On January 14 this year Henry Smith stepped off of a plane and onto Belgian soil for the first time in more than 70 years. Right away the setting was familiar to him.
“It’s going to snow,” he said to his family as the chill in the air and low-hanging clouds echoed conditions he remembers vividly from January 15 and 16, 1945.
During those cold, snowy days 70 years ago, Smith’s U.S. Army 75th Infantry Division recaptured the area east of the Salm River in Belgium and liberated the communities of Vielsalm, Frand-Halleux and Salmchateau. It was a key time and place near the end of the Battle of the Bulge, and Smith was an important part of it. He saw friends die and he fought for freedom as a machine gunner.
In the description of his book about the 75th Division, author James Slagle McClintock writes that Smith’s group was the youngest division in the US Army, and despite having limited training and lacking food, supplies and winter clothing, “The 75th Division defended the American Army's flank from a direct assault by two German SS Panzer Divisions. Their contribution to the battle resulted in the collapse of the German Bulge, earning their place in history as the ‘Bulge Busters.’"
Born in Covington, Smith has lived in Virginia most of his life. These days he is enjoying well-deserved free time at his home in Farmville. He lives in a 40-unit multi-family housing community subsidized by USDA Rural Development for people who are living on limited or fixed income, such as Social Security.
“Henry is a hero and we are proud that he calls one of our communities home,” said USDA Rural Development’s Virginia State Director, Basil Gooden, Ph.D. “Nothing could repay him for his service to our country, but we are happy to give something back and help ensure he has a clean, safe home in rural Virginia.”
In the community, and at 91 years of age, Smith helps out neighbors by driving them to the store and checking in on them from time to time. And being a former horseshoe champion, he never turns down an opportunity to throw some bags in a similar lawn game called Cornhole. He said maintaining his independence is important.
“He’s fairly healthy for a man his age, but to be independent and live by himself is remarkable,” said Smith’s son, André Smith. “I guess you could say people come and watch out for people here.”
Inside his apartment, Smith stays busy by writing, sketching, painting and emailing family and friends. All of which he does within sight of a photo of his late wife of 67 years, three months and 13 days, as he readily specifies.
The photo of his wife actually is a copy. The original, which Smith kept in his pocket during the war, is at the church in Belgium where his wounded comrades were treated in 1945. He left it there as a memento when he visited this year.
Smith made that return trip with his family after being invited to accept praise and gratitude from the people living in the towns he helped liberate. Residents and members of the military gave him plaques, hosted banquets, asked him to sign pictures of himself and interviewed him for a Luxembourg TV news story.
“It was nice to be thanked,” Smith said.
In the most poignant of moments during the trip, Smith unveiled a plaque commemorating fallen U.S. soldiers as a Belgian musician sang the Star Spangled Banner and the familiar, low-hanging clouds delivered on cue.
“It started snowing just in time,” Smith said. “It was beautiful.”