‘Without them, there would be no us’

COLUMBUS, MISSISSIPPI -- Airmen in today’s Air Force do great things around the world every day, but we would not be doing these things if not for the Airmen that came before.

This week, we celebrated the anniversary of retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith’s repatriation. On March 14, 1973, he was repatriated after spending more than five years as a prisoner of war when his plane was shot down over Vietnam.

Smith was born in Marks, Mississippi, in 1935 and grew up in Tunica, Mississippi. After he graduated high school in 1952, Smith entered Mississippi State University and studied Chemical Engineering.

Four years later, he entered the Air Force with a commission from the Reserve Officer Training Corps. After completing Navigator training in 1957 and the Radar Intercept Officer Course in 1958, Smith went through Undergraduate Pilot Training at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, and earned his silver wings in 1962.

He flew the F-105D with 333rd Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Takli Air Force Base, Thailand, before he was shot down flying his 33rd mission on Oct. 25, 1967, over Hanoi. His mission was to destroy the Doumer Bridge, a railroad bridge that sent important supplies.

Smith spent nearly six years in a POW camp called the Hanoi Hilton where he was shot, interrogated and tortured. He learned the tap code to send messages to other POWs within the camp.

His release came years later during Operation Homecoming on March 14, 1973, when Smith was freed from the camp along with nearly 600 other POWs.

After a readjustment period, Smith returned to active duty and was assigned to Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. He served as an Instructor Pilot, the 50th Flying Training Squadron Commander and the wing Director of Operations. He retired from the Air Force July 31, 1978.

His military decorations include two Silver Stars, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Legion of Merit, two Air Medals, two Purple Hearts, a POW Medal, a Vietnam Cross of Gallantry and a Meritorious Service Medal.

Smith stayed in Mississippi and was the Executive Director of Golden Triangle Regional Airport for 20 years. He also was the National President of the Air Force Association from 1994-1996 in addition to holding many other positions in the Golden Triangle Region and remained involved with the Air Force.

For his time at Columbus and his bravery during his years as a POW, the Ceremonial Plaza in front of the wing headquarters building was renamed the Richard “Gene” Smith Plaza on Sept. 19, 2007.