Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Honoring Ernie Smith

It's almost a cliche to honor the patriot on Independence Day. Patriotism is so ingrained into the American psyche and with good reason. It's not a difficult thing to feel patriotic - call it nationalistic if you must - about a country of such natural abundance and opportunity (for some at least). "Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears". We're still the envy of the planet earth. But on the fourth of July it's hard not to ponder the type of people whose love of country in hindsight seems almost supernatural. It's the kind of patriotism that is personified in the form of Ernie Smith and the Montford Point Marines.

He has been an eyewitness to history on more than a few occasions. He once told m
e that one of his earliest memories took place on a drizzly May morning in 1927. Sitting atop top of his father's strong shoulders at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, four-year-old Ernie watched as Charles A. Lindbergh roared down the runway in the Spirit of St. Louis. Disappearing into the horizon, the Lone Eagle would touch down at Le Bourget Airport in Paris thirty-three-and-a-half hours later. This wouldn't be Ernie Smith's last brush with history.

Shortly after World War Two broke out, Ernie read that President Franklin Roosevelt (prodded by Eleanor, God bless her) had issued an executive order banning exclusion from all branches of the service on the basis of race. The military would still be segregated, but at least there were "Negro" divisions where Americans whose ancestors were brought here
in chains could distinguish themselves.

They wer
e sent to the Montford Point training camp in North Carolina. The adjoining Camp Lejeune was for whites only. The arrangement was separate and quite unequal. The white recruits slept in heated, brick barracks. Their black counterparts weren't so lucky - shacks that were exposed to the elements, infested with bugs and the occasional snake. When they ventured into the neighboring town of Jacksonville on a much needed furlough, their R and R was neither restful nor relaxing. Mayberry it was not. They were forbidden the use most of the business establishments, and the nice folks of Jacksonville let it be known - in no uncertain terms - that these dark-skinned soldiers - some of whom would sacrifice their lives in the war - were not welcome in their fair community.

This is the type of "supernatural patriotism" I was referring to earlier. Ernie Smith and the Montford Point Marines were willing to serve a
nd die for their country despite the fact that America in 1942 was non-too appreciative of their sacrifice. You've got to tip your hat to these guys. They were - they are - a tough and heroic bunch of sons-of-bitches.

I just got a really neat Idea! On the week of December the seventh - PEARL HARBOR DAY - let's hold a HUGE reunion and celebration for the Montford Point Marines. I've got the ideal location, too - Jacksonville, North Carolina! Wouldn't that be a hoot??? I'm wicked, I know.

After the war and thanks to the GI Bill, Ernie was attending college on Prince Edwar
d Island in Canada when he met Wanda McPhee. They married in 1952 and would eventually settle down in a house in Goshen, NY - just down the road and around the corner from where I now sit. There they would raise a family of nine girls and two boys.

My connection to this extraordinary family began, quite literally, on the day that I was born. My late, treasured friend Toni Smith DeGoede and I were born just a few hours apart in August of 1958 at the old Goshen Hospital. She was Ernie and Wanda's daughter. Toni would grow up to become an environmental activist to be reckoned with, co-founding Orange
Environment in the 1980's. She died in 2003 at the depressingly young age of forty-five. Ernie's beloved Wanda passed away the following year.

Ernie and Wanda Smith were the first interracial couple I ever saw - although that fact didn't make much of an impression on me at the time. My first mental images of the family Smith are of them at church, around 1963. At the age of five their marriage did not seem such a revolutionary thing to me. After all, he was a guy; she was a gal. As young and as innocent as I was, I was at least old enough to understand that guys and gals had a habit of getting married to one another. It was only after a few years of hindsight that the very fact of their marriage had a real impact on my consciousness. After all, the early sixties were a much different time. If any of them were ever on the receiving end of any hostility from the less-enlightened natives of Goshen (There were a few - trust me) they kept it to themselves. They were (and are) a very dignified family.

Here's something to think about. When Ernie and Wanda were married on January 16, 1952, the very fact that they were husband and wife would h
ave subjected them to criminal prosecution in at least seventeen states. Isn't life strange?

The Smith family is packed to the rafters with too many doctors and lawyers to count. Daughter Alana is on the board of directors of the newly-opened Orange Regional Medical Center, and son Pete Smith is the owner/operator of Elyse's Luncheonette on West Main Street in downtown Goshen. That's what is known as a shameless plug.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Of the over twenty-thousand men who proudly - gallantly - served in the Montford Point Marines, less than five-hundred of them survive on Independence Day 2012. They were honored on June 27, a week ago today, at a ceremony in Washington DC. Seventy years after Ernie Smith and his compatriots answered their country's call, they were rewarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Long overdue.

