By Drew Bergman
On June 8, 1966 Private First Class Avery G. Smith of Russell County was killed in action defending a column of over 150 United States soldiers from a Viet Cong ambush along Highway 13 at Ap Tau O. That road would come to be known as “Thunder Road” for all of the attacks that occurred along its path. Four months later his family was presented with his Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award the United States can bestow, for Avery’s selfless and heroic actions in defense of his column.
Three weeks ago, we looked back at Avery’s time before the war with his family. After that, we looked at what life was like for him in Vietnam. Last week, we engaged with the events of June 8, 1966 and Avery’s final hours. If this is your first time coming to this series, all three of those articles are available online at LakeCumberlandCurrent.com or you can call (270) 866-6397 to inquire about purchasing back issues.
This week, we conclude the series with a look at the events which followed Avery’s death.
“That day, emotionally… it just slapped me,” Jeff Smith said. “Have you ever had anything that just slapped you? That did.”
Next to him, Frank Irvin, Commander of the Russell County Honorguard explained that until 1968 the people of the United States really did not understand what Vietnam was and how serious the conflict had been.
“We learned in 1966,” Smith said. With a voice choked by an earned empathy, Frank agreed.
“Daddy, Lela, and I were there, getting ready to set tobacco,” Jeff said. It had been a dry year in Russell County, and their father, Brother A.G. Smith, had gone up to the farm store to get something to help the plants get their roots set deeper to give them a better chance of making it through the summer.
“That’s when the sergeant came from Glasgow and had the wire with him,” Jeff said. “Of course, he didn’t tell us kids about it. At that time, we didn’t have the smartphones, we had the landline and there were, I think, about eight people on the same party line.”
Party lines were telephone lines shared over several households. While unthinkable today when it takes a passcode, fingerprint, or eye scan to open an individual cell phone, party lines had been in use since the invention of the telephone and were common into the 1970s.
“You’d pick up the phone and so-and-so would be on and you had to get off and wait your turn,” Jeff said.
He and Lela then had to wait an hour with the sergeant for their dad to return. “We knew something was wrong, but we didn’t know. It could have been Avery. It could have been Donnie, who was stationed in Germany.”
The sergeant couldn’t and didn’t say anything to 15-year-old Jeff nor his senior sister as they waited in the June sun. But he was kind to them, and he talked to them. And he listened to them as they explained what they were doing and the process of planting tobacco, the work they’d already done on the land and the work they were going to be doing.
“He was very nice,” Jeff said.
When Brother Smith came home, the sergeant read him the wire.
At around the same time, in Bad Kissingen, West Germany, Donnie Smith, the third of the six Smith children, and the one who had preceded him into the military, was called into an office and told to await the chaplain following mail time.
“I felt like something might be wrong at home,” he told Charles Pearl of The Times Journal on July 1, 1986. “The chaplain talked for 10 to 15 minutes before he finally told me.”
In the weeks that followed, letters came in from Captain Sturgis, who had been in command that day, General DePuy, General Westmoreland, and General Jonathan Seaman expressing their condolences. The letters from the three generals were what could be expected as the duty of their offices. Captain Sturgis wrote, “News of your son’s death comes as a real shock to all who knew him and his loss will be felt keenly in the troop. I sincerely hope the knowledge that Avery was an exemplary soldier and died while serving his country will comfort you in this hour of sorrow.”
However, in the days that followed, Avery’s body was recovered and returned home to Russell County.
Dust and Stone
The Smith family received word and prepared to receive Avery’s remains. The flight back to America arrived in Louisville where Edwin “Bubby” Rippetoe of Rippetoe Funeral Home took it into his care and brought it home. Another soldier, another sergeant, travelled with the body to Russell Springs where it came home on June 14, 1966.
The sergeant, and other members of the burial detail stood watch over the casket and body when they arrived at Rippetoe Funeral Home, at the Smith family farm for the viewing, at Mount Hope Baptist Church where Reverends Roosevelt Brown and Raymond Brown conducted the service. The members of the detail stayed until Avery’s remains were secure in the grounds at Phelps Cemetery where they served as pallbearers and ensured that Avery was accorded full military honors.
The viewing was closed casket, under the advice of Bubby Rippetoe who, having known Avery, had identified his remains before taking them into his care.
At first, the viewing was held in the front room of the family home. “But there were so many people coming by they couldn’t get in,” Jeff said. “So, what we did, we moved the casket out onto the front porch.” There were so many people that the casket stayed out throughout the night.
“There were people coming and going all night long: family, friends. There were people from Clinton County, Adair County, Russell County, Casey County. There were people from everywhere coming. I remember in the late hours of the morning, people still out there talking outside. There’s a field around the house and we had cars parked almost three-fourths of the way.”
Avery’s father, Brother Smith, had preached in Clinton County, and both had been known through an association of Baptist churches in the region. “It seemed like everybody that even connected to that came,” Jeff said.
The dry summer had turned the road to dust, and the action of the cars and the steps of the visitors kicked that dust up and carried it onto the porch. “That dust is on his coffin flag today.”
