WWII veteran still has shrapnel
Posted: Monday, April 12, 2010 12:13 pm
By JOHN BRANNON
For his World War II wounds — a brain concussion and shrapnel in his leg — Chester Smith of Troy was awarded a 10-percent disability rating and a pension of $10.50 a month.
That was in December 1945.
After two years, the pension was discontinued. He wishes he could say the same for the shrapnel.
Army doctors told him they couldn’t get it all out because it was embedded in the bone “and they’d have to tear the bone all to pieces.”
“So they left it in, told me my body would ‘eat it up’ in 10 years. That was 65 years ago. It’s still there,” he said. “In 2007, I went to the VA hospital at Marion, Ill., and they made pictures (X-rays) of it. You can still see ’em.”
Smith, 86, is typical of America’s veterans who fought Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II. Most are reluctant to talk about their experiences. Those who do seem to have remarkable recall.
A native of Upson County, Ga., he entered active duty via the draft on May 5, 1943, and was honorably discharged on Dec. 5, 1945, with the rank of private first class (E-3).
In two and a half years of active duty, he served as infantryman, a profession much admired, much written about, by famed World War II journalist Ernie Pyle, in such hotspots as Morocco and Algeria and France and Germany.
He came to be known as a pretty good hand at firing the water-cooled 30-caliber machine gun. It is a source of pride for him that his buddies would say, “Are you going to be on the gun tonight?” If he said yes, they’d say, “Well, we’ll sleep good, then.”
But one night in France, when he wasn’t on “the gun,” he was practically blown out of his foxhole by a round of German artillery.
The attack came in the aftermath of the Germans’ last-gasp offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16, 1944-Jan. 25, 1945), which cost 19,000 American and 1,400 British lives.
“I told my buddies, ‘When we hear the first shell, I’m going to get hit.’ And so it was,” he said. “I had a foxhole. I always dug my holes small at first, then made them bigger if I had time. Well, here they (the artillery shells) come. I couldn’t do nothing but jump in there and lay on my side. The round (that got me) landed close.”
He was initially treated in the field, then transferred to a military hospital in England where he recuperated several months.
Smith’s awards and decorations include the Purple Heart, the Europe-Africa-Middle East Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Smith is the son of the late Mattie Bell Smith and Bennie Smith of Thomaston, Ga.
He was among four boys and five girls in the family. Two sisters and a brother survive.
Smith is married to the former Margie Moore of Dyer County. They have four children — Johnny Michael Smith of Union City and Patricia Hogg, Mary Elizabeth Snyder and Katherine Roberson, all of Troy — and nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and 14 great-great grandchildren.
The fifth generation, Isabell Renee Chapman, was born on Jan. 6.
Smith is fully retired, but in his time in the work force, he was very active. Among other pursuits such as PicPac Food Stores in Memphis, he owned and operated a small grocery in Troy 10 years.
He bought the store in 1968. It burned in 1978. Then he went to work for E.W. James Supermarkets, where he was a familiar figure many years.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said.
That German steel fragments in Smith’s bones aren’t content to lie dormant. Sometimes they send a painful reminder of their presence.
“Can I feel it? Yes, sir. I felt it last night,” he said. “If it gets cold, I feel it. It’ll wake you up and keep you awake until you get it quieted down.”
A heating pad helps warm him and chase away the war demons … until next time.
“It is painful,” he said. “You learn to live with it. It’s been in me 65 years. And I’m lucky I have as good a memory as I do. The concussion still affects me. Words don’t come out right sometimes.”
Published in The Messenger 4.9.10