Monday, June 14, 2010

Flag Day - Honoring Two Workhorses

On Friday, June 11th the Hokendaqua Jones-Quigg Legion Post held its 14th Annual Flag Disposal Ceremony.  Pictured here: Post #739's Color Guard stands at attention as Sergeant-at-Arms Ron Furry inspects and properly disposes of one American Flag too damaged for further service.  Hundreds of damaged and worn flags from veteran's graves all over the Lehigh Valley were disposed.
The ceremony also honored Mr. Ira F. Smith, originally from New Tripoli, now of Allentown.  Mr. Smith, a wounded World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge and prisoner in Germany's Stalag 12A, was honored.
(Pictured here left to right:  Ray Heil, Lehigh County Council 1st Vice Commander, soloists Andrea Bohner and Pam Hittinger, Mark W. Queen, District Commander, Ira's daughter and son, Linda Kline and Carson Smith, Ira Smith, Thomas Dye, Director of Veteran Affairs, Ron Rabenold, Dennis Kisthart, Lehigh County Council Chaplain, and Michael Bodnar, Lehigh County Council Commander.)

We are indebted to the unassuming, selfless Americans like Ira who have worked and fought to keep our country and our flag moving forward.

It was my pleasure to give the following speech on his behalf:
Flag Day – Honoring Ira Smith – June 11, 2010
Before I start, I just want to thank all of you volunteers, you veterans for all your work here in Lehigh County, in preserving our patriotic traditions and providing this beautiful facility where we can honor and preserve the memory of our veterans. Thank you for having this ceremony and all the hours your volunteer promoting the patriotism of our country. You have my heartfelt gratitude.

Both flags, like workhorses, are always going forward.

Did you ever notice how the flag insignia worn on our American servicemen, the blue field of stars is toward the front edge of the shoulder? It looks backward but this is hardly the case. It is proudly positioned that way to symbolize always going forward. The American flag, American servicemen and women, the American people, are always going forward.

We all know about show horses and workhorses. The man we are honoring here tonight was definitely the latter.

Work horses know their purpose. They quietly go about doing their duty. Plowing forward, never questioning why, rarely resting. Simple duty, service and sacrifice. Always going forward like our flag.

One of those selfless American is with us here tonight: Ira F. Smith.

Ira grew-up as farm boy, quite familiar with horses. He worked with them on his family farm in Kistler’s Valley, near New Tripoli, here in Lehigh County. But Ira had to leave his beloved farm.

In 1932 his father passed away followed in 1937 by the death of his mother. It was the Great Depression and the farm was sold. Ira was just 17. He had no home or family.

He enlisted in the army in peacetime, where they were still moving artillery pieces with horses. He soon realized how poorly equipped they were saying “Not only didn’t they have a pot to pee in; they didn’t have a window to throw it out of.”

Ira was stationed at Fort Myer at Arlington National Cemetery, working with the horses and caissons for our country’s military funerals.

When the war broke out, Ira was a foot soldier attached in support of the 16th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, part of General Leonard’s 9th Armored division.

He was wounded at St. Vith, Belgium at Schnee Eifel, “Snow Hill” during the Battle of the Bulge and captured.

When the German surgeon removed the .30 cal bullet, he waved it in Ira’s face, saying, “You were shot by your own men.”

Unflinchingly, the taunt was wasted on Ira.

The Germans moved the walking wounded to a warehouse.

Shortly after, they heard American bombers over head. The third floor was struck by one of those bombs precisely where Ira had just been sitting. The German guards who exchanged places with him were killed instantly; Ira and his fellow Americans who survived, were sent tumbling down through the 3-stories of the building. The fall broke Ira’s back.

In that chaotic aftermath, Ira’s fellow POWs kept their wits. They knew they had to keep Ira moving, or else the German’s would simply kill Ira rather than care for him.

