George Smith, a Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor who for years shared memories about the day that “will live in infamy,” died Friday at his daughter’s home in Olympia. He was 89.
His story began in the Midwest, where he ran away from home in Chicago and made his way by train to relatives in Seattle. It took him a while to travel across the country because he’d slip off the train at night to sleep in jails, he once told The News Tribune.
A restless child, Smith dropped out of Queen Anne High School in Seattle and joined the Navy at age 17 in the spring of 1941. He picked the Navy because he was fascinated with the ships he saw come to port.
Smith thought he’d see the world, but his purpose in the service changed before the end of his first year in uniform. He was stationed on the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.
He had just finished a night-watch shift when Japanese torpedoes started striking before 8 a.m.
“One plane came in, circled, came right down to us. The guy opened the hatch to his plane and dropped his torpedo, waved at me and took off,” Smith told The Associated Press at a 2007 memorial at Pearl Harbor. “The next thing I knew there was a big explosion.”
The Oklahoma sank, taking 429 sailors and Marines with it. Only the USS Arizona lost more sailors.
Smith swam to the USS Maryland. The News Tribune once wrote that he “spent the rest of the battle there, greasy, scared and clad in his underwear.”
He remembered reaching for wounded men in the water only to find that he was grabbing severed limbs.
“When I got to the Maryland, it hurt,” Smith told students in a 2001 visit to Tyee Park Elementary School in Lakewood. “I cried.”
His daughter, Georgia Smith, said the sailor finished the war with the Navy and went on to serve for a time in the Coast Guard. He met her mother, Elizabeth, in a Chicago bar. They married in June 1947.
George and Elizabeth settled in Seattle in the 1950s, raising their family near the Woodland Park Zoo while George did glasswork for the University of Washington. Georgia Smith said her dad loved to fish, camp and bowl. He’d dress up like Santa Claus for kids around the holidays.
George and Elizabeth moved to Tenino after his retirement, settling on a 6-acre lot on the Deschutes River. Elizabeth died in 2004.
In his later years, George Smith stayed close with other Pearl Harbor survivors as much as he could. He was the chairman of state survivors’ association for a time, and he’d travel to Hawaii for reunions.
“We’re honoring the people who were killed. We’re not here for ourselves; we’re here for them,” he told The Associated Press in 2007.
He also made time to pass on his memories to young people, visiting schools at every grade level to talk about the war.
“The kids just loved his stories,” Georgia Smith said. High school students often would approach her and her dad in town to talk with him, she said.
George Smith is survived by daughter Georgia, daughter Margaret Mason of Orting, and son, Earl Lee Smith of Seattle; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
The family does not have a formal funeral service planned. They are following his wishes to spread his and his wife’s ashes at sea, Georgia Smith said.Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com