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Just in time

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Local man recounts service at end of WWII

By John Barnhart

    Tom Smedley, who will turn 90 in September, grew up in a small Ohio River town in Pennsylvania, a short distance down the river from Pittsburgh. It was a steel mill town and his father, a World War I veteran, urged him to get out of the area as soon as he could.

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    “When you grow up,” the elder Smedley urged his son, “get out of this area and find a clean place to live.”
    The younger Smedley found out what his father meant when he joined the Navy in 1945 when he was 17. The Navy sent him to Camp Perry, near Williamsburg, for boot camp.
    “I could see stars at night,” he said.

    It was the first time in his life he saw a starry night sky and a nice blue sky in the day. The smoke from large, nearby steel mills had created a perpetual overcast in his hometown. He gets to see plenty of those now; Smedley runs a Bed & Breakfast off Wheats Valley Road.
    “The war was still on but it was winding down, so I hit the best possible time,” he said concerning the timing of his enlistment.
    It could have been different, if not for the atomic bombs that ended the war. After boot camp, Smedley was shipped to San Francisco and assigned to the crew of the USS Bayfield (APA-33). This ship was an assault troop transport and was slated to take part in an anticipated invasion of Japan’s home islands in the fall. This was expected to be a very bloody fight with Japan’s military leaders preparing Japan’s population to fight to the death to resist the invasion.
    As a result of the two atomic bomb blasts, Emperor Hirohito finally overruled the Army officers heading Japan’s war cabinet and Japan surrendered.
     The Bayfield was undergoing an overhaul when Smedley, then a seaman second class, met it. He was assigned to an LSM, serving as a helmsman.
    “I was kind of young to be a helmsman,” Smedley commented.
    LSM stood for Landing Ship Medium. It was a large, seagoing, landing craft that was 203 feet long and, like all landing craft, had a flat bottom which meant they rode like a cork if rough seas. They were used in amphibious assaults in World War II.
    “They didn’t go very fast,” Smedley recalled.
    The LSM he was assigned to was part of a small convoy of these vessels that headed down the west coast, through the Panama Canal, and into the Caribbean Sea and on to North Carolina. It was during this time that Smedley had a little more excitement than he cared for.
    The were off Mexico’s west coast and it was night.
    “All of a sudden, a bow came out of the dark,” he said.
    He wasn’t sure what it was, but it “was a whole lot bigger than we were.”
    Although the war was over and the LSMs were using normal running lights, this ship had no lights.
    The skipper of the LSM  ordered all engines back full and Smedley found that while an LSM wasn’t fast, it could stop and back up quickly. The larger ship passed very close to the LSM and Smedley recalls his skipper cussing the larger ship’s bridge watch as the ship passed.
    The rest of the voyage passed smoothly.
    “The trip was pretty routine except for the fact that somebody nearly cut us in half,” Smedley said.
    Back aboard the Bayfield, Smedley got underway. The ship’s first stop was Pearl Harbor and Smedley said you could still see the results of the Japanese attack four years earlier. His first thought was “They’ve had a fire!” Then, it hit him. It was Pearl Harbor.
    In spite of the still evident ravages of war, Smedley thought Pearl Harbor was the most beautiful place he had ever seen.
    Smedley’s duty, as a member of the Bayfield’s deck force, was “chipping paint, scraping paint, repainting paint.”
    There were also liberty calls and he remembers one incident at fleet landing when a sailor called to a Marine, in dress uniform, “Hey boy, take my bag.” The Marine replied, “I already have one.” Smedley said the woman with the Marine was not amused.
    Later, after reaching the Western Pacific, Smedley came back to the U. S. as part of the crew of a sister ship to the Bayfield. This ship was repatriating men who had been involved in the island fighting during the war. Smedley recalls a comedian on board the ship who entertained the guys and he is sure this comedian was a professional.
    Smedley had signed up for a four-year hitch in the Navy in 1945, but that four-year enlistment turned out to be two years. A large number of men were discharged early, due to post-war demobilization, and Smedley was one of them.