The summer of 1942 should have been a joyous period and full of prospects for Charles “C.B.” Smith, who had recently graduated from high school. Yet it became a time of apprehension as the United States was embroiled in a war, highlighted by the recent Battle of the Coral Sea that resulted in a strategic Allied victory that left both the U.S. and Japanese with major losses to their naval fleets.
Weeks after this battle, while conflict brewed in both the South Pacific and Europe, Smith was working at a small shop in St. Louis repairing electric motors when he not only registered for the draft, but also made the decision to enlist.
“I volunteered for both the Army and Navy but neither one of them wanted me because I had some medical problems with my ears,” said Smith. “After that, I just thought that I was considered ‘4F’ (a classification given to military applicants deemed unfit for service due to medical or dental issues).”
With the opinion his services were not needed, Smith packed up some clothes and traveled to California in early 1943, where he found work in a synthetic rubber plant south of Los Angeles. He explained that he was doing “pretty good” in his civilian endeavors when he received a letter stating he needed to report to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis.
“I took my draft induction physical in St. Louis and told them that I would be interested in the Navy,” Smith recalled. “They sent 12 of us over to the federal building and interviewed us. Then,” he concluded, “they said they had openings in the regular Navy, Coast Guard and the Seabees.”
When Smith asked about the mission of the Seabees, he was informed they were construction battalions that built naval bases, airstrips and provided maintenance support in several combat theaters of the war. With an electrical background from construction work he did for a contractor in Russellville during high school, he was convinced the Seabees was the service for him.
“I was inducted into the Navy on April 2, 1943 and they sent me to the Seabees boot camp at Camp Peary, Virginia,” he recalled. “That lasted about six weeks or so and then we came home for 9 days of leave before returning to advanced training at Camp Peary,” he added.
Assigned to Naval Construction Battalion Detachment 1007—a newly commissioned heavy equipment repair outfit—he was transferred to Port Hueneme, California, in mid-June 1943, for additional training. Three weeks later, he and the battalion boarded a troop ship for a journey of more than three weeks to their new home in the South Pacific.
“We got off the ship at the island of Espiritu Santo,” Smith said. “It was a small island 900 miles or so northeast of Australia and was a military supply base during the war.” Smith went on to explain, “When we got there, they had a place for us already fixed up with Quonset huts to stay in.” Grinning, he added, “There were 250 of us in the outfit but only 20 or so of us were 18-21 years old. The average age of those in our group was 37 years because they were all experienced in their specified jobs.”
Despite his appointment as an electrician, Smith noted the first eight months of his overseas combat assignment was less than glorious since it was spent on KP (kitchen police), primarily helping dispose of the trash produced by the cooks in the mess facility. In his off-duty hours, Smith went to a nearby airstrip where they repaired B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators, hitching a ride when test flights were conducted. Other times, he and friends visited an inert volcano that had become filled with water and served as a “swimming hole.” As the months progressed, he was sent to work in the electrical shop but eventually became responsible for the telephone exchange system for the battalion when the sailor who previously held the position transferred back to the states.
“We were situated in a coconut grove and that’s where I learned how to climb coconut trees,” he said. “Our communication wires had to be strung across the trees and other times the trees had to be scaled to trim fronds and remove coconuts to prevent them from falling on our huts.”
Activity slowed on the island as the war progressed to different locations and the bomber strip was closed. During this period, Smith learned to operate various types of construction equipment and machinery staged in a centralized location after being repaired by his fellow Seabees. In August 1945, two years after their arrival, the battalion boarded a troop ship for the United States. Upon their return, Smith was briefly assigned to Quonset Point, Rhode Island. Weeks later, he served aboard a ship that sailed to Honolulu and back to San Diego carrying a group of Marines. On February 2, 1946, he received his discharge from the U.S. Navy.
In the years after the war, Smith married, raised eight children and enjoyed a lengthy career as a lineman with Missouri Power and Light. His time in the South Pacific, he mirthfully recalled, may not have been as inspiring as that of other combat veterans, but was a period of great influence in his life.
“I volunteered three times before they drafted me but they got me when they needed me, I guess,” Smith said. “It was our war … our responsibility, and I enjoyed my time in the service even though it wasn’t in combat.” He added, “And I must say, it was an experience that helped me through a lot of things because I learned to climb coconut trees during the war, which,” he grinned, “may not seem like much but it sure helped me when I became a lineman for the power company years later.”
