By Mark Hallum
Clyde Smith has lived a good life since his service in World War II and at 92 he is modest about the experiences he had while assigned to the famous Red Ball Express. The Bayside resident will be recognized for his part in the struggle against fascism Saturday in an Honor Flight from MacArthur Airport in Long Island to Washington, D.C., to pay tribute to fallen soldiers.
In 1944, as Gen. George Patton’s army pushed into Nazi-held territory in Europe a contingent of the Quartermaster Corps., mostly African-America troops, pressed in from behind to keep the men at the front well-supplied. This was dangerous work in which trucking outfits emblazoned with red balls would speed through enemy territory and brave bad whether at all hours to keep the advance moving forward.
Smith cannot remember which day he and his fellow soldiers landed on Omaha Beach in France just after the major part of the Allied battle to take the beach had died down, but he recalls watching the skies in anticipation of air strikes.
His tour through Europe on the Red Ball highways, as the army called the routes, would take him through France, Luxembourg, Germany and Czechoslovakia, “up and down the highways,” he said.
“You had the German Luftwaffe attacking with the V2s and the V1s, that’s a silent bomber,” he said. “You never knew when those were going to hit. It would just come over and come down.”
Smith remembers the Battle of Bulge when the Germans were attacking from behind American troops.
The Red Ball Express would be made into a film in 1952.
“I was young and had just finished high school. Segregation was a way of life, I had no gripes,” Smith said about serving in a segregated fighting force.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Smith would begin looking for a new place to settle after the war away from the South and the segregation that came with it . He and his wife Mamie, whom he met in New Orleans, made New York their home in 1947 and bought their house in Bayside in 1956 where they would raise their 10 children.
The couple became prominent members of society in the developing community, which was farmland and unpaved roads when they arrived.
“In New Orleans, it just was the way of living,” Smith said, explaining how life was different in New York. “I didn’t like the segregation. They treat you inferior.”
Smith’s daughter Maria said getting his children a good education was important to her father and public schools in Queens were crucial to their success later in life. Eight of their 10 children would go on to have college degrees.
Smith worked as a civil servant with the New York City Transit Authority and was able to provide well for his family while his wife was involved with Community Board 11, where she served for over 20 years. She was president of the Roosevelt Democratic Club for a time.
The French government gave Smith a certificate of recognition for his action in World War II and thanked him for the part he played in the liberation of France.
In May 2002, Clyde was honored in the Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade as a division marshal.
Daughter Janice Smith said her parents are often referred to as the mayor and the governor of Bayside by people in the community.
“He was able to give us a fortunate life because of where we live,” Janice Smith said. “We weren’t exposed to the same kind of discrimination and racism that he suffered through because he decided to raise us here in Bayside. The only time I saw a glimpse of it was when we’d go down South.”
To the family, preserving the stories of their father’s life is important but no easy task.
“Most veterans of war don’t talk about their story. It’s very hard to pull them out. We’ve been working at this for years now, so when [the Honor Flight] came about… he’s humbled,” Janice Smith said. “He’s always done what he has to do and I guess that’s the bottom line that got him through the war and raising 10 kids and where he is now sitting comfortable in that chair at 92.”
Mamie Smith jokes she does not know how many grandchildren they have when asked, but in reality there are 22 total.
“He’s been there for all his grandchildren, especially the ones here in Bayside,” Smith’s granddaughter Sequoia, 21, said. “He’s non-stop still.”
The Honor Flight Long Island is a non-profit which takes aging veterans free-of-charge to various war memorials as well as Arlington Cemetery. A dinner will be held following the tours.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall