Within the first few minutes of speaking with World War II Veteran Jessie Smith, you realize you have forgotten all your problems, and you just want to spend the rest of the day listening to what he has to say. At 99 years old, he is the oldest and most beloved citizen in Saint Rose, LA, and anyone at VCC that has had the pleasure of working with him understands why.
Jessie Smith is from a country town outside of New Orleans, Louisiana, called Saint Rose. Born to Jessie and Mary Smith in 1922, he proudly stated, “I was born on fourth street, and a midwife delivered me.” He was raised in a close Christian family with strong roots in the small town that sits on the Mississippi River. As the oldest of seven children, Smith joked that he was “number one.” He laughed as he said his siblings better look up to him since they were taught to respect their elders. When asked what he liked to do as a child, he revealed that he couldn’t really remember at his age but was sure he did everything he could. Smith went on to explain, “I had a farm; I was a farmer. I enjoyed it, and I made enough money to live on.” Smith worked with his father in the fields, taking care of livestock consisting of cows, horses, and pigs.
In 1942 at 20 years old, Smith decided to enlist in the United States Army. Smith stated, “My friends were all going, and I wanted to go too. I traveled too and didn’t have to pay for it.” Smith stated he did basic training in Saint Louis, MO, but he traveled all over the world during his deployment, such as Australia, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Smith was part of the 856 Aviation Engineering Battalion. During WWII, the Aviation Engineer Battalions played a crucial role in providing the worldwide system of bases that were utilized during the war. They were 800-man units that constructed airfields overseas between 1940 and 1945. These units were trained to construct, conceal, maintain, and defend airfields in every theater. Smith recalled the name and details of his battalion like it was yesterday even though it was almost 80 years ago. He proudly exclaimed that he was “Supply Sergeant, and he coordinated the clothing and food.” Smith was moved around a lot during his time in the service and said he really enjoyed that. Especially when he was in the Philippines, a very unexpected moment happened when he ran into his brother, who was also in the military. Smith announced excitedly, “that was the happiest moment of my life.” He continued, “I loved the Army, it was a good life and should’ve stayed, but I met a nice young lady.”
After being honorably discharged in 1946, Smith met his future wife, Evelyn, in New Orleans. They dated for almost a year before they were married in May of 1947. The couple raised four daughters together, Jesslyn, Eloise, Cynthia, and Anita. Smith stated he didn’t have any trouble raising all girls recalling, “They were good girls, they had a good mother and a good grandmother too.” Smith reminisced about what a great life the family had. They loved to travel and have picnics. Smith worked as chief engineer at Flint Goodridge Hospital for 24 years and Notre Dame Seminary for ten years before retiring in 1989. Smith stated, “It was good work. You just had to keep your eyes open and tend to your daughters. It was a good job. I had a good life.” His wife, Evelyn, worked for Delta airlines cleaning aircraft for 30 years. Evelyn Smith instilled in her daughters the importance of a good education and that they should never rely on a man for money.
When asked what he learned from his time in the military, Smith replied, “There were just so many things.” His caregiver Linda, who is also his niece, and his granddaughter Nicole described how the Army was the reason he is very structured and very neat. Everything has its place. He also learned discipline. Smith helped raise his granddaughter Nicole, and she stated with a laugh, “Grandpa didn’t play. If he told you to do something once, you better do it, or you would be in trouble.” Nicole also revealed that when Smith was in the Army, he would send money home from every paycheck to help support his siblings. For example, Smith’s youngest brother told her of a time when he really wanted a new pair of pants, so he wrote to his big brother. Smith made sure his brother Harry got the money for his new pants.
Smith loves spending time with family and friends. His brother often comes by for visits. He is still an active member in his community and church, where he served as an usher for many years. One of his greatest joys was being an Armor Bearer to Pastor Vinnette. Smith was also lucky enough to be one of the last groups baptized in the Mississippi River by his uncle, the late Pastor Sanders Royal.
Evelyn Smith passed away six years ago after 68 years of marriage. Smith lovingly stated, “I miss her, I am looking at her picture now, and she’s looking at me.” He went on to say, “She was pretty too.” The couple has 11 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren, and 11 great-great-grandchildren. Smith loves to keep in touch with all of his family, including his eight godchildren. Although most everyone in his community has adopted him as an honorary uncle or grandpa, and he loves every one of them.
Smith is proud of the life he has created and truly understands that every day is a gift, and he is grateful for each one. In August of this year, he will celebrate his 100th birthday, and he doesn’t plan to slow down any time soon, even when his caregiver asks him to as she tries to keep up with him in the grocery store while he pushes the cart. “I don’t even walk with a cane or nothing,” Smith proudly exclaimed. He went on to say, “I will make a century too by the help of the good Lord. I feel good too. I feel like I am 50.”
Veterans Care Coordination is proud to recognize Jessie Smith for his service to our country. We are privileged to have the opportunity to share the stories of our nation’s heroes. Thank you for your service, Jessie Smith.