By: Erin Coggins, MJE
Journeys are a part of life. Capt. Malcolm A. Smith began his journey into World War II as a West Point cadet, eventually ending his journey as a casualty of war. Seventy years later, Sparkman High School student Erin Stender began a journey of her own that will connect the two forever.
Smith, from Birmingham, Ala., was a lively student at Auburn University when his appointment to West Point was announced in 1937. It was his father’s dream and one he believed he could make his own.
“Uncle Mac was not a great math student and that always worried him about going to West Point and he struggled in math there,” niece June Mack said.
Nevertheless, Smith completed his studies and graduated from the Academy. This achievement would help him earn the rank of captain in the United States Air Corps as America entered World War II in 1941. He became a pilot in the 368th Fighter Group in the European Campaign.
Stender, encouraged to apply for the National History Day’s Albert H. Small Normandy Scholars Program, was not expecting to be selected.
“Mrs. Coggins gave me a beret as a gift to let me know I had been selected. It took a few minutes for me to make the connection. I was shocked,” Stender said.
The scholars in the program are required to locate a silent hero from World War II buried in the National American Cemetery in Normandy, France. They were to research the silent hero and deliver a eulogy at the gravesite while continuing their studies in Normandy. Faced with a time crunch, Stender simply picked Smith’s name from a list of Alabamians buried in the National American Cemetery.
“I was running out of time to turn in the name I intended to research. Smith is a common name and at first I thought it may be difficult to find information on him, but I went with my initial feelings,” Stender said.
And the journey began.
Stender began researching Smith on various sites like ancestry.com and the National Archives. She was finding tidbits of information, like a marriage certificate and military service until a simple Google search.
“Mrs. Coggins was doing a Google search to help me one night and came upon a link about a documentary on Capt. Smith. It turned out that his niece, a professor at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, produced and filmed it. We had a name and a location so we emailed her,” Stender said.
Stender met with Smith’s niece, June Mack, in Birmingham where she was able to read through letters written by Smith as well as other items. Mack had found the letters in her mother’s belongings after her mother had passed away.
“My favorite was his childhood diary. He loved rabbits and I really got the feeling that he was a lively personality,” Stender said. “It was also the first time that June had seen these items. It was just special.”
The story Stender discovered was remarkable.
Capt. Malcolm A. Smith’s Story
On May 21, 1944, Smith went on a bombing run of railways in the French countryside. He did not return.
“In my research, I found so many statements that said his fellow pilots were so upset because “Smitty” did not return. He was a good person,” Stender said.
Smith faced with crashing into the small village of Vibraye, killing innocent civilians, decided to crash into a nearby pasture. The villagers considered him a hero and quickly set to work making a proper grave.
In 1945, after the war, a solider from Brooklyn was patrolling in Vibraye when a French lady came up to him, pushing a ring into his hand. She was excited.
“He couldn’t speak French so he finally found someone to translate. The lady was telling him to take the ring. He discovered it was a West Point class ring and that it had a name engraved on it,” Stender said. “When he got back to the States he located the Smith family in Birmingham to let them know what he had in his possession. It was then that the family knew Malcolm was no longer missing in action. He was moved to the American Cemetery at Normandy for a final resting place. ”
In 2004, the Smith family was invited to Vibraye to celebrate the naming of one of their streets—Capt. Malcolm A. Smith Way.
Ending the Journey
Stender traveled to France with 14 other Institute teacher-student teams in late June. While there, she was able to walk Utah and Omaha beaches and brief the team on bomber escorts while standing in a bunker at Point du Hoc. But her culminating activity, the eulogy at Smith’s gravesite, is the one she will always remember.
“I didn’t finish my eulogy until the morning of my presentation. I knew I had to have it right for Capt. Smith and his family. I came to admire and love him throughout this process and he deserved to have a great eulogy,” Stender said.
With PBS cameras rolling and her newly found friends watching, Stender spoke honest and true words about her Silent Hero and afterwards sat at his grave to spend extra time with a man she came to love and respect.
“Mac was just a nice guy, you know,” Stender said. “Reading his words, I found that I really loved his fun loving and easy going nature. He deserved to be recognized and remembered. ”