Please stop in at the Easton Historical Society and Museum for our December Open House. It will be from 12-4 on December 17th. Great last minute gifts, including glass ornaments, puzzles, vintage Easton maps, books, coloring books for the kids, and so much more. See our new display and view our Station’s “bull’s eye” window from the inside! Also, our Ames tool belt buckle collection and famous suffrage movement artwork from Blanche Ames Ames will be on display. As always, refreshments will be served.
SPECIAL NEWSLETTER/GUEST WRITER
Today’s newsletter is written by Chris (Mark) Bergeron after a recent gathering to honor Private First Class Edward “Smitty” Smith, graduate of Oliver Ames High School, the first Easton resident to die in the Vietnam War.
“Edward ‘Smitty’ Smith was remembered on Saturday November 4 in a poignant gathering at Beaver Brook Wood of family members, friends, veterans, and a teacher who’d known him since 1962 as an outstanding athlete who lived his life with fearless exuberance and the first Easton resident to die in the Vietnam War.
Surrounding a boulder inscribed with Smith’s name and located at a trailhead leading into serene town-owned woods off Poquanticut Avenue, about 25 guests, including five of Smith’s siblings, their spouses and children, shared their memories of their daredevil brother with others and then heard from three Marines who had accompanied him on his last patrol and written his parents heartfelt letters after his death.
The hour-long gathering was organized by Mark Bergeron and Dale Kerester, an Easton community activist and Lion’s Club member, who provided customized frames for photographs of Smith in high school and Vietnam to be hung from a nearby tree. At the gathering and at a later meal at Leandros Italian Restaurant, Kerester played pre-recorded telephone calls from Marines David Backer and Jim Rowe II who remembered Smith as a dedicated and courageous platoon member whether in a firefight or teaching survival skills to newcomers.
Setting an elegiac tone, brother Jim Smith read a free verse poem, “A Requiem for Smitty,” written by ‘a friend’ to be hung from a nearby tree with his photos that imagined Smith speaking from the dead and asking a passerby to look into his face: ‘I hope they can understand how short and precious life is …/Look into my face – and all the other faces like mine – and remember us.’
In letters to his parents, the Marines who accompanied Smith on his final mission recalled him as courageous under fire, helpful to new platoon members and thoughtful about the complexities of a divisive war. By the rock Kerester played a recording of former Marine David Backer, of Oregon, reading a letter he wrote Smith’s mother describing the time her son saved him from stepping on a Viet Cong booby trap, gave him leather boots to protect him from the soggy jungle and taught him to work with him as a ‘tail-end Charlie’ who ensured no enemy fighters were sneaking up from behind other Marines to ambush them from behind.
‘As I write this, I’m looking at some leather bootstraps that Smitty braided for me to give me good luck. It has constantly reminded me of Smitty and how kind he was to me. My heart aches that he didn’t get to live a longer life and continue his kindness,’ he wrote.
Later at Leandros Restaurant, Kerester played an 18-minute recording of former radio operator James Rowe II, of Pennsylvania, recalling an early discussion with Smith while they protected a Montengard village that he’d left college to join the Marines so he could draw his own conclusions about the justness of the war.
Guests listened raptly as Rowe described how the 11 Marines dug in atop a small hill behind enemy lines on a reconnaissance mission. Just after night fell, he recalled Smith firing an M-60 machine gun and shouting ‘Here they come’ as the Viet Cong attacked the outnumbered platoon.
After the firing stopped, Rowe recalled radioing, ‘We have one American kilo India alpha,’ stunned to realize he was reporting Smith’s death in phonetic radio code.
Two Easton residents who’d known Smith since high school in the mid-1960’s remembered him in their own ways for transcending the usual social conventions of being an outstanding athlete and reaching conclusions about classmates on his own.
Hazel Varella, who taught 41 years in Easton’s school system and presently serves as treasurer of the Easton Historical Society, said Smith always enlivened her classes with his provocative opinions and, despite a seemingly outspoken public persona, took what he considered the ethical path.
In a letter written and distributed to Smith family members for this event, Kevin Dee, a high school classmate who joined the Marines the same time as Smith, concluded the letter as if speaking to him; ‘I think of you often and what you all gave up. You didn’t deserve to have that taken from you. We can honor you by remembering your sacrifice and, as one of the lucky ones, by keeping our promises and not wasting our lives.’
In a voice strained with emotion Bergeron read a short letter to Smith’s parents from former Marine Suluki Qawiy, now member of the Nation of Islam who was born Roger Smith, in which he described Smith as ‘one of the roughest human beings I have ever come in contact with and a rebel. A rebel means he believed in fair play and tried to change what he felt was wrong in the world. To me, freedom, justice and equality was his method of life and that was one of the reasons I loved him so much. … When Smith had his eye on a goal, he went for it all the way. Please let us not refer to those who passed away as dead. They are alive in our hearts. Your brother, Suluki.’”
Thank you to Mark Bergeron for providing this moving tribute to his childhood friend.
Anne Wooster Drury
Anne Wooster Drury