Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Luther Smith Returns to College of Engineering

Friday, November 16, 2007


Alumnus Follows Inspiration to Fulfill His Dreams

Reproduced from Iowa Engineer magazine, 1999, No. 2
Story by Jean C. Florman



When Iowa Engineer recently asked Luther Smith for an interview appointment, he politely declined.

"I'm afraid I'll have to say 'no,'" Smith said, adding, "I'm going to the White House that day."

A veteran World War II aviator, Smith was invited to Washington to represent the United States Army Air Force (which became the U.S. Air Force in 1949) in the Clinton Administration's Veterans Day celebration. The invitation was the latest in a long series of honors for the University of Iowa alumnus, who earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1950.

As a young boy growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, Smith longed to fly the planes he saw landing at the municipal airport. By the time he was a teenager, he was regularly walking and hitchhiking to the airport to "hang around" and help the mechanics as they serviced and refueled aircraft.

"The pilots and mechanics at the Des Moines airport took a liking to this 13-year-old kid who was so interested in planes," Smith recalls. "I just became part of the airport community."

Six years later, Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic. He was young, handsome, and daring. Smith says that for him and millions of others, Lucky Lindy epitomized everything about being an American.

In the mid-1930s, another turn of events made a lasting impression on Smith. Airline companies had been franchised to conduct a new service -- air mail -- but they didn't get much money for it.

"So the pilots went on strike, and the government turned to military pilots to keep the mail running," Smith remembers, adding that in the days before advanced navigation systems, flying was risky business, and many military pilots had little experience flying at night or in bad weather.

"But they were my heroes," he says. "A pilot would touch down in his open-cockpit plane, jump out, get his aircraft refueled, grad a cup of coffee, and be on his way. They might be afraid of the weather, but they carried the mail no matter what.

"It didn't take long for me to decide I wanted to be a military pilot."

Another of Smith's role models led a decidedly more earthbound life. Des Moines native Archie Alexander was the first African-American to earn an engineering degree from The University of Iowa (B. E. 1912, C. E. 1925). Although Alexander was already practicing his craft when Smith was still a young boy, the famed bridge-builder and highway designer served as mentor and hero to Smith as well as many other young black students.

As Smith approached graduation from Roosevelt High School, he realized that "it was foolish for a black American to say he wanted to be a military aviator, because there were none." So instead he set his sights on college, where he could learn a profession. Smith hoped that, armed with a mechanical engineering degree, he might eventually break into the ranks of the country's military pilots.

When Smith began his studies in 1938, Iowa City and the University were segregated, and like all black students at the time, he was not allowed to live in college residence halls. Instead, he stayed in the home of one of the town's black families.

Smith says that although he was one of only a few African-American engineering students at the University, his early student experience in Iowa City was no better or worse than one might have expected in segregated pre-war America. Two years into his studies, however, his life took a dramatic turn.


"In the late '30s and early '40s, the United States military started to hear rumblings in the federal courts about excluding blacks," Smith says. "Military leaders were concerned that if military aviation was forced to integrate, black airmen would be put into previously all-white units. To forestall this, the Army Air Force started all-black units, which after World War II came to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen."

Smith decided to go for his dream and become an Army Air Force pilot. He quit school and trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. In 1944 he began combat duty in Europe as a fighter pilot in the 12th and 15th Air Forces with the all-black 332nd Fighter Group.

"Between July 1944 and May 1945," Smith says, "the Tuskegee Airmen flew 200 bomber escort missions over nine European countries without the loss of a single bomber to enemy aircraft.

"That's like playing professional football every-other day for a year and never allowing the quarterback to be sacked. No other group of pilots can claim such a record.

Smith's own military record is studded with honors. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters, Purple Heart, and Mediterranean Theaters Campaign Ribbons.

He also was awarded a Prisoner of War Medal in recognition of the seven months he spent in a Yugoslavian hospital and a German prisoner of war camp. He was captured on a bombing and strafing mission that began on Friday, October 13, 1944.

Smith was part of a special flight of four who were winding down their second tour of duty. When his wingman decided to strafe a row of oil cars, Smith was forced to provide cover for him. Smith strafed the oil cars, but unbeknownst to him, his target was an ammunition cache. He hit the cache while flying about 20 feet off the ground, and although he survived the impact, he was forced to fly through the erupting flames.

"By the time I was over Yugoslavia, my coolant had all leaked out, the aircraft was on fire, and I was forced to bail out," he says.

