Serving His Country: 'You Can Do This'
He started out an Alabama kid with near-perfect attendance at parties and football games and the grades to prove it.
“I was never a good student,” says retired four-star Admiral Leighton W. Smith Jr. “In fact, I was a horrible student.”
Smith is better known by his pilot’s handle “Snuffy” — a nickname he got during his flight training days after a bootlegger was arrested running the biggest moonshine still in Alabama on Smith family farmland.
Barney Google and Snuffy Smith were popular Sunday funnies feature figures, always running from revenuers. After the still story hit the papers, other pilots dubbed him “Snuffy.” Smith decided he liked Snuffy — so he kept it. He’s been Snuffy Smith ever since. There are lifelong friends he says probably don’t know his real name.
“Leighton is a name most people never remember,” Smith says. “Snuffy is fine with me. My wife, Dottie, doesn’t call me Leighton, and she doesn’t call me Snuffy. She calls me Hon.”
The admiral had a distinguished Navy career before retiring to Pinewild. He became commander in chief of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Allied Forces Southern Europe in 1994, and the next year took command of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia. Smith held all three commands until his retirement in 1996.
A Navy combat aviator, Smith flew carrier-based, light attack jet aircraft. He served on carriers deployed to the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, Western Pacific and Indian oceans. There were three cruises in waters off North Vietnam, where he flew more than 280 combat missions.
As a Navy pilot, Smith would eventually log more than 4,200 flying hours and accumulate over 1,000 carrier arrested landings. His ship commands included a deep draft vessel, the USS Kalamazoo, the aircraft carrier USS America and command of a carrier battle group as a flag officer.
Smith graduated from the United State Naval Academy in Annapolis on D-Day, June 6, 1962 — a commencement that nearly didn’t take place.
“After I graduated from high school, I had not a clue what I wanted to do, or what I wanted to be,” Smith says. He knew one thing, however. “I did know what I did not want to do. I did not want to be a farmer.”
Hailing from the almost invisible Alabama town of Union Church — where the Smith family of two parents, three girls and one boy doubled the population by moving there — Smith originally headed for the state university, fraternity life and as little studying as he could get by with.
He says he could actually get by with rather a lot, talking his way out of tough situations with teachers so much that an assistant principal later described Smith as the only student he knew “who talked his way through high school.”
Turning It Around
Talking didn’t work so well at the Naval Academy. Smith had rounded up so many letters of recommendation that their congressman had to make the appointment, but he’d never learned how to study. He was failing three courses and making Ds in two others by November of his fall semester at Annapolis — and he was only taking those five classes.
Smith didn’t have much faith in his own abilities, he says now. Encouraging letters from home enabled failure all the more.
“I almost gave up on myself,” he says. “I just didn't think that I belonged there.”
Then the signal event of his life took place, an experience he’s thought back on ever since. It began with a summons that struck terror in Smith’s heart. He was ordered to report to the Office of the Commandant of Midshipmen — judge, jury and executioner of first year students at the Academy.
Smith had little doubt he was about to be “shipped” — sent home. It came to him that going home was not what he wanted. Terrified, he presented himself as ordered before the commandant: Capt. William F. “Bush” Bringle, Naval Academy Class of 1937.
“I walked in, and I shall never, ever forget that session,” Smith says. “I walked into this office, and here sat this gentleman behind a desk that looked to be about an acre big. There was an American flag over one shoulder, the midshipman flag over the other shoulder.”
The commandant was wearing a service dress blue uniform with nary a wrinkle in sight. Rows of medals across his chest were topped by the Navy Cross, an award for valor second only to the Medal of Honor.
Smith thought about Bringle’s five Distinguished Flying Crosses and this gray-haired warrior’s deeds at Leyte, Iwo Jima and Okinawa that must have resulted in those awards. He looked up at a rugged face and into steely blue eyes boring into his own.
“Midshipman Smith, what is your problem?” Bringle asked. “Why are you ‘unsat’ (unsatisfactory) in your subjects?”
The standard answer at the Naval Academy — when you didn’t know the answer — was, “I’ll find out, sir.” Smith started to say that, but Bringle stopped him.
“Why are you failing three subjects and you have a D in the other two?” he asked.
Smith says he started to give the usual “No excuse, sir” reply but only managed “No excuse.”
Bringle wasn’t having it.
“No, I don’t want that kind of stuff,” the commandant said. “I want to know why. Are you having a problem around here that I don’t understand and I need to know about? What is causing you to be unsat in three subjects, and having a D in the other two? Do you need some special help? Are the midshipmen of the upper-class giving you a hard time? Are the instructors not giving you the amount of time you need?”
Smith said that wasn’t it, his instructors were all good and he was getting whatever he needed. The commandant looked down at the papers on his desk for what seemed like years before finally lifting his gaze back to the midshipman.
“Capt. Bringle looked up and said something I will never forget: ‘Midshipman Smith, you can do this.’”
The words were not meant as encouragement, Smith realized. They were an assessment. The commandant looked at this Alabama farm boy and saw no reason he could not do better. He gave Smith 10 days to be “sat” in all his courses.
“At that point, I realized that it wasn’t anybody else’s fault,” Smith says, thinking back as he has many times to that moment. “I mean, yeah, I was getting a hard time. Who wasn’t? I realized it was me. And I figured, if I really wanted to do anything with my life, that he was giving me a chance. So I went and saw every one of my instructors. I talked to my classmates. I said, ‘I need help. I don’t want to go home.’ And they all turned to and helped me.”
He’d learned two things. One was about himself: He’d given up on his own worth until the commandant gave him a different evaluation. And second was a lesson in leadership.
