"My personal good fortune took a turn, on Friday, Oct. 13, 1944," he wrote in 2001.
That day, the engine of his P-51 Mustang caught fire, and he bailed out over Yugoslavia. German soldiers pulled his mangled body from a tree.
Days after then-Lt. Smith was captured, an SS officer stood over his hospital bed and asked him, "You volunteer to fight for a country that lynched your people. Why?"
Before he was liberated in May 1945, he said, he was often asked by the Germans why, as a black man, he was fighting for the United States. "He would become indignant and respond that he was proud to serve his country," his son, Gordon, said.
Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, Capt. Smith's heroes were the military pilots who delivered the mail in open cockpit planes. He wanted to join their ranks, but there were no black military pilots.
World War II gave him his opportunity. In 1942 he joined a squadron of black Army Air Force pilots training at a segregated base in Tuskegee, Ala.
From January 1944 until his capture, he flew missions in fighter planes, and was credited with destroying two enemy aircraft in aerial combat and 10 aircraft in ground strafing missions. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross; an Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters; a Purple Heart; the Prisoner of War Medal: and the Congressional Gold Medal among other honors.
He weighed 70 pounds when he was liberated, and spent two years in military hospitals in the United States before being discharged as a captain in 1947. He underwent numerous operations on his right leg and had to wear an orthopedic lift in his shoe. "He must have been in discomfort, but he was stoic and never, ever complained," his son said.
"Dad never thought he did anything special. Ninety percent of what I know about his war experiences, I've learned in the last 10 years," Gordon Smith said.
In 1995, Capt. Smith accompanied President Bill Clinton to Europe with six other veterans for the 50th anniversary marking the end of World War II. He served on the Architect-Engineer Evaluation Jury to select the design for the National World War II Memorial in Washington, which was dedicated in 2004.
That year, Capt. Smith headed the 60th anniversary celebration of the Tuskegee Airmen's greatest achievement - escorting American bombers on 200 missions in Europe without a loss of a single bomber to enemy fighters.
He and two other veterans were featured in the 2006 documentary On Freedom's Wings: Bound for Glory, the Legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum in Media.
"Luther convinced me in 2004 that the museum needed to produce a documentary on the Tuskegee Airmen," said Media Mayor Bob McMahon, one of the museum's founders. Capt. Smith often spoke to school groups about his war experiences, McMahon said.
Capt. Smith grew up with eight siblings. When he was 13, he and his brother Howard found $5 in a field. Though it was the height of the Depression, he persuaded his brother to spend the money on their first plane ride. From then on, he regularly walked the five miles to the airport, where he did odd jobs for the chance to be with pilots and occasionally fly with them.
He studied engineering at the University of Iowa, then enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Course, a program to train pilots in case of a national emergency. The emergency came with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the war, Capt. Smith earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Iowa in 1950. That year, he married Lois Gordon.
The couple moved to Schenectady, N.Y., when he took a position with GE. In Schenectady, he chaired the local chapter of the NAACP.
In the late 1950s, Capt. Smith transferred to GE's aerospace division in Philadelphia. In the years until his retirement in 1988, he was involved in projects for the Air Force, the Navy Submarine Command, and NASA. He published numerous papers and was awarded two patents. While at GE he earned a master's degree in engineering from Pennsylvania State University.
From 1975 to 1995, Capt. Smith was division chairman for the Society of Automotive Engineers Aerospace International. He and his wife traveled to society meetings around the country and in Canada and Australia.
He served on the board of Delaware County Community College and was former vice chairman of the Radnor Township school board.
Units served with
The United States entered World War II with a military that was segregated by race and remained segregated until 1948. War Department planners generally placed White and African-American Army personnel in separate units during World War II.
||27 September 1920
||Des Moines, IA, USA
|Graduated Pilot Training/Commissioned
||Tuskegee, AL, USA
||28 May 1943
|332nd FG Combat Tour
||86042 Ramitelli CB, Italy
||January 1944 – October 1944
||Yugoslavia, Stara Pazova, Serbia
||13 October 1944
||14 October 1944 – May 1945
||Bryn Mawr, PA, USA
||9 December 2009
||15 January 2010
Arlington National Cemetery
Plot: Section 46, Site 1836