After graduating high school in Kansas City, a young Lon Gilbert Amick followed his older brother’s footsteps by attending William Jewell College in nearby Liberty. Two years later, he made the decision to transfer to the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he participated in the ROTC program and gained valuable experience as an actor that would benefit him during World War II. Enlisting in the U.S. Army on July 31, 1942, Amick was granted a deferment until the following year so that he could complete his bachelor’s degree in journalism. His military records indicate he entered active service on March 23, 1943.
“My oldest brother, Eugene, was killed August 9, 1942, while serving as a communications officer on the USS Astoria during the invasion of the Solomon Islands,” said Amick’s younger sister, Joanne Comer.
“They commissioned the USS Amick (destroyer escort) in his honor and Lon was able to get leave from his training to attend the launching on May 27, 1943.”
Amick traveled to Camp Wolters, Texas, in the spring of 1943, spending several months in training to prepare him as an infantryman to replace those lost in combat—a military specialty that he would leave behind shortly after his arrival overseas. The 21-year-old soldier boarded a troopship in early July 1944, making the two-week journey across the ocean. In an undated letter sent home during the war, Amick provided a candid description regarding the unpleasant conditions of his two-week trip across the Atlantic.
“The ship was crowded, terribly crowded,” wrote the soldier. “Dice, thick smoke, field equipment, sentiment, homesickness, dirty stories, raucous laughter, and ever-present loneliness amid thousands was much in evidence.”
Disembarking the ship in Liverpool, England, in July 1944, his group soon made their way to a marshalling area and days later boarded landing craft bound for Omaha Beach, which, the month previous, served as ground zero for death and devastation during the famed D-Day landings.
“My first job in France was loading ammunition,” the soldier wrote. “They needed it badly and several of the men that came in with me were immediately put to work. The front was six miles away.”
The area along the Normandy coastline continued to buzz with activities to provide service and support for soldiers engaged in combat on the front lines of combat. During a rare break in the action, Amick glanced at an advertisement that captured his attention.
“I noticed a (pamphlet) looking for stage talent and walked down to that building—a tent in the field,” he wrote in a letter to his parents. “(I) demonstrated a few imitations and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and was told to perform in a show—I did, and the rest you know,” he added.
The young soldier was transferred to 6817th Special Service Battalion (with whom film star Mickey Rooney was assigned during the war) and began traveling across Europe with a small performance troupe comprised of actors and band members. Their early shows, he explained, “were laughable” with musicians being recruited from foxholes and bandstands constructed from empty rations crates. Their group quickly blossomed with a full band to compose music for their shows. They provided entertainment in venues ranging from theaters to “bomb-cratered villages” in addition to “a circuit of hospital and Red Cross clubs.” When the war ended the following spring, he was reassigned to duties more aligned with his journalism degree from MU.
“(I) am putting out a paper for the depot now,” wrote Amick to his parents in a letter dated September 22, 1945. “I am enclosing a copy of the paper. I have marked what I have written simply because I know it will interest you …. The paper is exactly what the doctor ordered. I am myself again.”
Pfc. Amick remained in Europe for several months after the war, boarding a troopship for his return home in February 1946. On March 2, 1946, he received his discharge from the U.S. Army through the separation center at Fort Dix, New Jersey, having accrued nearly 20 months of overseas service. Integrating back into civilian life, Amick married the former Naomi Campbell in 1950, and the couple raised five children. In the years after the war, he remained somewhat active with local theater groups but this interest appeared to have evaporated when he became president of a national fundraising firm in Kansas City. According to the November 23, 1972 edition of the Word and Way, “Amick joined the staff of William Jewell College in February 1971, a an officer of the administration. At the college he served as director of development and was in charge of the donor support program, alumni services, and public relations.”
“Lon was killed in an automobile accident on October 23, 1972 when he was 52 years old,” said Joanne (Amick) Comer, the veteran’s sister. “He told me when I was younger to spend two years at William Jewell, like he did, and then get the experience of a big university.” Smiling, she added, “So I ended up at KU, where I met my husband, Ralph.”
The veteran can no longer share direct accounts of his experiences during World War II—a fascinating journey that began as a replacement in the infantry and transitioned to service as an actor and work with a military newspaper. He left a legacy behind through letters and reflections that demonstrate a soldier prepared to embrace his circumstances.
From Camp Wolters, he wrote, “Somewhere there must be a wise man of the mountain that knows why the human race can’t live in peace. What is, is—and I’m prepared for my share of whatever it is to be, without regret, without enthusiasm.”