While trying to get out of his burning P-51 Mustang, Smith got caught halfway. His oxygen mask blew off, and he pulled the ripcord on his parachute while still stuck in the plane.

"Really, that saved my life," he says, "because as the chute opened, it ripped me out of the aircraft. But in the process, my leg got caught and I broke my hip."

He landed, unconscious, in a tree, where German soldiers rescued him. The mission -- his 133rd -- was to have been his last.

"Instead of going home," Smith says, "I became a POW." Looking back on the episode, Smith shrugs and says, "Well, life's like that sometimes."

A prisoner of war for seven months, Smith was release when the war ended in May 1945. He spent another two years in military hospitals, and as a result of his permanent combat injuries he retired as a captain at the age of 17. Although his career as a military pilot was over, he harbored no bitterness.

"For a while in the hospital and POW camp I got pretty depressed," he recalls. "There you are -- you don't know the language, you're far from home, you're injured, and your family thinks you're dead."

"But then one day it hit me -- I'd survived. Just getting out of the plane, I could have died at least four times, but I'd been saved. I told myself right then, 'Make your life count.'"

Photo of Tuskegee Airmen

Luther Smith (first row, fourth from left) and 19 of his classmate who, out of a starting class
of 100, graduated to second lieutenant in May 1943 at Tuskegee Army Air Field; the airplane
in the background is a P-40 Warhawk Fighter

One of the millions of veterans supported by the GI Bill, Smith returned to Iowa City to finish his engineering degree. The country he returned to was different than the one he had left. For one thing, he was allowed to live in University-owned housing. Smith moved into Quadrangle residence hall and served a term as the hall's president.

But not everything had improved.

"When I first came back," Smith says, "Dean (Francis) Dawson called me into his office. 'Smith,' he said, I'm aware of your previous work as a student here and your war record. It's a fine record. But do you realize there just aren't any black engineers?"

Smith says that Dawson periodically expressed his concern about this disparity. Smith's optimistic response was always the same: "Dean, we fought a war for freedom of opportunity."

Smith has many good memories of his second stint at Iowa. He still recalls the friendly smile and sharp mind of the dean's secretary, Mary Sheedy. And during his senior year, Smith's electrical engineering professor asked him to install and electrical power set that had been donated by General Electric Company. As Smith got the equipment operating and debugged, he wrote a set of procedures that were turned into a teaching curriculum. He also was invited to lecture in the electrical engineering classes about his work.

As Smith's college life wound down, Dawson asked him to keep a diary of his experiences trying to find a job.

"If you can't make it," he told Smith, "I'd like to know." Although Smith tried for months, the well-educated war veteran was unable to land a job in Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, or St. Louis.

"The results," he says, "were zero. So I wrote up my experiences and sent them to the dean, who had them published in an issue of the Fall 1950 College of Engineering Transit."

When tensions with North Korea rose in 1950, Smith began working as an engineering associate at the Rock Island Arsenal. During the conflict, President Harry Truman ordered full integration of the military and equal employment opportunities in the defense industry.

Finally, in 1951, Smith was invited to join the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York.

"When they asked me what department I'd like to work in," Smith says, "I told them aerospace engineering in flight control systems. When the head of the division heard I was a World War II pilot, he did everything he could to get me in."

Smith worked as an aerospace engineer at GE until he retired in 1988. During that 37-year tenure, he transferred to the company's Missile and Space Operation in Philadelphia, was awarded two patents, published numerous technical papers, worked on special assignments for the Air Force, NASA, and the United States Navy Submarine Command, and earned a master's degree in engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1977.

Smith has maintained his energetic pace since retiring from GE. He has been a division chair in the Society of Automotive Engineers Aerospace International and vice chair of Radnor Township School Authority. He and his wife, Lois, have two grown children.

In 1995, Smith represented the U.S. Army Air Corps as one of seven World War II veterans in the European celebration of V-E Day. He has worked tirelessly to gain recognition for the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen and has served on the engineer architect evaluation board that chose the design for the World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C.

Smith occasionally returns to his home state, most recently volunteering to talk about his war experiences with most white, at-risk high school students in Dubuque.

"Iowa is such an important part of my life," he says. "I began my education there and finished it there. And there were such changes during that time. When I began, it was segregated. But I was lucky to be able to go back after it had changed and really become part of campus life. The college gave me an incomparable opportunity for leadership and learning."