiers they were issued to and establish an identity. He maintained notes on each recovery in a message book pictured in this article.

Smith wrote, “This work although morbid to some people, is good work.  To find the remains of an American is a thrill, but to identify them is better.  Too many of the next of kin still believe their boys to be alive somewhere in the jungles as long as they are recorded as missing in action. Remains recovered are returned to a recognized cemetery and the next of kin notified.  The search work will continue until every man has been given a try at possible recovery and the positive or negative report recorded.”

Smith’s efforts were an act of respect for the service of the fallen soldier and a duty for the survivors.

After more recovery work during the Korean War he transferred to Fort Huachuca, Arizona.  He continued on as a cartographer both on active duty and later in civil service.  During his years in southeastern Arizona he became an active bird watcher.  He was sought out by other birders to guide them to see Mexican Spotted Owls.  According to an article in Arizona Highways from January 2003, Smith built and maintained the isolated Scheelite Canyon trail in the Huachuca Mountains.  While he lived most of his life in the desert, Smith never lost his interest in New Guinea as he made several return trips in his lifetime.  He remained “bush happy.”

Smith lived out his life in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Following his death on August 30, 1998 a bronze marker was placed in his memory by the trail he maintained in Scheelite Canyon.