Of a man, a mission and a memorial
HUTCHINSON, Kans. — Bill Smith was barely a teen when his oldest brother, Keith, graduated high school and moved to Colorado to work on construction of the John Martin Reservoir dam.
He remembers seeing Keith only once after that, about two years later, when he was briefly home on leave from the military.
In Colorado, Keith joined the 82nd Airborne Division to be a paratrooper as the United States prepared to enter World War II.
"I was at the vocational school and saw him through the window," Smith recalled of his arrival home. "He talked about his first (parachute) jump and said it was like a feather" floating to the ground, Smith said. "The second was like two pounds of salt in a one-pound sack. ... He hit it hard."
The next time he heard about his brother, Smith was again in class, at Stafford High School.
This time, his folks, Fred and Frances Smith, came. They told him Keith was shot and killed parachuting into enemy territory in Holland, Bill recalls.
It was his first jump during combat.
The Hutchinson News, in an Oct. 17, 1944 "honor roll" of deceased soldiers, also listed Winfred Keith Smith as "killed in action over Holland."
"The family didn't really talk about it," Smith said of his brother's death. "It was too hard."
So he never learned the real details of how his brother, age 20, died — until last week.
Operation Market Garden
TEC 5 (Corporal) Winfred Keith Smith was among 49 men who died in September 1944 while trying to wrest from German control the broad Waal River bridge leading into Nijmegen, Holland.
The heroic battle is the subject of the 1977 movie, "A Bridge Too Far," starring Sean Connery, Ryan O'Neal, Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier and Robert Redford. It's based on a 1974 book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.
It's also the focus of a new memorial being developed at Nijmegen, along a massive new bridge being constructed over the site.
The mission was part of a much larger — though ultimately unsuccessful — plan called Operation Market Garden, to secure a bridgehead across the Rhine by seizing bridges at five locations deep in German territory ahead of an armored force.
Described as the largest airborne operation in history, Smith was among 34,600 men dropped into the war zone from 101st, 82nd and 1st Airborne Divisions and the Polish Brigade, including 20,011 troops dropped by parachute and another 14,589 who landed by glider. Drops of vehicles, equipment and tons of ammunition followed the men.
Smith was part of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, whose mission was to capture two bridges across the Maas-Waal Canal. The operation began on Sept. 17, and the 504th quickly secured one of the most important objectives, the nine-span bridge over the Maas River at Grave, by hitting both ends simultaneously.
Two companies from the Grenadier Guards of the XXX Corps Armored Division and the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, then mounted an effort to capture the 2,000-foot-long Nijmegen vehicular bridge, which led into the occupied town of 100,000.
The initial Sept. 19 attack got within 440 yards of the bridge before being stopped by German fire.
A plan was made to attack the south end of the bridge again, while Smith's 3rd Battalion crossed the River Waal in boats about a mile downstream in order to attack the north end.
However, the boats, requested for late afternoon, didn't arrive that day.
Twenty-six collapsible canvas and plywood boats did arrive the next afternoon, and about 3 p.m. Sept. 20, the 3rd Battalion, commanded by Major Julian Cook and with Smith as a member, began its crossing.
British tanks of XXX Corps on the south bank of the river provided support fire and smoke screens while members of C/307th Engineering Battalion rowed the American paratroopers, who had no training on the British-made boats, across.
A shortage of paddles required some troopers to paddle with rifle butts.
About halfway across the 400-yard-wide river, the troops were exposed and took withering fire from Germans on the far shore. The first wave of assault troops suffered more than 50 percent casualties, and only about a dozen boats were seaworthy enough to return to the southern shore to reload.
Before the day was over, C/307th crossed the Waal five times ferrying across two battalions of the 504th.
The surviving paratroopers then made an assault across about 200 yards of open ground on the far bank and seized the north end of the bridge. German forces withdrew from both ends of the bridge, which was then rushed by Guards tanks and the 2nd Battalion, 505th PIR. The bridge was secured by 6:30 p.m. and, with the Germans' retreat, the town liberated.
Of the 260 men involved in the assault, more than 150 were wounded and 49 killed, including Smith.
