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William Y. Smith, 4-star Air Force general, dies at 90

By Bart Barnes | The Washington Post | Published: January 24, 2016

William Y. Smith, a four-star Air Force general who flew combat missions in Korea, wrote a book about the Cuban missile crisis and retired as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, died Jan. 19 at his home in Falls Church, Virginia. He was 90.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Maria Smith.

In retirement, Smith was a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and for five years was president of Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research center.

What may have been the defining moment of his career occurred in February 1952 over North Korea when his F-84 fighter jet was hit by anti-aircraft fire, smashing his right foot and ankle and setting his airplane on fire.

He landed on North Korean mudflats and was rescued by a U.S. helicopter. He spent the next nine months in military hospitals, and his right foot would be amputated just above the ankle. He was fitted with a prosthetic foot and ankle.

The future general had flown 97 combat missions but would never fly another, he was told. He could have taken a combat disability retirement. Or he could remain in the Air Force in non-flying assignments, but that would impair his opportunities for promotion. He chose to stay and retired in 1983 as deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command.

William Young Smith was born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on Aug. 13, 1925. He graduated in 1948 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. Only in 1947 did the Air Force become a separate service, and he was among the first group of West Point graduates to pick an Air Force career.

From 1954 to 1958, he taught government, economics and international relations at West Point. He received a doctorate in political economy and government at Harvard University in 1961, then came to Washington as a junior staff member with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council.

He participated in negotiations that led to the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. His experiences during that time became germinating agents of a 1994 book about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, co-written with a Soviet general, Anatoli I. Gribkov, former chief of staff of the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact.

The book was "Operation Anadyr," which was the Russian-language name for the Soviet stratagem of placing ballistic missiles in Cuba. Among the points the authors argued was that both sides often relied on erroneous information in making decisions.

Smith, according to his wife, often told a story of the United States receiving two simultaneous messages from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, one positive and one negative. The United States chose to respond to the positive message, Smith told his family.

In 1979, Smith was posted in Europe as chief of staff for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe and remained in that job until becoming deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command.

His medals included the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Purple Heart, the Joint Service Commendation Medal and four awards of the Air Medal.

In 1957, he married Maria Petschek. Besides his wife, of Falls Church, survivors include three sons, Raymond Smith of St. Louis, Mark Smith of Belmont, Massachusetts, and Derek Smith of Falls Church; a sister; and nine grandchildren.

Smith's avocations included tennis and squash. He was quick and agile in competition. Men and women who did not know were said to have been unable to tell, when he walked along a corridor at the Pentagon, which foot was the prosthetic.

Air Force Gen.William Y. Smith, photo from 1981.
U.S. Air Force photo

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