OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Elzie Smith, who turned 100 last week, served in the Navy during WWII. He was in an aviation outfit, in the Southwest Pacific. He was 21 years old in 1941 and had to be registered. He knew he would rather be in the Navy, because someone he knew had gone in the Navy earlier. So, he went to the Navy recruiter and told him, “I’m thinking I might be drafted, and I’d rather go in the Navy.” He said, “Well, you go back home, and the very day you get your call from the Army, you let me know.” On a Sunday, he got a notice to report. He called the Navy recruiter and told him, and he said to be at his office at 9 a.m. So, he went in and had his examination and was sent right up to Birmingham for a final exam. Then he was sent to Norfolk, Va.
He was trained to be an aviation mechanic, but when they got overseas, they needed more metalsmiths, because the planes were so shot up, he said. They went across on the MS Island Mail, just an old ship, he said, and once they were there, they were there. “We had to carry everything we needed so we could set up as close to the front as we could. Everything was camouflaged on the island we were on. In a year’s time, we turned out more planes than Pearl Harbor. We were close to the front so we could keep them back in action. If they got shot up bad, we could come in and fix them.” They were on Espiritu Santo, part of the present-day island-chain nation of Vanuatu near Australia.
They were there with a Seabee outfit. They were making the roads, he said. On the island they were on was a Navy fighter ship and a Marine fighter ship and on top of the mountain was a bomber strip. “So, we were pretty well protected when we got set up,” he said.
Once while they were on the island, a friend of his built a sailboat. He spent a couple of years picking up scraps and boards. “He had it going and asked if I wanted to go for a spin. I said, “Yeah, I’ll go for a spin on that thing. You think it’ll float?’ Well, he’d done been out in it, and it was a good size sailboat, too. He did a good job on that thing,” he said. “We was out there sailin’ around good when another ol’ boy said, ‘Let me handle the tiller awhile.’ He made a fast maneuver of the wrong kind, and it turned the thing over and sunk it. There we are out there in no man’s land. You could see sharks swimming around us. Finally, we see a landing craft coming. They pulled us in and asked what in the world we were doing out there. I said, ‘Just put us on the bank.’ Hardly anybody comes along out there.”
He smoked cigars back then, and you couldn’t get them on the island. He mentioned this to his brother, so his brother sent him two boxes full of cigars right away and from then on, he always had them. He had the only cigars on the whole island. His mother always mailed him boxes of cookies, and by the time they arrived, they would be nothing but crumbs. He didn’t mind, though. He ate every last crumb. The one thing he missed the most while overseas was olives. When he got home. He bought a jar, ate every single olive and drank the juice.
He was there for about three years. “I don’t remember exactly. You lose track there,” he said.
When he came back to the States, they sent him to Daytona, and he had a sister living nearby, so that was great, he said. He was in the service for four years total. When he went in, he didn’t know left from right, he said, but by the time he got out, he had made chief and was training all the guys coming in.
After the war, he went home to Florida, where his father was head of the prison department in Chattahoochee. When he finished school, he went to see the commissioner of agriculture, and they talked about everything but a job. He was a good friend of Mr. Smith’s father. Finally, the subject of a job came up, and the commissioner told him his dad could use a good man and he should go see him, so he did. He didn’t work there very long, though, he said. He was the relief worker for anyone going on vacation, and he learned to do pretty much every job in the prison system.
Later, he went to work with one of his brothers. He owned several bars, and eventually, Mr. Smith owned his own place, Lake Harbor Bar and Package. His license number was 173; that’s how long he held it, he said. He had the place for many years until he finally decided it was time to retire.
He moved to Okeechobee in 2014 and celebrated his 100th birthday on March 12.