From The Citadel to the jungles of Burma
Lee G. Smoak Jr.
TOWN: Rock Hill, SC
MILITARY SERVICE: U.S. Army
CO-OP AFFILIATION: York Electric Cooperative
World War II was in full swing by the time Lee Smoak finished high school in Orangeburg. The 16-year-old figured he was almost certain to be drafted, so he decided to prepare for life in the military by heading off to college at The Citadel. Sure enough, by his sophomore year, Smoak was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Although the war saw the transformation and modernization of military machinery, Smoak’s early experiences were a throwback to a bygone era. He trained at Fort Riley, Kan., as part of the Army’s last unit of mounted cavalry. When he and his fellow soldiers were given their eventual wartime assignment, Smoak recalls, they were told, “Boys, you’re going overseas. But you can’t take your horses.”
“The horses were put out to pasture in Kansas, and we became infantry soldiers,” says Smoak.
He served in India, Burma and China, where his most memorable combat experience was a battle for a mountain overlooking the Burma Road. The Japanese had occupied a heavily fortified hill, and under the leadership of 1st Lt. Jack Knight, Smoak’s company commander, the American troops took it back. Knight was killed leading a heroic charge during the battle and posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Smoak credits his military training at The Citadel and his youth for helping him remain calm and follow orders in battle.
“You’re scared alright,” he says of combat, adding, “Being so young, you didn’t question anything your superiors said. You just did it. You didn’t think about the fear or the fact that you might be killed.”
Smoak was stationed in Kunming, China, when the war ended and recalls how the news unfolded: “We were watching a movie one night. It was one of those old ones where you had to change the reel after the first reel was done. While the reel was getting changed out, someone came bursting through the door and said, ‘The grapevine says the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Japan and they’re going to surrender.’ ”
Official word would come the next day, but that night, it was just a rumor, so the men immediately turned their attention back to changing the movie reel. “We were more interested in seeing Rita Hayworth,” Smoak laughs.
After the war, Smoak returned to The Citadel to complete his degree and went to work in the textile machinery business. Today, he lives in Rock Hill and serves as a mentor for students at his alma mater. “They’re on my daily prayer list,” he says. —BAKER MAULTSBY
How to buy the book
Electric cooperatives in South Carolina sponsored an Honor Flight of 100 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., on April 11, 2012. Purchase the souvenir book of the trip containing a profile and portrait of each veteran by mailing a check made payable to “Electric Cooperatives of S.C.” Honor Flight Book, 808 Knox Abbott Drive, Cayce, SC 29033 Price: $29.95 per copy, includes sales tax and shipping.