Ira did not receive the benefit of proper medical care. He certainly could have died or been permanently crippled. The Germans were desperate, and caring for one wounded American was not a high priority.

Ira and others were interrogated. He noticed some of the other GI’s coming out had cigarettes; rewards for providing useful intelligence.

Ira said, “If I could have stood up straight, I would have kicked their asses.”

When it was Ira’s turn, he plainly stated his name, rank and serial number. The interrogator pressed him, giving him information that Ira knew to be false.

To this, Ira replied, “If you know all this, why the hell are you asking me?”

Ira was released to the infirmary without a single cigarette.

He recuperated at Stalag 12A, Germany’s largest POW concentration camp. He became infested with lice, an itchy irritation for anyone, but a deadly threat for prisoners who can easily develop Typhus, one of many deadly infections that threatened the health of our POWs.

As winter closed, Ira’s back was healing itself and the days headed on toward Easter. A friendly, fatherly guard would talk to Ira about how superior the German army, airplanes, and tanks were compared to the Americans, and for want of Benzine, the Germans would be dominating.

To which, in his PA Dutch, Ira responded, “Tough Scheisse.”

But the Guard also gave Ira updates on the advancing American forces, telling him he would be liberated soon.

It was Easter morning, when Ira saw those thrilling three colors from Home, Old Glory. I can only imagine Ira’s joy as the red, white and blue was hoisted up the enemy’s flagpole.

Ira was reunited with his 9th Armored Division. And was able to tell his harrowing ordeal to General Leonard himself. A moment that was captured by a photograph that wound up in this book, that I discovered many years ago, that lead to my friendship with this American hero.

You see, Ira’s not just a hero because he bled for his country, not just because he nearly died in a friendly fire bombing, not just because he suffered inhospitable conditions of the German camps.

He is a hero because he served, he sacrificed his time. And like the farmers of Lexington who first raised up arms in defense of freedom, of liberty, he gave of himself to the work, took on the fight of our country, as a true American patriot.

He returned to the Lehigh Valley after a one year rehabilitative stay at Valley Forge Veterans' Hospital.  He married Geraldine Loy, and with his bent back and fused left wrist went off to work at the Trojan dynamite factory at Greenawalt’s. He went off to work, as all work horses do, not looking up from that the long row ahead, never complaining, just doing his duty.

To me, he is a hero in other ways. Getting to know him, you quickly realize that despite the injuries and insults he suffered, he holds not one shred of entitlement or resentment. The true measure of this man is his affable ease, his selfless sense of duty, and the lessons easily learned from his happy, contented life.

He & Geraldine raised a daughter Linda and a son Carson, and all the wonderful grandchildren followed. Their generous and thoughtful dispositions certainly proof of the love and care Geraldine and Ira instilled in them.

If you are lucky to know Ira, you are not only meeting a true American hero, but you touch history. You soon realize it was men like him who built this country, who fought for the freedom we can enjoy today comes from the sacrifice and duty shared from the burden of men like Ira.

It’s important to look back, to honor the memory of all those like Ira who knew their duty to their country.

Occasionally this old work horse goes back to visit his old farm in Kistler’s Valley, to relive the fond memories of his former life on the farm.

But like a good workhorse and like our flag, they are always moving forward.

Our country was built by these work horses like Ira Smith; who, quietly did their duty. We today benefit from the accumulation of wealth from many like him who came before us: our farmers, our miners, the great labor force of American immigrants who came here for freedom. And just as importantly, we enjoy our freedoms from those who stood ready to fight to preserve it. All of us here today are the fruits of what so many before us planted.

So each time you see our flag, rippling lightly in the breeze, as a bumper sticker on a car, or flying over a veteran’s grave,

Please remember the sweat, the toil, the pain and the blood the millions of men like Ira who served, fought and dreamed for our flag, and who kept it moving forward.

Let’s honor him today and always, by ensuring that our flag always moves forward.

Thank you for having me. It has been my pleasure to take part in honoring this man.

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