Richard Smith of Port Charlotte, Fla. served in the 500th Port Battalion, an all black unit in World War II, that kept front line troops supplied with ammunition and equipment.
“We were a stevedore outfit that loaded everything for the Invasion of Normandy from band aids to tanks onto ships,” the 86-year-old former soldier said. “When we arrived in Normandy we unloaded what we had loaded in England. From there another black unit delivered it to the troops fighting on the front line.
“Our function was to keep them supplied. It was something that went on day and night,” he said. “We had no docks so we unloaded from the ships into DUWKs, amphibious landing crafts, that brought the equipment and supplies ashore.”
Smith and the other soldiers in the 500th Port Battalion spent many a night dodging bullets from a German fighter plane they dubbed: “Bed Check Charley.”
“About 1 a.m. almost every night he would attack. Just before he reached our area he’d cut his engine and glide overhead. About the time he dropped his bombs or began strafing us he would turn on his engine once more to get away. When you heard the German’s engine go on, you’d find a hole to crawl in,” Smith said.
“We knew our side was making progress when they started bringing German prisoners back for us to guard. My battalion was taken off the loading and unloading and was put in charge of guarding German prisoners,” he said. “In the beginning some of the POWs were still pretty nasty. Most of them were SS officers who were having trouble adjusting to the fact they’d been captured.
“While at the Port of Cherbourg some of the supplies we were to deliver to the front lines began disappearing. Eventually we discovered what was happening was that German soldiers who were still occupying Guernsey Islands, between England and France in the English Channel, were slipping in at night in rubber boats and stealing our stuff,” Smith said. “After two or three weeks we put a stop to the thefts by erecting a parameter fence protected by guards.”
The closest he came to a shooting war was the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest German advance on the Western Front, that started a week or so before Christmas 1944.
“We were part of Gen. Patton’s 3rd Army and were about 60 miles away from the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans were closing in and the weather was awful — snowy, overcast and very cold,” Smith said. “We were ready to help get our guys out of there, but before we arrived we were told we weren’t needed.”
By VE-Day, (Victory in Europe} Smith’s unit was deep into Germany. He got a three day pass and visited Grarenwohr.
Looking back on the part he played in WW II Smith said, “I’m glad we made our contribution to the war effort. It could have gone the other way and we could all be speaking German today.
“Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said, “The service units, which is what I was in, were the unsung heroes. They were like the arteries in a soldier’s body. They supplied the blood in the form of equipment and bullets going to the army on the front lines. If it wasn’t for the service units the army couldn’t have waged war.’”
After the war was over Smith decided to reup. He became a member of E-Company, 6975 Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Army and part of the occupation force in Germany.
A picture that appeared in Stars and Stripes, the daily newspaper for the troops, sums up Smith’s military career after the war. It shows a rank of black soldiers with their M-1 rifles shouldered. The caption below the picture in the Sept. 13, 1946 paper reads in part: “This rifle squad (including Smith, second from the right) was selected as the top rifle squad in the regiment. Pfc. Richard R. Smith was chosen the outstanding soldier in the squad. He was awarded a three day pass.”
The Second World War was long over when he returned home and was discharged.
“I was in the south when I got discharged and headed north, back to New York city,” Smith said. “In the train station there were still ‘Colored’ and ‘White’ toilets. I had to ride in the back of the train until I got to Washington. I resented it, but if you have any sense you adjust. If you make waves you’re gonna catch hell.”
He began work as a New York cab driver and eventually he and his wife, Doris, owned four cabs. After a few years he joined the New York Transit Authority first as a conductor and finally as a motorman, a job he held for 25 years until he retired. His wife worked at a Veterans’ hospital in the Bronx for 33 years.
The couple moved to Port Charlotte in 1981 after retiring. Richard and Doris were married for 61 years until she died within the last year.
Name: Richard Smith
Hometown: New York, NY
Current: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: June 1943
Unit: 500th Port Battalion, 6975 Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Army
Battles: European Theatre
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, August 17, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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