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Passing of Rear Adm. Lester R. Smith, USNR (Ret.)

By: Samuel J. Cox Rear Adm., USN (retired) Director of Naval History, Curator for the Navy Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Lester Robert “Bob” Smith, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired) on July 22, 2020 at age 90. Bob enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1947, was commissioned in 1951, and served as an aviator until his retirement in 1986 as Flag Support for Commander, Naval Reserve Command. He flew 132 combat missions in two deployments during the Korean War; his F9F Panther jet fighter was damaged by ground fire on seven different missions and he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, six Air Medals and a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V.”

Bob’s father, Lester Smith, enlisted in the Navy and served during World War I. Bob Smith enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on August 27, 1947 in the Naval Aviation College Program, serving two years in the inactive reserve while a student at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He was appointed a midshipman on February 24, 1949 and subsequently commenced flight training at NAS Pensacola and then NAS Corpus Christi in the same class of “flying midshipmen” as future astronauts Scott Carpenter and Neil Armstrong (Smith and Armstrong were roommates for a couple weeks). Midshipman Smith was designated a Naval Aviator (HTA) on September 20, 1950 and commissioned an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve on February 24, 1951.

Following the outbreak of the Korean War, Midshipman Smith reported for active duty in October 1950, initially as a pool pilot flying the F4U Corsair at Fleet Air Service Squadron SEVEN (FASRON 7) in San Diego. He transitioned to the F9F Panther strait wing jet fighter and reported to Fighter Squadron FIVE TWO (VF-52) in December 1950 which had just disembarked from carrier Valley Forge (CV 45). Valley Forge had been deployed to the Far East with VF-52 embarked when the Korean War broke out and was the first carrier to launch strikes during the war. She returned to the West Coast on December 1, 1950 for overhaul, only to be immediately turned around and sent back to Korea, with a new Air Wing, in reaction to the debacle of the Chinese intervention in the war. In March 1951, Ensign Smith was the Squadron Duty Officer, when one of the squadron’s F9F-3 Panthers took off without its pilot (who had jumped from the cockpit on report of a fire) and climbed steeply to 700-feet before crashing into the San Diego channel (an interesting accident report).

Commencing in June 1951, VF-52 embarked in carrier Essex (CV 9) but was disembarked in August 1951 and replaced by an F2H Banshee strait-wing jet fighter squadron just before Essex deployed to Korea, with the intent to get the Banshee combat experience in Korea (on September 16, a combat-damaged Banshee crashed into parked aircraft on Essex starting a serious flight deck fire that killed seven). VF-51 (with Ensign Neil Armstrong) remained aboard Essex. VF-52 re-embarked on Valley Forge for her third combat deployment to Korea from October 1951 to June 1952, commencing strikes on December 11, 1951, mostly on railway and marshaling yards in North Korea, severing rail lines in 5,346 places. During this period Ensign Smith earned three Air Medals. He was flying Number 2 behind squadron commander Lt. Cmdr. Herbert J. Basely Jr. in an attack on an enemy antiaircraft gun position when Basely was hit and crashed into the gun position and was killed. Future CNO James L. Holloway III was Air Task Group ONE/VF-52 Operations Officer on this deployment.

Upon return to the U.S., VF-52 crossed-decked to carrier Boxer (re-designated CVA 21 in October 1952) for the squadron’s third deployment to Korea (and Boxer’s fourth, although the third with an air wing embarked). Lieutenant (junior grade) Smith was awarded three Air Medals and a Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V for this deployment. He was also awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for action on July 12, 1953 (only two weeks before the armistice) near Yangdok, North Korea in which he destroyed five boxcars, resulting in a massive explosion, assisted in destroying the locomotive, and then on the way back, he attacked a convoy and destroyed three trucks. Lt. j.g. Smith was flying Number 2 behind the squadron commander, Lt. Cmdr. James Kinsella, attacking ground targets on July 21, 1953 when the skipper was shot down. The Executive Officer, Lt. Holloway, briefly became Commanding Officer, however the skipper actually survived by walking (unknowingly) through a large minefield to U.S. lines. During his two combat deployments, Lt. j.g. Smith flew 132 combat missions (a change of command bio says 139, but in an oral history he says 132). His plane was hit and damaged by ground fire seven different times, twice necessitating emergency landings at airfields on South Korea, one of which the aircraft was a total loss.

Following Boxer’s return from deployment in November 1953, Holloway and Lt. j.g. Smith were selected to fly in the Hollywood movie, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” based on the book by James Michener. Lt. j.g. Smith flew the F9F Panther depicting the movie’s major protagonist, Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, played by William Holden. The movie won the Oscar for best special effects, much of it due to Smith and Holloway’s flying. (Of note, during exterior filming on carrier Oriskany (CVA 34) in the Sea of Japan, actor William Holden learned to taxi the F9F for close-up flight deck scenes. NATOPS wasn’t a thing yet.) 

