Kim Henderson – Honoring a fallen hero

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, May 22nd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. On Monday we’re going to do something we’ve never done before: serial storytelling. Kim Henderson will have the first of a four-part story that airs all next week. You won’t want to miss it. 

But now, she has a Memorial Day reflection.

KIM HENDERSON, COMMENTATOR: U.S. Marine Sam Smith traveled nearly 7,000 miles to get back to his hometown of Liberty, Mississippi. One Saturday, I was privileged to watch him cover the final stretch. 

Perched on an overpass that spans I-55, we waited for half an hour before finally spotting the motorcade’s flashing lights in the glare of a mid-day sun. My husband saw them first—I’ll give him that—and rushed to unfurl our flag over the guardrail. 

Daughter No. 2 busied herself with photographing the scene, and I found myself flustered by a case of etiquette anxiety. Hand over heart? Hand not over heart? Wave? (Or is that disrespectful?) I admit I did end up waving as the World War II veteran’s remains passed beneath us. Many of the Patriot Guard escorts waved back. Some even honked. And I must tell you, that white hearse gave me chills on an 80-something degree day.

That’s because Sam’s return trip, 73 years in the making, is one that reads like a script from the History Channel. Sam was born in 1924, joining a brood of seven siblings brought into the world by Carey and Mamie Smith. 

Sam was a star football player and a good student—good enough, in fact, to have hopes of a medical career. But college dreams took a back seat to wartime reality. Sam left for recruit training in August, 1942, and at the end of nine weeks, he sailed to the South Pacific. A year later the 19-year-old found himself fighting in one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.

Sam was one of 18,000 sent to secure the tiny island of Betio. Even though Japan held it, strategists believed Betio would be easy to secure. Not so. Low tides proved to be a problem during the 76-hour beachhead invasion. Many of the American landing crafts got caught on a reef, forcing the Marines to wade ashore through chest-high water. Those who did make landfall met great resistance.

Despite heavy losses, the U.S. forces eventually won the battle. But Sam didn’t live to see the victory. He died during the first day of fighting.

Back home, Carey and Mamie received word that their son was missing in action. The Navy would make a presumptive finding of death the next year.

Meanwhile, life went on (and ended) for members of Sam’s immediate family. But in June 2011, an organization recovered three sets of remains in a burial site on Betio. Sam’s were among them.

If I could, I’d tell my fellow Marine mom Mamie Smith something: That the return of her son’s remains to American soil was done right. The day started out dignified at Jackson International with private planeside military honors. Officials closed the interstate for miles. Fifty members of the Patriot Guard straddled Harleys and provided a 3-hour escort back to his hometown where residents were ready and waiting.    

And I’d tell her something else, too: It was an honor to stand on an overpass and show some appreciation for the sacrifice of Sam Smith.

I’m Kim Henderson.


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