This and the other WWII stories that will follow this week were originally printed in 2008 and 2009 in a series I wrote for The Dade Sentinel. Coincidentally, I interviewed Jakie Smith and wrote the story of his time on Intrepid just around the time that the carrier, now a floating museum, was towed back newly refurbished to its pier in New York City with Jakie aboard--there was a big reunion of Intrepid vets included in the festivities that year.
This is a story about a sailor and a ship.
The USS Intrepid was an aircraft carrier. She was 898 feet long and 152 feet wide, and she carried 3300 crewmen and 120 airplanes.
Jakie Smith was a farm boy from Rising Fawn, Ga. It was May 1943 and he expected to be drafted within a month or two, so he preemptively joined the U.S. Navy on the principle: “I’d rather ride as to walk.” Before that, he’d never been on the sea. In fact, he’d never been anywhere.
Seaman First Class Jakie Smith went aboard the Intrepid for the first time on Aug. 16, 1943, the day she was commissioned. She was brand new. He was 18. And for the rest of his life, Smith would feel a certain way about that ship.
“Well, that was our home, see,” said Smith. “We slept three and four high. You got bonded awful close.”
After a shakedown cruise to Trinidad, the Intrepid sailed for Pearl Harbor, then on to the Marshall Islands to prepare them for U.S. invasion. Later she was to provide air coverage at Truk Island, the Philippines and Okinawa. “That was our job, what they called softening it up,” explained Smith.
“Softening up” a place meant bombing it.
Since 1937, Japan had been sweeping through Asia and the Pacific in a campaign of expansion parallel to Hitler’s in Europe. On Dec. 7, 1941, while Japanese diplomats
were still ostensibly negotiating peace with the U.S., Japanese airplanes bombed Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack that crippled the American naval fleet based there and precipitated the United States into war. Simultaneously, Japanese forces swarmed into Guam and the Philippines.
So it became an immediate U.S. objective to break the back of Japanese power in the Pacific, and aircraft carriers were the way to start. The Intrepid’s job was to launch the planes that dropped the bombs on Japanese installations. This made her a prime target for Japanese counterattacks. “We was hit more than any carrier in the fleet,” said Smith.
The Intrepid traveled in a task force of 20 to 25 destroyers, battleships and cruisers that maneuvered neatly along together in identical zigzags through the Pacific. But it was at the Intrepid that Japanese planes aimed first their bombs and, ultimately, themselves. “They want to stop the aircraft from flying,” said Smith. “You’re the cherry in the pie, in other words.”
Seaman Smith was first loader on a 40-millimeter antiaircraft gun, standing shifts on “the island,” a superstructure far above the landing deck. “Part of the time I was over 100 feet above the water, and it would have been a pretty good lick if you’d had to jump from there,” he said.
The Intrepid’s antiaircraft guns shot down at least 13 Japanese planes during Smith’s tenure, he said, but the carrier’s aircraft took out hundreds. Radar picked up incoming enemy aircraft from miles away, and Intrepid pilots took off to knock them out of the sky. Still, some always made it through, resulting in fierce dogfighting.
“The worst thing that happened was when they’d get down low enough to fly
down where the ships was, see, between the ships,” said Smith. “That made it bad when you was firing and, you know, you might get another ship. But that didn’t stop it, you had to keep firing.”
A Marine buddy of his was killed by friendly fire from another ship in such an engagement, he said. In another, he saw a Japanese plane ram into the USS Missouri, an armored battleship. “It bounced off of that ship just like you’d hit it with a baseball bat,” he said.
The Intrepid herself was hit for the first time in February 1944 while furnishing air support for Truk. “One lone plane came in and dropped a torpedo, and I think we had 10 men killed,” said Smith.
It wasn’t to be the last time. After the torpedo, the Intrepid was hit by five separate kamikaze attacks. “The first suicide plane that ever hit a carrier hit us,” said Smith.
Suicide attacks, all too familiar these days, were then something new and terrible. “That was something never heard of before,” said Smith. The kamikazes unnerved the seamen, nurturing the American horror of the Japanese as alien and monstrous.
The Intrepid carried 100-octane gasoline for the airplanes, and each attack ensued in devastating fires. The worst one was on Nov. 25, 1944, when two kamikazes struck the ship about 10 minutes apart. “We burnt for six hours that time, and we lost about 70 men,” said Smith.
Smith himself was never wounded, but after the last kamikaze attack, off Okinawa, he thought he had been. He had hit the deck when the plane slammed into the Intrepid 40 feet below him, and when he got up somebody’s entrails were all over his jacket. “It scared me,” he said. “You know, I thought, well, that’s part of me.”
That was not the case, but Smith never did find out whose insides he was wearing. “Anyway,” he concluded, “I come out of that jacket.”
The Intrepid was off Wake Island when an announcement came over the PA system: The Japanese had surrendered. “You could almost feel the ship rock, everybody hollering and a-shouting,” said Smith.
Smith and his shipmates remained in Japan several months after the armistice and were finally able to observe the fabled enemy at close quarters. “They were just as meek as they could be,” he said.
Children, patchily dressed in made-over military uniforms, chased the sailors through impoverished Tokyo streets to beg for gum and “chok-lot,” while adults stepped politely off the sidewalks as they passed. “You felt sorry for them in one way,” said Smith, “and then you’d think what they’d done to you and to your fellow man and everything, and you’d kind of get ill at them.”
But not so ill that he didn’t give the children chok-lot.
Jakie Smith came home in 1946 and married his high school sweetheart, Marie Riddle. The couple had three children, then divorced in the 1960s. Smith and his current wife, Phyllis, married in 1973.
Smith made his living running several small businesses, the last of which, a grocery store in Rising Fawn, burned 20 years ago. He’s been farming full-time ever since, and the healthy outdoor work has suited him–he looks so fit, it’s almost impossible to believe he wiped somebody else’s guts off his jacket 64 years ago.
The Intrepid was pretty hearty, too. Despite the licks she took in World War II, she went on to fight in Korea and Vietnam. After that, though, she was getting a little long in the tooth and was due to be scrapped when a man named Zachary Fisher spearheaded a campaign to save her. So the Intrepid became a floating museum, docked off New York City at Pier 86.
There she stayed until, in 2006, she had become so decayed and so mired in silt that she was towed to New Jersey for renovations.Our story ends when, just three weeks ago, a splendidly refurbished Intrepid was towed back down the Hudson to Pier 86. Twenty boats escorted her and nine helicopters hovered above.
And on board the Intrepid as she floated triumphantly home was Jakie Smith. He wouldn’t have missed it for the world. He and the old girl had been through too much together.