Eugene Smith, famed member of the Tuskegee Airmen who fought for his proper recognition and honor, passed away on Wednesday, November 21st, at the Harrison County Hospital in Cynthiana, Kentucky.
Eugene Smith had lived in Switzerland County for nearly 20 years, retiring to a houseboat moored at Turtle Creek Marina in Florence. He was very active in the community while residing here, including membership at Patriot Baptist Church and was a regular attendee at the Senior Mealsite in Vevay.
Born in Ohio in 1918, he was a 1939 graduate of Withrow High School in Cincinnati; and then earned his bachelor’s degree from Kentucky State University.
When World War II began, Eugene Smith volunteered to serve his country, enlisting in the Army Air Corps to become a pilot.
That’s where his unusual story of heroism begins.
Because his parents were of mixed origin with Native American ancestry, the doctor who delivered Eugene Smith listed on his birth certificate that he was “colored”, even though he was fair skinned. When he was accepted into the Air Corps and was about to begin his flight training, the Army found that his birth certificate listed his race in that way, so the Army declined to send him to flight school with “white” soldiers.
His only option was to go to Tuskegee, Alabama, and train with pilots who were African American. In an interview with Vevay Newspapers in November of 2007, Eugene Smith recalled the “reverse racism” that he encountered.
“The white pilots didn’t want me training with them , and the black pilots didn’t like me because I was white,” Eugene Smith said then. “When we all took the train to Tuskegee, I was put in charge of the other men because I was white; and I couldn’t sit with them on the train or eat meals in the same place.”
Finishing his air training, Eugene Smith and the other members of the famed flying unit went to Europe , where he escorted bombers on many missions, including raids on Adolph Hitler’s oil fields in Romania. Many of the missions that he flew were extremely dangerous, but his dedication to God and his country brought him through those times.
Returning to the states, Eugene Smith returned to Tuskegee to serve as a flight instructor until his enlistment was up; and then came to Columbus, Ohio, where he earned his law degree. From there, he practiced law in Cincinnati for more than 50 years.
Because of the publicity surrounding the “All black Tuskegee Airmen”, Eugene Smith never got the recognition for his service that he deserved. He was not included in any of the national recognitions of the Tuskegee Airmen, although he did receive the Congressional Medal even though he was not invited to the official ceremony held in Washington, D.C.
In March of 2011, Eugene Smith joined Major Samuel Woodfill as the first two soldiers honored on a new monument that was placed on the lawn of the Switzerland County Courthouse near the Veterans Memorial.
At that time, Eugene Smith spoke of what Switzerland County means to him:
“It’s really a privilege to live in Switzerland County,” Eugene Smith said then. “I like everybody here, I hope you like me. Thanks for letting me be a citizen of Switzerland County. This is quite an honor that I never expected. May God bless all of you.”
At that dedication service, U.S. Congressman Todd Young was the featured speaker, and he gave Eugene Smith the honor that he had long deserved.
“As for Lieutenant Smith, I would like to say that we are also proud of you,” the Representative said that day. “You offered a bit of diversity to the Tuskegee Airmen, I might say. Your story inspires us; your service humbles us; and your presence here today certainly honors us.
“Lieutenant Smith, on behalf of everyone here today, if I may be so bold, on behalf of the entire country, I offer you two carefully selected words: ‘Thank you’.”
Eugene Smith is survived by three children and several grandchildren and great grandchildren. A memorial service for him will be held at Patriot Baptist Church at a later date.