View Full Version : 'Hero' finally gets his heart

12-17-08, 06:14 AM
December 17, 2008

'Hero' finally gets his heart

After 63 years, WWII vet receives Purple Heart

Travis Griggs

At Pensacola Naval Air Station on Tuesday, Marine Corps Pfc. Johnny Smith finally got his medal.

Sixty-three years ago, Smith sprinted across the beach at Iwo Jima as enemy gunfire crackled from the jungle around him.

He jumped into a crater where his squad mates were taking cover and returned fire. He tried to keep his head down while he sprayed .30-caliber machine gun bullets back at the enemy, but he didn't keep it low enough.

A Japanese bullet hit his helmet and exploded, the shrapnel slicing the side of his face and shredding his uniform.

"I wasn't badly wounded," said Smith, now 86. "But when the corpsman patched me up, he told me I would get a Purple Heart."

But World War II ended, and Smith never got his medal.

He came home and married his sweetheart, Polly.

"She waited for me and I waited for her, and all of that good stuff," Smith laughed.

He got a job at Sherrill Oil Company in Pensacola, where he worked for 29 years before retiring.

Smith might never have gotten the Purple Heart if not for a comment he added at the bottom of an application.

In July, Smith applied to the Emerald Coast Honor Flight, which flies World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to view the World War II memorial. In a comment section at the bottom of the application, Smith wrote that he was injured at Iwo Jima and never got his Purple Heart.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller's staff received the application, noticed the comment and got to work. By November, the paperwork was signed, and Smith's medal was on the way.

"Finding veterans who didn't receive the medals and awards they earned was not something we expected when we created Emerald Coast Honor Flight," the Republican congressman said. "However, we've found a half-dozen or so heroes who never got their Purple Hearts or World War II Campaign Medals.

"These men and women are so humble about their service to the country during World War II that they never asked for medals or even a pat on the back."

But Tuesday, Smith got more than a pat on the back.

Commanders at Marine Aviation Training Support Group 21 presented Smith his Purple Heart in an auditorium filled with young Marines who are in training at Pensacola NAS.

"We have a hero among us this afternoon," MATSG Commander Col. Will Thomas said to about 800 Marines in attendance.

"Sir, you are a part of our legacy and a part of our greatest generation," Thomas said before pinning a Purple Heart to the lapel of Smith's red windbreaker.

Cheers and applause erupted from the Marines in attendance and continued as Smith and his wife walked down the aisle and exited the auditorium.

Outside the auditorium, Smith turned to Lt. Col. David Glassman, executive officer at MATSG-21.

"I feel like a hero," Smith said.

Glassman replied without hesitation.

"That's because you are a hero, sir."