The crowd continued to Mount Hope where people lined up outside, unable to get in to see the first Russell County son to be lost in Vietnam.
“The sheriff told Daddy after the funeral that it took 45 minutes for traffic to clear,” Jeff said.
The family and funeral party travelled to Phelps Cemetery for the graveside service and on June 16, 1966 Avery Smith was laid to rest.
The words etched onto his tombstone are a variant on the classic gravestone verse, “Remember me as you pass by,” which dates back to Edward the Black Prince who is remembered in England as one of the greatest knights of the Hundred Years’ War:
Look on this as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, you soon will be
Prepare for death and follow me.
In a pair of letters–one signed, one stamped–both dated October 31, 1966, Major General Kenneth G. Wickham, the Adjutant General at the Department of the Army’s headquarters in Washington D.C. wrote to Avery’s parents, saying:
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith: I have the honor to inform you that your late son has been awarded posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross. The officer selected to make presentation will communicate with you and arrange for a ceremony in accordance with your wishes. My continued sympathy is with you.”
The citation, dated October 7, states that Avery was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest honor, and that “His extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty at the cost of his life were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”
The following February, A.G. and Okra Smith, along with Lela and Buddy Hix, Donnie, back from Germany, Jeff, and baby sibling Paula travelled to Fort Knox for the ceremony. There, Major General A.D. Surles, Jr., who was then the commanding general of the Army Armor Center at Fort Knox presented them with Avery’s medal.
Captain Sturgis was also there, having been promoted to Major in the interim, as was Avery’s sergeant, Platoon Sergeant Lanham, and Staff Sergeant Williamson, who had Avery in basic.
Williamson recalled Avery as “Quiet and serious. And when he said something, he said it and knew what he was saying.”
There, the Smiths were also given Avery’s Purple Heart.
“I just remember being there and the picture being taken,” Jeff said. “They also mentioned the possibility of honoring him by naming something after him at a later date.”
By 1970, Jeff Smith was serving in the National Guard, and while at Fort Knox, had made use of a small athletic building named for his older brother.
In 2011, Smith Gym was given a $2.5 million renovation complete with a new maple basketball court, new racquetball courts, numerous rock-climbing walls, an expanded weight area, as well as updates to the structure itself and climate control systems, all to bring the building into the 21st century.
On hand for the event were Jeff, along with his sisters Lela and Paula. Paula had told the Fort Knox Gold Standard that “It would have made [Avery] quite proud,” a sentiment Lela agreed with, while offering that Avery would have also been “humbled that somebody would do this in honor of him.”
Donnie Smith was unable to attend the event. He had passed in August of that year, having served as a preacher after his military service.
Donnie was, however, around for the 1986 Lakefest and Independence Day Celebration on the square in Jamestown.
At noon on July 5, 20 years and a month after Avery Smith fell in Vietnam, Congressman Harold Rogers unveiled a plaque honoring Avery which to this day hangs in the ground floor of the Russell County Courthouse in Jamestown.
The day’s ceremony also honored all Russell County men who had given their lives for the country, whose names are still remembered at the Doughboy statue.
The ceremony was accompanied by a performance from a U.S. Army Band as well as a military fly-over.
While Okra Smith was still alive to see the honor, her husband, A.G. Smith, and her oldest daughter Orvella Brown, were not. Okra followed her husband and her oldest children four years later.
On the 46th anniversary of Avery Smith’s death, Fort Benning dedicated the Smith Barracks in honor of him. The ceremony was reportedly coordinated to have occurred during the same time as the battle at Ap Tau O raged.
When the original Smith Gym was dedicated in 1970, the Smith family did not attend as the information went to A.G. and Okra who likely did not realize its importance. In 1970 information was not a ubiquitous as it is today.
The surviving Smith siblings: Lela Hix, Jeff Smith, and Paula Johnson, were present in 2012 at the dedication of Smith Barracks in Georgia.
Jeff and Robert Corbin both spoke at the Fort Benning ceremony. Robert, about the friend he knew and Jeff about the brother he loved.
“Let me tell you about the day he left for Vietnam,” Jeff Smith said. “It had rained, it had been chilly and cold. It was December 8th, 1965 and I remember going to the door. He and Mom and Dad were going to the car, they were taking him to Lexington to go, and I thought, ‘Man, look at that sun, just peeking through on the east side of the house there.’ And all at once it got warm. The sun popped through. It had been misty that morning, but the clouds broke and the mist broke as he was getting into the car and he got one last good look at home before he left.”
The author is indebted to many people, but most especially: to Frank Irvin at the Russell County Honorguard for reaching out to him with a simple story of a brave young man who gave his life for his country and his brothers in arms; to Jeffrey Van Smith for opening his family history up to a stranger and entrusting that stranger with that story; to Richard Keesler and Robert Corbin for remembering and sharing wounds from more than five decades ago; to Mary Ellen Smith and Sharon Keesler for encouraging and supporting their husbands through the interviews; to the United States Army for providing free sources of information for those with the desire and means to look; and to Lindsey Westerfield at the Russell County Public Library for graciously giving the author’s research a second life.