WASHINGTON-U.S.Senator John Boozman (R-AR) recognized Michael Smith, a Vietnam War veteran, in ‘Salute to Veterans,’ a series commemorating the military service of Arkansans.
Smith was born and raised in Joplin, Missouri. During high school he spent a summer in California with family and decided that he would move to the Golden State after graduation.
During his second year of college Smith was drafted into the Army. He reported to Fort Ord, California for basic training. Smith’s daily routine of doing 100 push-ups gave him confidence in his ability to handle the physical demands ahead of him. “I was a little bit cocky in basic training,” Smith laughed. “I think the first time someone said ‘give me 20,’ I said which hand.”
While he had the opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School, Smith declined because he wanted to pursue a career in art following military service. He went to advanced individual training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina where he qualified as expert in mortars. “I scored 800 points on the exam. It was a perfect score. No one had ever scored that on that base prior to that,” Smith said.
Despite his proficiency with mortars, Smith was assigned to an infantry platoon upon arrival in Vietnam. He was forced to hone his skills with some quick, on-the-job training.
Smith hadn’t been in Vietnam long before he turned 19-years-old. It’s a birthday that he will never forget. Instead of celebrating his special day with family and friends, he found himself in front of the patrol as point man. While walking through a village he became the target of a water buffalo that charged him. “I emptied my magazine, 20 rounds,” Smith recalled. The water buffalo fell a few feet in front of him. A few hours later in a clearing, Smith was in the same exposed position ahead of the unit when he was blown up in the air. “I laid on the ground stunned. I was pretty certain I’d lost both my legs,” he said. Fortunately he wasn’t injured after stepping on what he later learned was an old anti-tank mine.
Smith didn’t like serving as a point man, but his next assignment wasn’t much better. “I became a tunnel rat,” he said. Armed with a flashlight, a .45 handgun and C-4 explosives, his job was to explore the Vietcong tunnels that his unit discovered. “That was very scary,” Smith recalled. “The first time I had to do that was the last time because I begged to get out of that.”
One method employed by the Vietcong was to make small changes to the landscape that would allow them to infiltrate American camps. On guard duty one day, Smith heard that some soldiers thought their perimeter terrain had changed. As an artist, Smith found a way to incorporate his skills to help with security of the camp. “I sketched the perimeter in front of me and put that on the wall of the bunker and then whoever came in there could see if anything had changed from the drawing,” Smith said. His commander learned of his work and assigned him to do the same for every bunker as well as draw a 360-degree panorama of the site.
When Smith landed in Oakland, California on his return, he was surprised by what he experienced. “There were protestors all over there screaming and yelling,” Smith said. “We had to walk past all of this. They were spitting on us.” The memory continues to be emotional for Smith.
He continued his education at Cal State Fullerton where he was asked by other students to join in protests against the war, but he did not participate.
During his tour, Smith wrote his cousin letters about his service. Those are saved in a scrapbook that he reviewed in preparation for the Veterans History Project interview conducted at his home in Little Rock. “In reading them it refreshed my memory about some of the things that happened,” Smith said.
“Michael Smith was called on to serve his country in uniform. He accepted this responsibility and courageously performed his duties. Preserving his memories for the Veterans History Project is a great way to show our appreciation for his outstanding military service to our country,” Boozman said.
Boozman submitted Smith’s entire interview to the Veterans History Project, an initiative of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center to collect and retain the oral histories of our nation’s veterans.