To say it had been a long wait for Jim Smith would be an understatement.
Seventy years ago, he was discharged from the military as a first lieutenant in the Army but never received the medals he deserved.
That was finally rectified Wednesday before the annual Veterans Day parade in downtown Fort Worth.
During a simple ceremony at the Flying Saucer courtyard, the 95-year-old Hurst resident received the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Victory Medal of the Second World War, and the Honorable Service Lapel Button of the Second World War.
The medals were pinned on by Navy Capt. Mike Steffen, commander of Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base.
“I really do thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said the soft-spoken Smith as he was surrounded by his children and grandchildren.
In January 1940, Smith’s enlisted in the Army and began as a truck driver.
His eventually made the switch to aviation as a navigation pilot and instructor. He would fly the B-26 Marauder, B-24 Liberator and B-29 Superfortress, including several missions in Japan before the end of the war.
“There are others who probably did more but I did what I was asked to do,” Smith said. “I’m proud of my service.”
Following the war, Smith would serve as legendary Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson’s pilot. Smith described Richardson as “tough but fair.” He also worked for 27 years as an American Airlines flight instructor.
The 70-year gap in receiving his award could be partially blamed on the fire at the National Personnel Records Center on July 12, 1973, where up to 18 million military personnel files were destroyed. An estimated 80-percent of Army files ranging in date from 1912 to 1960 were lost, including much of Smith’s proof of military service.
“I think that it is a sign of appreciation and a reminder a really meaningful time of his life where he worked with his friends to help America win the war,” said his son, Fort Worth attorney Jason Smith.
Smith’s family turned to John Hayes, the Military & Veterans Affairs Liaison of U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, who has spent the last 10 years working with the National Personnel Records Center to review military personnel files and alternate records to properly recognize veterans.
“My son worked his butt off to make this happen,” Jim Smith said.
The parade that followed the brief ceremony marked the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War, with officials saying they wanted to honor those veterans who didn’t receive a warm welcome after the war.
Marching the in parade, along with veterans organizations, were JROTC groups from area high schools and local high school bands.
Standing on the sidewalk in Sundance Square Plaza, Vietnam veteran Joe Mendiola of Fort Worth was planning a full day of events.
Following the Fort Worth parade, he planned to visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Arlington, then attend an afternoon ceremony at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in Dallas.
“I just enjoy being a part of the ceremonies and meeting young veterans,” Mendiola said. “I really enjoy the camaraderie.”
Mendiola, 65, grew up in Ballinger. He was stationed in Germany but volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“I felt like that was the right thing to do,” Mendiola said.
As an Army Spc. 4th Class in the MACV 41 advisory team, he was part of a 25-man group in the Kon Tum province in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during 1971 and ’72.
“It was good and bad,” Mendiola said. “We worked with the local Vietnamese people and the mountain tribes. We were their advisers. The bad experiences were just normal war.”