After detaching from VF-52 in July 1954, Lt. j.g. Smith attended and graduated from Naval Test Pilot school at NAS Patuxent River and served as a test pilot, flying numerous experimental and development aircraft. In June 1956, Lieutenant Smith was then assigned to the NROTC unit at Georgia Tech, where he earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. In January 1958, Lt. Smith began Inactive Reserve Affiliation. From 1959 to 1963 he served as an instructor at Naval Reserve Officers School in Dallas, Texas. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in October 1960. In 1963, he was nominated and became a finalist in the third group of Apollo astronauts, but did not serve as one.

Promoted to commander in September 1965, Commander Smith served as the Commanding Officer of Naval Reserve Squadron SEVEN ZERO ONE (VF-701) flying the F-8 Crusader from June 1967 to June 1968. (VF-701 later transitioned to VFA-201.) In June 1968, he assumed command of Naval Reserve Support Detachment (D-1). Promoted to captain in July 1971, in August 1974 he assumed duty as Chief of Staff for Naval Air Systems Command, Headquarters Unit 311 in Dallas, Texas. In July 1975, Captain Smith assumed command of Naval Air Station 2011, NAS Dallas, TX and in March 1977 assumed command of General Volunteer Training Unit 707 at NAS Dallas. He served in numerous locations and commands during Active Duty for Training in the grade of captain.

Capt. Smith was promoted to Rear Admiral on August 1, 1979 followed by duties as Chief of Naval Reserve Support Unit, Commanding Officer of Naval Air Forces Atlantic 1086, and COMANAIRLANT Reserve Coordinator. From October 1981 to 1984 Rear Adm. Smith served as the Commander Naval Reserve Readiness Command, Region ELEVEN, responsible for 14 commands and 128 sub-commands. His last mobilization billet was Assistant Deputy Commander for Naval Air Forces Atlantic. He also served as Flag Support for the Commander, Naval Reserve Force, retiring on August 16, 1986.

Rear Adm. Smith’s awards include the Legion of Merit (2), Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal (6), Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V, Navy Unit Commendation, Meritorious Unit Commendation (I think, mostly covered by lapel in photo), China Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Korean Campaign Medal (three stars), Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citation, and United Nations Medal.

In his civilian occupation and after retiring from the U.S. Navy, Bob served 29 years in various capacities including; LTV Project Engineer for F-18, Director for A-7 airplanes, and Director of Special Advanced Development Programs (B-2). He then served as Vice President of Program Development, Turbomecca Engine Corp (helo engines), Vice President for Business Development for EV Power Company, Executive Director of Central Vehicle Coalition and Chief Executive Officer of EV TECH (electrical vehicle technology).

Rear Adm. Smith was also a past President of the Naval Reserve Association; National Commander General, Naval Order of the U.S.; Regional Vice President of the Naval War College Foundation; Past Vice President U.S. Navy League, Sea Cadets; Regional Vice President Association of Naval Aviation; Director and Founding Chairman of the Greater Dallas Veterans Foundation (Dallas Veterans’ Day Parade); Director of the Frontiers of Flight Museum; and Treasured Companion of the Dallas Chapter of the Military Order of the World Wars. He was also a Master Mason of the 33rd Degree.

In a 2015 oral history, Bob Smith described himself as, “Fundamentally, I’m a carrier fighter pilot,” surprised that he ever made admiral. He described his service as “the greatest time of my life.” One thing he did not call himself was a “hero.” But he most certainly was a hero, one of dwindling number who served in the Korean conflict, oftentimes referred to as the “Forgotten War.” It was apropos that he flew the scenes in the movie, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” depicting Lieutenant Harry Brubaker (William Holden). Although fictional, Brubaker was also a Naval Reserve officer called up to serve in an unpopular far away war, at a time when the war had devolved into a stalemate and men were being shot down and killed on what seemed like pointless missions. Yet Bob Smith never wavered in his sense of duty, flying his aircraft to the limit right up until the day of the armistice, doing what his country and Navy asked. He then was a test pilot flying practically every type of aircraft during the very dangerous days of 1950’s jet aviation. He passed on his experience to generations of Naval Reserve pilots who then answered the nations’ call in Vietnam. Based on his leadership reputation it is actually no surprise that he made Flag, and his dedication to service on active duty, in the reserves, and his continued extensive support to the U.S. Navy after his retirement, serve as an extraordinary example to us all of selfless service to our nation. The Korean War may be sadly forgotten, but we will not forget the valor and leadership of Rear Admiral Bob Smith.

Rest in Peace Admiral Smith.