Sergeant William I. Smith (1925–1944)

William I. Smith during his service with the 42nd Infantry Division (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)
HometownCivilian Occupation
Rockland, DelawarePaper maker
BranchService Number
U.S. Army32954596
TheaterUnit
EuropeanCompany “K,” 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division
Military Occupational SpecialtyCampaigns/Battles
745 (rifleman)Normandy

Early Life & Family

William Irving Smith was born on the morning of April 17, 1925, in Rockland, north of Wilmington, Delaware. He was the ninth and youngest child of James Russell Smith, Sr. (a paper maker, 1876 or 1877–1962) and Ella A. Smith (née Badders, or Batters in some records, 1887–1965). He had five older brothers and three older sisters.

Smith grew up in Rockland. His older brother, James R. Smith, Jr. (1923–1936), died in the Delaware Hospital in Wilmington on August 31, 1936, attributed to rheumatic heart disease and kidney disease.

Smith was listed as having completed the 7th grade by the time the census was taken on April 10, 1940. Journal-Every Evening reported that Smith “attended the Alfred I. duPont School at Talleyville.”

When he registered for the draft on April 19, 1943, Smith was living on Talley Road in Wilmington and working at the San-nap-pak Manufacturing Company in Rockland. The registrar described him as standing about five feet, nine inches tall and weighing 135 lbs., with blond hair and brown eyes. He was Protestant according to his military paperwork.

Smith married Mary Jamison (1926–?) in Elkton, Maryland, on April 14, 1943. He was drafted later that year.


Military Career

Smith’s enlistment data card was among those that was lost or could not be digitized. Journal-Every Evening announced on July 24, 1943, that Smith was among “Delaware men recently inducted” into the U.S. Army. According to his wife’s statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission, he went on active duty at Fort Dix, New Jersey, on August 12, 1943. She indicated that Private Smith went to basic training at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, where he joined Company “F,” 242nd Infantry Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division.

The 42nd Infantry Division had been activated at Camp Gruber on July 14, 1943. In his book, World War II Order of Battle, Shelby L. Stanton wrote that “infantry divisions in sustained combat averaged 100 percent losses in infantry regiments every three months. To partially compensate for these losses, divisions not yet committed were ruthlessly stripped”—including the 42nd Infantry Division.

Indeed, Mary Smith wrote that her husband was transferred to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, in April 1944, and went overseas from the New York Port of Embarkation to England in June 1944. On July 24, 1944, Private 1st Class Smith joined Company “K,” 116th Infantry Regiment (nicknamed the Stonewall Brigade), 29th Infantry Division. His Military Occupational Specialty (M.O.S.) was recorded as 745 (rifleman). At the time, the 29th Infantry Division was resting after the end of the costly Battle of St. Lô. The following day, the U.S. First Army launched Operation Cobra. More than a thousand heavy bombers carpet-bombed German lines before American forces surged forward. The stage was set for a breakout that would see Paris liberated one month later and German forces in headlong retreat. But there was a great deal of fighting left before the Allied armies’ triumphant march down the Champs-Élysées.

In his book, Beyond the Beachhead, Joseph Balkoski wrote that the

First Army threw the 29th Division into the breach on July 28 with orders to cross to the west side of the Vire River at St. Lô and follow a 2nd Armored Division column pushing south against an enemy that seemed on the verge of collapse. [Lieutenant General Omar] Bradley and his staff examined their operations maps and noted the bulge that was rapidly expanding deep into enemy territory. It would be the 29th’s job to cover the eastern face of that bulge to ensure that the Germans did not take advantage of the fluid situation and launch one of their customary counterattacks into First Army’s vulnerable left flank.

The 29th Infantry Division headed south into the Norman hills by truck on July 28, 1944. The following day, the division began an advance on the town of Percy. Like Saint-Lô, Percy was a crossroads, which gave it strategic significance, especially in Normandy where thick hedgerows hampered cross-country movement. The American advance ground to a halt in the face of staunch German resistance. The silver lining in the costly fighting, was as Balkoski explained:

Neither side managed to achieve any appreciable gains during this period, but the 29th Division had blunted the enemy’s armored thrusts into the eastern face of the bulge created by First Army’s Cobra offensive. This success enabled the Americans to maintain their devastating blitzkrieg in western Normandy without interruption, which would soon shatter the enemy front completely. 

On August 1, 1944, the day his regiment seized Moyen, Smith jumped two grades to sergeant. Presumably, he became an assistant squad leader at that time. He had only been with his company for one week, and although the high attrition rate surely played a role, his superiors must have been impressed with his abilities.

On August 2, 1944, the Germans started retreating in good order toward Vire, with the Americans in hot pursuit. The advance was rapid in comparison with the first eight weeks of fighting in Normandy, but as Balkoski wrote:

While their main body retired to Vire, the Germans left behind delaying teams who slowed the Americans at farmhouses and road junctions with a tenacity that commonly left the GIs with the mistaken idea that they had stumbled into a major line of resistance. When the 29ers inevitably overcame this opposition by fire and maneuver, another German resistance nest would appear a few hundred yards ahead just as the GIs were starting to make good progress.