The military initially buried Smith's remains at a temporary U.S. military cemetery south of Nijmegen. In 1949, the government repatriated his remains to the United States and buried them at Stafford Cemetery. He received a posthumous Purple Heart.
Several years after the war, the city of Nijmegen built a granite memorial to the soldiers killed in the crossing.
Now, a $341 million project to build a new bridge into the city — the eldest town of the Netherlands, started more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans, said Dorine Steenbergen, senior editor at the Dutch newspaper De Gelderlander — will include a new memorial to the slain soldiers.
The bridge is rising on the same location where the soldiers embarked their boats to cross the river in 1944, Steenbergen said.
"The name of this bridge will be The Waal Crossing, in memory of that military endeavor," Steenbergen said. "As a salute to those who died for the liberation of Nijmegen, the bridge will be equipped with 49 lights."
Each night at dusk, Steenbergen said, the city will darken the bridge, and then turn on pairs of lights sequentially, south to north, moving slowly across the bridge. It will take 10 or 15 minutes for all lights to come on. After that, all the public lights in Nijmegen will light up.
A pedestal at one end of the bridge will provide visitors with the changing time year round, based on time of sunset, that each night's lighting will begin.
"There is a monument in Belgium from the first World War, where every night at 8 p.m. the police stop all traffic and they have a ceremony," Steenbergen said. "We want this to be the biggest monument in Europe for World War II. It will be our way to honor the brave men, most who were very young, 18 or 19, who crossed the river to the other side."
Bridge completion is targeted for November.
They have the names of the 49 soldiers — the existing monument has 48 names, but Steenbergen discovered a 49th during her research for a book about the lives of the men and their families.
"A story for every light on that bridge," she said.
"From my house to the location of The Crossing is 200 meters," Steenbergen wrote in an email. "So I live very close to my work, too. My fantasy these days: 'My' 49 American men have walked around through my garden probably ..."
She asks anyone with information about any of the soldiers or their surviving families to contact her at email@example.com.
Both Bill (William) and Keith Smith — as well as brothers Wayne and Leo, known as "Shorty," and sister Joann — were born in Kinsley before the family moved to a farm in Stafford County in 1933.
Bill, the youngest boy, remembers his brothers sitting him atop a calf to ride when he was about 7. First they led it around — and then "sicced a dog on it."
"I ended up in the gravel," he said. "I didn't have much skin left. They caught heck."
At Stafford High, Keith was involved in all the sports, including basketball, football and track, said school secretary Julynn Whitlock, who reviewed school yearbooks for The News. The books were only published every-other year during the war.
He was one of 10 in the graduating class of 1941.
After graduation Keith took employment in the construction of the John Martin dam in Colorado, then later worked at the air bases at Liberal, Kan., and at La Junta, Colo., according to Richard Wesley of Los Angeles, a volunteer researcher for findagrave.com.
Keith enlisted into the U.S. Army on May 12, 1943 in Denver and went to Fort Warren, Wyo., for basic training and for subsequent training in the quartermaster corps. He later volunteered for paratroop service and was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for training. He received his "Wings" on Nov. 27, 1943, Wesley said.
Besides Keith, brother Leo also went off to war. He was a driver for military brass, Smith said, and was never in combat.
During school and on the farm, Bill developed a love for working with wood, so he made his living as a carpenter and general contractor. In 1947, Bill and his brothers built a new house for their parents in Stafford in which they could retire. After their parents both died a few years later, Bill moved the house to a 10-acre lot in the 8500 block of North Hendricks and, over the years, added on to it, raising his own family there.
He remained a construction contractor but also got "into the horse business, raising quarter horses," Smith said. His son was "all-around cowboy" of Kansas and granddaughter Holly third in barrel racing in the state. His 5-year-old grandson also rodeos.
"After I retired from being a contractor, I kept building furniture," Smith said. "I still do."
That was until last year when, at age 84, "I turned over a Bobcat" moving trees and he injured his shoulder.
At Smith Cedar Works, 119 N. Superior, he converts cedar or other wood, which he cuts down and has milled, into beautiful handmade furniture, ranging from desks to cabinets to shelves. He met his current wife, Norma Ludlow, bidding on a fireplace mantel project. His first wife, Ruth, died in 2008, after 61 years of marriage.