Des Moines Register: Luther Smith Airport Would Honor WWII Hero

Thursday, May 21, 2009

By Marc Hansen
Des Moines Register Columnist

Dozens of people probably deserve to have the Des Moines airport named after them, but none more than Luther Smith.

And let's face it. Des Moines International could use a new name, something that doesn't leave it quite so vulnerable to self-parody.

It's a fine little facility, clean and convenient, but it gets away with calling itself an international airport on a technicality. Every year, a few hundred cargo planes fly in from outside the country and go through thecustoms process.

Smith, 88, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the ground-breaking all-black group that flew more than 15,000 combat missions over Europe in World War II. Smith was one of 12 Iowa airmen who graduated from the program.

Jim Bowman, a former associate superintendent of Des Moines schools, was another. Bowman says Smith was a hero among heroes, credited with flying 133 missions and destroying 20 enemy aircraft.

Three years ago, he received a distinguished alumni award from the University of Iowa.

"On his final mission in October 1944," the program says, "his plane was badly damaged over Hungary. Against all odds, Smith managed to free himself from his burning aircraft and open his parachute - although he sustained severe injuries to his hip and foot."

His pelvis is crushed, the story goes. One leg is turned backward, but he manages to extricate himself from the plane, which passes him on the way down. With his parachute on fire, Smith lands in a tree and is captured by German soldiers, who notice the rings he's wearing and want to cut them off the hard way.

Smith is saved by a German officer who pulls out a gun and chases the soldiers away. Germany, the officer says, needs high-profile POWs to use as bargaining chips.

Smith spends seven months in German hospitals and prison camps. When the Allied forces come to the rescue, he weighs 70 pounds and spends the next two years in the hospital. His damaged leg is 7 inches shorter than the good one.

At 27, after collecting all manner of distinguished crosses, medals, clusters, ribbons and hearts, he returns to the U of I for his degree in mechanical engineering, heads east for his master's and becomes an aerospace engineer for General Electric.

Over his long career, Smith publishes papers, receives patents, accepts assignments from presidents and government agencies, serves on boards and wins more awards.

Bowman says naming the airport after Smith should be a slam dunk: "The city tells me people don't know who he is. Hell, I didn't know who Merle Hay was. Someone doesn't have to be your neighbor to honor him. That's a phony excuse."

Merle Hay, by the way, is the first Iowan who was killed in World War I.

At the moment, however, changing the airport's name isn't even on the radar. First, Bowman has to make an official request to the seven-member airport board, which would kick it around and vote on whether to send it to the city.

Luther Smith started at the bottom. His family wasn't rich. He overcame discrimination and nasty odds.

And his improbable journey began at the airport - the cherry on top of the case for Smith, who loved planes as a boy. He was 12 or 13 when he'd show up and hang out, walking or hitchhiking the five miles from his home.

Someone put Smith to work picking up the grounds. Then he started fueling planes.

Howard Gregory, who founded the Des Moines Flying Service in 1939, was there at the beginning. He's 91 now and says he'd support the name change. "Luther learned to fly at this airport."

Nobody made it easy for Smith. His first instructor, contracted by the War Service Training Program that screened potential pilots, wanted him to fail.

"Luther didn't get past stage one," Gregory says. "I asked him why and he said he never touched the controls. The instructor - I'll never forget his name - said he didn't teach (expletive) to fly."

Gregory made sure Smith had a new instructor. The new instructor wasn't happy about the assignment but played it straight.

Memorial Day is approaching and Smith is ailing. He recently had two legs amputated. Friends who call him in Pennsylvania have had trouble communicating with him over the phone.

The supply of World War II heroes dwindles by the day. The timing is right to change the name of the airport.

It could even be called Luther Smith International.