Displaying wisdom beyond his years, he concluded, “Mine is completely a soldier’s inevitable attitude. The future doesn’t worry me, because I’m resigned to what comes … if God has endowed me with what talents I possess, I’ll use them.”
The career of Eminence, Missouri, resident Thomas Akers has—in quite literal terms—risen to meteoric heights. A veteran of four Space Shuttle flights made during the 1990s, Akers recognizes that his career as an astronaut was a dream achieved through the boost provided from the training he received in the United States Air Force. Born in St. Louis on May 20, 1951, Akers explained that his parents made the decision to move to the community of Eminence when he was four years old to find a quieter location to raise their family.
“I am a twin and we have an older brother as well,” said Akers during a recent interview. “My father worked in St. Louis as a carpenter and was only home on weekends while we were growing up,” he added.
Graduating in 1969 as valedictorian of his high school class, he enrolled at the University of Missouri-Rolla to pursue a degree in applied mathematics, a subject he enjoyed. Additionally, he explained, the math teacher at Eminence High School planned to retire in the next few years, which was a position that interested young Akers. He went on to earn his bachelor degree in 1973 and his Master of Science degree in 1975.
“I managed to pay for my college through scholarships and working as a park ranger at Alley Springs during the summer months,” he said. “My wife and I were married while I was still in college and shortly after I finished my education, I was talked into becoming the high school principal at Eminence and did that for the next four years.”
A few months into his employment as principal, he and his wife welcomed their first child, David, into the world. Three years later, an Air Force recruiter visited the high school to recruit their math teacher to fill technical vacancies. The teacher was not interested in pursuing a military career but Akers read the brochures left behind and decided the Air Force might offer a beneficial opportunity.
“I didn’t want to be a high school principal the rest of my life and chose to enlist in May 1979,” he said. “My first three months in the Air Force were spent at Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base (Texas) followed by my first duty assignment at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.”
Throughout the day, Akers, was an air-to-air missile analyst but in the evenings taught math and physics courses at Troy State University. In 1980, while in the midst of a frenetic work schedule, his family grew with the addition of his daughter, Jessica. It was also during this period that the airman received an incentive ride in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom (supersonic jet)—a thrilling experience that not only inspired his desire to fly, but would also lead to his becoming qualified to apply for the astronaut program.
“In 1982 I was selected to attend Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California,” he said. “In one of the buildings on the base, they had photographs of all of the Apollo astronauts hanging on the wall.” He added, “Seeing those photos really got me interested in the potential of becoming part of the astronaut program.”
Returning to Eglin in 1983, Akers worked on weapons develop programs for several types of aircraft. He applied for the astronaut program through the Air Force in 1985 but was not selected. The following year, he again went through the application process; however, the program was temporarily suspended after the Challenger incident in January 1986.
“In 1987, I again applied for the program and was selected,” he said. “As part of the selection process, there were approximately 100 individuals interviewed for a final class of only 15 astronaut candidates,” he said.
As Akers explained, he remained a member of the Air Force but was assigned to NASA. Completing about a year of astronaut candidate training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, he participated in his first space flight in October 1990, assisting in the deployment of an interplanetary probe. The Space Shuttle Endeavor made its maiden flight in May 1992 with Akers aboard for his second mission. The astronaut would again travel to space in 1993 and 1996, finishing his NASA career after accumulating more than 800 hours of space flight and 29 hours of space walking over the course of four missions.
“I left NASA in 1997 and the Air Force assigned me as commander of the ROTC program at the University of Missouri-Rolla,” Akers explained. “I retired from the Air Force two years later at the rank of colonel.”
The veteran remained at Rolla for a number of years, serving as an instructor in the university’s math department until retiring in 2010. He and his wife now reside on a small farm near his hometown of Eminence. Reflecting on his fascinating experiences, Akers acknowledges his professional achievements were made possible through the military, a supportive family, and God’s guidance and blessings.
“The greatest benefit I learned in the Air Force is the value of teamwork—each person relies on everyone else to accomplish the mission,” he affirmed. “Additionally, in the scientific and engineering fields, you don’t place much value on positions or titles but rather on competencies and abilities, all of which helped prepare me for NASA.” He added, “And all of this would not have happened without the support of my wife, Kaye. She understood the risks during the entire time I was flying and performing space flights but never let on as to any worry. However,” he concluded, “once I finally stopped flying, she told me how worried she had actually been.”
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.