The German garrison in Vire itself was far stronger than these rear guards. The terrain also made it impractical for the Americans to employ armored vehicles in support of the assault. However, the Germans were caught off guard by what transpired on the evening of August 6, 1944, as Balkoski explained:

The enemy had grown accustomed to the Americans’ proclivity for digging in at nightfall, so when the 116th launched its attack on Vire at such a late hour, the Germans were not ready to receive it. Furthermore, the Stonewallers’ assault across the ravine was a highly audacious under-taking that the enemy did not expect, and although the Germans fired flares in an attempt to illuminate the 116th’s axis of advance, they could not stop the Americans’ movement down the precipitous and scrubby slope, across the river, up the opposite bank, and directly into the streets and alleys in the western periphery of Vire.

American soldiers marching through the ruins of Vire (Official U.S. Army Signal Corps photo, National Archives via Fold3)

The Americans secured Vire was by around midnight on August 7, 1944. According to a company morning report, Smith was seriously wounded in action near Vire on August 7, 1944. If accurate, he was hit in the immediate aftermath of the assault on Vire as the 116th mopped up the town and prepared for an assault on the heights south of town. Indeed, the regimental after action report noted that “Throughout the night and the day following the capture of VIRE (632317), the 2nd and 3rd Battalions [the latter including Smith’s Company “K”] were subjected to heavy artillery and mortar bombardments by the enemy.”

According to a hospital admission card under his service number, Smith suffered wounds to his lumbar vertebrae from artillery fragments. He died of his wounds on August 8, 1944. He was initially buried at a temporary cemetery at Le Chêne Guérin.

Sergeant Smith’s family did not learn of his promotion until news of his death arrived. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

Smith’s widow, Mary Jamison Smith, remarried in Rockland on May 29, 1948, to Garland Harris Gills (1925–2004) with whom she raised three sons.

After the war, Smith’s father requested that his body be repatriated to the United States. His body returned to the United States aboard the Carroll Victory. After services at Chandler Funeral Home in Wilmington on November 4, 1948, he was buried alongside his brother at Cherry Hill Cemetery in Cecil County, Maryland.

On the fifth anniversary of their son’s death, Smith’s parents had a poem printed in Journal-Every Evening:

          In loving memory of our dear son, Sgt. William I. Smith who lost his life in France for his country, August 8, 1944.

We cannot say and we will not say

Our boy is dead he is just away with a cheery smile and a wave of his hand

He wandered away into an unknown land

We think of him always in the same dear way.

Billy is not dead he is just away.

Sadly missed by the family.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photo.


Bibliography

Applications for Headstones, compiled 1/1/1925–6/30/1970, documenting the period c. 1776–1970. Record Group 92, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774–1985. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2375/images/40050_644066_0015-00377

Balkoski, Joseph. Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy. Revised ed. Stackpole Books, 2005.

Dwyer, Philip R. “116th Infantry After Action Report Month of August 1944.” September 4, 1944. Maryland Museum of Military History, Baltimore, Maryland.

Smith, Mary. William Irving Smith Individual Military Service Record, c. 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/20914/rec/9

“Death Notices.” Evening Journal, November 5, 1962. Pg. 36. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93797824/james-r-smith-sr-obit/

Delaware Death Records 1855–1961. Hall of Records, Dover, Delaware. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-6QN3-29J 

Delaware Marriages. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Hall of Records, Dover, Delaware. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/61368/images/TH-266-12581-17537-0

“Eight State Draft Boards Send Men Into Four Armed Services.” Journal-Every Evening, July 24, 1943. Pg. 13. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93798258/william-i-smith-drafted/

“Garland H. Gills.” The News Journal, April 3, 2004. Pg. B4. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93799692/obituary-for-garland-h-gills/

“In Memoriam.” Journal-Every Evening, August 8, 1949. Pg. 19. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93798856/in-memoriam-william-i-smith/

“Marriage Licenses.” The Midland Journal, February 5, 1904. Pg. 7. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93797925/smithbadder-marriage/  

“Sergeant Smith Rites To Be Held Tomorrow.” Journal-Every Evening, November 3, 1948. Pg. 33. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93798637/william-i-smith-funeral/

“Sgt William Irving Smith.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/90709318/william-irving-smith

Stanton, Shelby L. World War II Order of Battle: An Encyclopedic Reference to U.S. Army Ground Forces from Battalion through Division 1939–1946. Revised ed. Stackpole Books, 2006.

“Table of Organization and Equipment No. 7-17: Infantry Rifle Company.” War Department, February 26, 1944. Military Research Service website. http://www.militaryresearch.org/7-17%2026Feb44.pdf

“Two Delaware Men Are Killed; Five Wounded.” Journal-Every Evening, September 13, 1944. Pg. 1 and 4. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/93798519/william-i-smith-kia/

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6061/images/4295771-00856

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531891_00036https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4531891_00037

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00545-00352

U.S. WWII Hospital Admission Card Files, 1942–1954. Record Group 112, Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army), 1775–1994. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/record/704942319/blank-us-wwii-hospital-admission-card-files-1942-1954

William I. Smith Individual Deceased Personnel File. Courtesy of U.S. Army Human Resources Command.

William Irving Smith birth certificate. Record Group 1500-008-094, Birth certificates. Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GYQM-3BZB

World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6482/images/005207030_01870

WWII Draft Registration Cards for Delaware, 10/16/1940–3/31/1947. Record Group 147, Records of the Selective Service System. National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2238/images/44003_02_00005-00222


Last updated on August 18, 2022

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