Happy Ind
ependence Day, Ernie Smith. You rock, Buster! You always have. You always will.

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


The photo at the top of this piece was taken on June 27, 2012 in Washington DC. To Ernie Smith's right is his daughter, Marine Colonel Stephanie Smith. Here is a link to watch Stephanie telling the story of her father and the Montford Point Marines:


You gotta love them Smiths. You just gotta!
`Special thanks to Ginny Privitar of the Chronicle in Monroe, NY for laying the groundwork on the life of Ernie Smith.

EPILOGUE, 2 December 2013, 5:58 AM:

I just received word less than an hour ago ago that Mr. Smith passed into eternity yesterday. He was one of the sweetest men I ever knew and a real gentleman. This sad planet is a little sadder this morning.


At 8:32 PM, Blogger charles moore said...

Tom, a very nice and touching memory. Thanks for sharing.

At 9:25 PM, Anonymous Sheilagh Smith said...

What a great piece Tom! It was indeed an amazing experience to be in Washington DC for the festivities with my two boys! We are very proud of our dad! Thanks for the tribute!

Sheilagh Smith

At 7:35 AM, Anonymous Tom V said...


As always an interesting read and extremely timely.

Very well done,

Tom V

At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Mary C. McZorn said...

Thanks Tom for this wonderful piece which enlightens me on the much loved Smith clan. We are truly family since Alanna married my bro man Peter. Bravo Mr. Smith and to all the Montford Point Marines.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Kevin Swanwick said...

Bravo Tom. Our memories align so well. Bravo Ernie and Thank You! A great family indeed and in many ways the still-emerging story of our country.

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice piece Tom. My dad would be proud of his fellow Goshenites.

At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The city of Jacksonville,NC doesn't mention Montford Point Training Camp in its History.

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Tom V said...

The nation's first African American Marines

In a race against time, the largely untold story of the nation's first African American Marines will at last be made known through a broadcast quality video documentary. More than 20,000 African Americans trained in segregated facilities between 1942 and 1949 at Montford Point, NC, and became the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps.

From its inception until 1942, the Marine Corps refused to recruit African Americans, American Indians and other minorities. Franklin D. Roosevelt's creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1941 forced the Corps, despite objections from its leadership, to begin recruiting African American Marines in 1942. The Marines' first black recruits received basic training at the segregated Montford Point Base adjacent to Camp Lejeune, NC and would continue to do so until 1949.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Leslie Parsley said...

Wow - and you were lucky enough to grow up with this family? How cool is that? A very touching tribute. Thank you.

At 7:15 AM, Anonymous boltok said...

Nice story. It's hardly surprising that the children of a man of character did well.

I am convinced that 99% of the problem with education, for instance, is a reflection of low expectations or worse from parents. I'm sure this man had expectations for his kids and held them accountable, and they answered.

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Ladyleatherneck said...

Tom, Thank you for the blog. I have been working with Stephanie these many months as we looked high and low to find Montford Point Marines to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. No better love than that between two Marines - is how I feel about Stephanie and her dedication to the Montford Point Project. I was honored to attend both events and even now two weeks later am still receiving phone calls and feeling the emotions of these great Americans and Marines. They inspire and motivate me to be a better person. Thank you again for this blog. I am glad you honored the Mr. Smith and his family. Semper Fi, Pat Hackbarth MGySgt USMC (Ret), President, DC-6 MPMA...home of 38 proud Montford Point Marines

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thank you, Ladyleatherneck. Your note meant a lot and told unspoken volumes. Please give my love to Stephanie. It's been quite a long time since I've spoken to her. Like the rest of her family she is top shelf!

Love and Peace,

Tom Degan

At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Tom, thank you for posting this about my grandfather, I am so proud of him, and proud to be a Smith....sincerely,
Kassandra Smith
(1st grandchild of Ernie, 1st child of Peter)

At 2:53 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Hello and good morning, Kassandra. It was a joy. It's also an honor to live in the same century as your granddad - and I've been lucky enough to share two with him!

All the best,


PS - I see we're both night owls!

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great tribute to the SMITH family. Another one of GOSHENs finest families!

At 8:22 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Hear! Hear!

They have always - and always will - stand out.

At 6:58 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this, Tom. What a lovely tribute to a great man.

At 8:15 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

My pleasure. He was a grand guy - the patriarch of an extraordinary bunch of kids. You've gotta be happy for the man. Ninety-one years is a pretty good run anyway you slice it or dice it.


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