“Here was a man, a Navy captain, a war hero, a commandant of midshipmen, who had enormous responsibilities,” Smith says. “He went way, way down to one of the plebes at the Naval Academy who was having trouble to say, ‘I’m going to give you a second chance.’ And he did. And I worked real hard. And I made it.”
Meeting the Challenges
Ever afterward, through all the years, whenever a challenge confronted Smith, Bringle’s statement came echoing back.
“Those words that Bush Bringle said — that ‘You can do this’ — was one of the most defining moments in my life,” Smith says today. “There have been lots of times in my life that I have recalled those words: ‘You can do this.’ One of them was my first night ‘cat’ shot.”
He was talking about his first take-off from the pitching deck of a carrier at sea. A catapult “shoots” the aircraft off the deck on a signal from the pilot.
“I was in an A4 — by myself, never done this before — I got the power up,” Smith says. “It was dark. It was black — really, really black — off Pensacola on the USS Lexington. I had everything set to go, and the guy has his little green wand out there, waving. The green wand means basically that he is ready to shoot you when you are ready to go. The signal is to turn your lights on with your little finger (gesturing with a wiggle of his left pinky) — and that S.O.B. wouldn’t work.”
His little finger was frozen in hesitation.
“And I say to myself: ‘You can do this!’ — and I turned the lights on,” Smith says. “That catapult hit me, and it was like a brick: BOOM! — WHAM! (suddenly pointing with a jab to illustrate his slingshot take-off) I got airborne and my first thought was, ‘You damn well better be right,’ because there is only one guy in that airplane, and I’ve gotta land it back aboard.”
He circles back to the carrier. Lands. Takes off again. Lands. Does it over and over.
“We come back and land, do it again,” Smith says. “We do it six times. That carrier-qualifies you. You’ve done it six times that day, maybe four times that night. Maybe four the next day and two the next night — basically 10 day and six night landings plus a couple of touch-and-go is your initial qualification.”
Catapulting from the deck gets to be routine after a while. Then it gets to be fun.
“You look forward to that catapult shot,” he says. “You look forward to the exhilarating moment.”
Smith didn’t set out to be a jet pilot. He’d had another plane entirely in mind after getting his wings. He and Dottie packed everything in a rented trailer and headed for Corpus Christi.
“I thought I was going to go out and fly the SPAD, which was a bigger prop plane than the T-38,” Smith says. “A friend of mine, Pete Russell, and I had agreed: ‘Boy, this is what we want to do. It’ll be great. Carried a lot of bombs; prop airplane.’ But I got out there to the office in Texas early.”
Smith was supposed to report to the assignment officer in Corpus at 0800. He showed up an hour ahead of time.
“At 0700 I was sitting in this office where you made your selection of which route you wanted to go, jets or P2s or S2s, or whatever,” he says. “This guy comes in and he says, ‘What are you doing here? It’s 7 o’clock. You are not supposed to be here ’til 8 o’clock.’ I say, ‘Well, sir, my dad used to tell me the early bird gets the worm.’ He says, ‘What do you want?’ and I say I wanted to fly SPADs, but wanted to transition to jets after I finished my first tour.”
“Son, there is no guarantee at all you will be able to transition after your first tour,” the officer told him. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. We’ve got one seat down in Kingsville, Texas, and there are 20 other guys coming down here shortly.”
Smith made up his mind on the spot.
“I says, ‘Well, I’ll take it,’ and he says, ‘You got it.’ I called Dottie and I say, ‘Don’t bother to go look for an apartment, we are going to go to Kingsville.’”
“They fly jets in Kingsville,” his wife says. “I didn’t know you wanted to fly jets.”
“I didn’t either.”
“Are you sure you want to fly jets?”
“Well, hell, I don’t know; but let’s go find out.”
They headed east across the Texas plains for Kingsville. Smith guesses that’s the way he did a lot of things in his life. They weren’t things he set out to do at first, just turns in the road he took as they came along. His kids would ask him from time to time why he decided to make the Navy a career.
“I never decided to make the Navy a career,” he would say. “I just never decided to get out.”
He and Dottie assemble the Smith clan every year for a week down at the beach: their son, two daughters, their spouses and the grandkids. The admiral stocks up a little Irish whiskey for the occasion. He says the smartest thing he ever did was marrying Dottie.
Among the two or three trophies he is most proud of are a couple of written documents. One is a formal parchment, the royal proclamation making him an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. It was awarded personally by Queen Elizabeth II, whose signature “Elizabeth R” is scrawled in a regal hand across the top.
The other document is far, far simpler. It is a child’s hand-printed note of gratitude, a letter on school paper from a Bosnian child sparked by a soldier’s sacrifice. The boy had seen a news story about an American soldier who died clearing a mine. Leftover mines were killing children; the soldier died trying to protect them.
Hoping for peace, the boy asks “soldiers, children, all people” to be careful.
That simple note means as much to this old sailor as his honorary knighthood, because it speaks to a child’s understanding of the American military as peacekeepers in war-torn countries.
“I thought if we could convince the young kids that we were there for their benefit, that would translate into excitement,” Smith says, looking at the piece of notebook paper he has had framed with photos of his encounter with the child. “We lost a soldier over there; he tried to pick up a mine. And it blew up in his face and cleared him. This little kid — I went to his school — and he read this letter to me, in English. And I was just so taken. I was standing there watching him read it. When he finished, I just reached over and grabbed him, gave him a big hug.”
Smith stops awhile, looking at that framed note and photos of the hug, another turn he was not expecting but will keep with him forever. All his life he’s responded to the unexpected, living out the measure of his ability delivered so long ago across an acre of desk.
“Smith, you can do this.”
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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