An Iowa native who was a leader in overcoming the racial segregation of the military has died at age 89 in Philadelphia. Luther Smith was born in Des Moines and grew up there with an interest in airplanes.
That interest led him to join the military in World War Two where he became a pilot and member of the famed all-black Tuskegee Airman fighter group. Smith was on his 133rd and last mission on October 13 of 1944 when his plane went down and he was taken prisoner by the Germans.
Smith spoke in Des Moines on Veteran’s Day of 2002 and said he was about to head home from that mission when he joined his wingman to strafe a rail yard. A tanker car blew up and he flew through the explosion. Smith got through the explosion and thought he could get back home despite all the damage to his plane.
Smith says the cockpit windows had been blown out or blackened over, portions of the wings were buckled and part of the tail assembly had been destroyed, making it difficult to fly. He says the engine was still running and he had his radio, so he felt luck was still with him. Smith says his luck changed when all the coolant leaked out of his plane and the engine caught fire.
His leg was badly injured as the plane went into a spin as he tried to get out. Smith says he was halfway out of the airplane and he couldn’t get back in. The wind blew his oxygen mask off and he passed out. When he awoke, Smith says he was upside down in his parachute, floating to earth.
Smith landed in some trees, further injuring his leg. He was taken prisoner and said it was one of the worst days of his life and for awhile he was depressed. But Smith says he then came to the realization that he hadn’t met the fate of many others who gave their lives.
Smith says he realized he was alive, and then dedicated the rest of his life to doing everything he could possibly do to make sure he lived a life to pay back whatever it was that kept him from dying.
Smith came back to the U.S., got an engineering degree from the University of Iowa, and then went on to a 37 year career at General Electric in Philadelphia. Smith was one of about 300 original Tuskegee Airmen awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2007. A replica of the P-51 Mustang he and the other airmen flew now stands in their honor at the Des Moines Airport.
Hear Luther Smith’s speech in 2002 when he tallked about the day his plane went down: Luther Smith