June 17, 2008
World War II vets reunite after 62 years
Cortland native reminisces about war with fellow serviceman at N.J. home
Photo provided by Donald Smith
Cortland resident and World War II veteran Donald Smith, left, browses a scrapbook with memorabilia from his time in the service during World War II with air crew radio operator Noah Holton of Florida. Smith brought the scrapbook for the men’s first meeting in 62 years Saturday in New Jersey at the home of Holton’s daughter.
Two World War II veterans who served as crewmembers on the plane that flew the chief U.S. prosecutor for the Nuremberg Trials around Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East, reunited Saturday after 62 years.
Cortland resident Donald Smith, 83, and Florida resident Noah Holton, 87, met at the home of Holton’s daughter in Summit, N.J.
The two men, who served in the Air Force, talked for hours, looking at Smith’s wartime scrapbook and exchanging memories.
“I just wanted to see him and talk to him,” said Smith, a former plane mechanic. “Both of us had wanted to see each other.”
Holton is a former radio operator.
The two men had been trying to get together for a few years, but schedules did not coincide.
They got in touch over the phone about five years ago after Smith decided to try to track down his four fellow crew members. Smith could not find the others.
Since reconnecting, the men have kept in touch by phone and by mail. When they saw each other Saturday, it was just like yesterday, Smith said.
“I recognized his face, but I mostly recognized his voice,” he said. “It was exactly as I remember.”
Holton declined to speak about Saturday’s reunion over the phone Monday, though he agreed to comment through his wife, Louise.
“He really appreciated seeing him after realizing that after all these years they had not seen each other,” she said.
The men were both chosen to serve as members of Robert “Justice” Jackson’s crew in late 1945.
Jackson was the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, a series of war crimes trials of prominent Nazi leaders.
Jackson was transported by plane across Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East to gather evidence.
Both Holton and Smith had flight training, while Smith, a Cortland native, also had about a year of experience fixing planes at the Paris-Orly Air Base.
Smith worked at the base from August 1944 to the fall of 1945, servicing planes that were headed to the Battle of the Bulge and seeing hundreds of Holocaust victims returning from concentration camps.
“They were skin and bones,” he said. “They couldn’t walk. It was unbelievable what they looked like.”
Smith came by his position as crew chief on Jackson’s plane somewhat by chance. He had met Jackson’s first crew chief while on a special mission in Berlin, and later ran into him in Orly.
“He said, ‘Would you like a job?’” Smith recalled. “I thought it was a rather unusual situation.”
Smith, Holton, and other crewmembers didn’t get to interact much with Jackson or know the contents of his evidence, but still had a memorable experience traveling with him.
They traveled to Marseilles, Rome, Athens, Cairo, Tunis, Tel Aviv and Warsaw.
“The Russians were very uncooperative,” Smith said, referring to Russians in Warsaw. “They would assign a navigator to leave Berlin with us … then one wouldn’t show up … They made all kinds of excuses about it.”
In Rome, the crew stayed overnight in former Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s gym. “It was massive,” he said.
On Saturday, Smith and Holton remembered how their plane almost crashed into a mountain in Germany during a trip from Orly to Nuremberg, Smith said.
A young and rather inexperienced pilot had not taken proper precautions in the foggy weather. He started flying upward at the last minute.
“What we came to was a mountain right in front us,” Smith said. “I’m surprised he missed it … We would never have survived that crash.”
The plane was headed to Nuremberg for the Nuremberg Trials.
Once in Nuremberg, Smith volunteered to help a projectionist, who was showing scenes of German destruction to news outlets all over the world.
That film would eventually be used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials.
Smith and Holton completed their military service in the spring of 1946, and after getting checked out in Bovington, England, took a ship to New York City.
They checked out of the Air Force in Fort Dix, N.J.
On Saturday, Smith learned how Holton got back to his Georgia home.
While Smith had waited 10 hours for a train to take him to Ithaca, Holton returned to Georgia by taxi.
“Gee, I should have asked how much he tipped the driver,” Smith said, laughing Monday morning.
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