The article below was first published August 15, 2005:
Private Ernest “Smoky” Smith, who died August 3, 2005 in Vancouver at 91, was Canada’s last living recipient of the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest award for valour. He was also the kind of hellraiser who drove superior officers in the Seaforth Highlanders to distraction during their long, deadly campaign through German-occupied Italy.
On many of those days, a hellraiser was just what was needed. The citation describes his heroic defence of a vital bridgehead across Italy’s Savio River during a furious enemy counterattack on Oct. 21-22, 1944. Using a Tommy gun, anti-tank weapons and whatever else he could scrounge, he wiped out two German self-propelled guns and a Panther tank, killed four attacking soldiers, repelled six others, carried a wounded comrade — under fire — to medical aid, then returned to guard the road until reinforcements arrived hours later. After the war, Smith returned to a hero’s welcome in his hometown, New Westminster, B.C. He married photographer Esther Weston in 1947 and re-enlisted during the Korean War. The couple raised two children and operated a travel company in Vancouver. Esther died in 1996. In a last interview with Maclean’s earlier this year, he spoke with Vancouver Bureau Chief Ken MacQueen.
Q. Why did you enlist in the army?
A. I first tried the air force. They accepted me, but said I had to wait six months. I said, in six months the goddamn war will be over. I figured the Seaforths were going somewhere so I joined and I was gone in a week. I figured the war would be over in three months and I’d see Europe without paying for it. Six years later, I was still seeing Europe.
Q. You were a wild man, right?
A. Oh, yeah. I didn’t take orders. I didn’t believe in them.
Q. Boy, you were in the wrong job.
A. I was in the right job. I’ve met some fine officers, but some weren’t worth a shit.
Q. Did you feel that your actions that day would earn you the Victoria Cross?
A. I just knew we were going into action. I didn’t know what it was. I was with my crew, guys that I could trust, and we took up our positions and stayed there, all night and all day, killing Germans and knocking off tanks. Fun and games. Every day had risk as far as I was concerned. People were shooting at you all the time. One day looks like another.
Q. What was going through your mind? Did you have the time to be scared?
A. Oh, shit, yeah. You go for a tank, you’ve got to win, ’cause if you don’t put it out of commission, the tank will eat ya. I hit part of the track and the motor, too. It was the only way of stopping them.
Q. That was the good news. The bad news was the 10 German soldiers behind it.
A. That’s right. They came after me with hand grenades. I just kept shooting them.
Q. I guess you had no alternative.
A. You could put your hands up and die.
Q. You could have surrendered, become a prisoner of war.
A. No bloody way. Wouldn’t even think of it. People who surrender, they’re cowards.
Q. You killed four and the rest fled?
A. Yeah, it was too hot for ’em. I’m a good shot with a machine gun.
Q. Did that battle achieve its objective?
A. That’s why I got the VC. It changed the whole picture of the front, they tell me. It made it so the rest of the army got through.
Q. When they took you off the front to award you the medal, they locked you up before flying you to London to meet King George VI. What did they think you’d do?
A. I got locked up in Naples. They just wanted Smoky to be in the right spot. When I was first locked up, I was thinking, what the hell? But then they gave me a couple of beers and I was very happy.
Q. What was it like to meet the king?
A. It was kind of astounding. I go to Buckingham Palace and I say to the guard, “What am I supposed to do?” He says, “You do exactly as I do: take a bow from the hips.” I said, “Oh Christ, you think I’m going to do that, you’re crazy.” I just saluted and that was it.
I was given the VC and told to put it in my pocket. I wasn’t allowed to wear it for at least three days so the Canadian newspapers would have it the same time as the British ones. So for three days, I’m sitting in a bar in London drinking to beat hell. Someone came and said, “Okay, Smoky, you can put on that medal now.” So I took it out and put it on my chest, and I never bought another drink that day.
Q. You’ve since met many VC winners. What makes these guys different?
A. You get in that position where you’ve got to fight. Somebody’s got to fight, you can’t all sit around. They’ve got a job to do.
Q. Lots of people did their jobs in the war — there has to be something different.
A. Crazy. [Laughs] They were all crazy.
Q. You returned to Italy in the fall of 2004 for 60th anniversary celebrations. Did it bring back memories?
A. None that I care about. There really are no good memories. You’re fighting every day, for Christ’s sake. Every day.
Q. Do you look back at that cocky soldier with the gun and marvel that it was you?
A. Thank God it was me. I always say most soldiers were afraid to shoot. I was never afraid to shoot. I’d kill the bastards. That’s what you’re paid for.
Q. Do you hold any animosity to the people you were fighting?
A. Why should I? They had a job to do, too. Hope they got more than 60 cents a day.
Q. That’s really all the army paid?
A. I think my pay was $1.20 a day or something, but I was only allowed half. You could have deferred pay. I got my other half when the war was over: $1,500. I went to Vancouver and got drunk for a month and spent my $1,500.
Q. Have you followed the war in Iraq?
A. I don’t keep track of it. They’ve got guns now, Christ, that could blow a whole city up. It’s a different thing now.
Q. You recently had the canteen named after you at your local Legion, a rare honour. Do you still like a beer?
A. I don’t drink beer any more. I have a couple of glasses of wine.
Q. Wine is better for the heart.
A. Yeah, that’s what they told me. Didn’t have to tell me twice.