U.S. Navy Cmdr. Gene Albert Smith is home.
For more than 22 years his wife and four children have waited for this day and now it is here. Smith is finally home.On June 27, 1966, Smith was piloting a Navy A-4 Skyhawk over North Vietnam. It was a mission that would last 22 years. Smith's plane was shot from the air. Accompanying pilots reported seeing a fireball and later seeing the shattered wreckage on the ground.
"I always felt he had died, but there was no body and we just didn't know for sure," said Adele Smith, the wife who was left behind to raise four children alone.
On Feb. 22, she learned that her intuition was right. A daughter was notified by military officials that Gene Albert Smith's remains had been identified and returned to the United States. His journey home had begun.
That journey was to completed Friday when he was laid to rest at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park in Salt Lake County, just a few miles from where his life began on April 18, 1933. Full military honors were to be accorded and his fellow aviators were to honor him with their jet aircraft roaring through the sky in the missing-man formation - the ultimate tribute to the flier who gives his life in service of his country.
"I am profoundly grateful to be able to have my husband finally come home where his body can be laid to rest in the country he loved so much," said Adele Smith, her voice trembling with emotion. "He encouraged me to be strong and to have faith and courage. I am so proud of him and if anything, I love him even more now - knowing there is a bright future for us together in the eternities.
"We all owe him a debt of gratitude for the sacrifice of his life to help ensure our country's freedom. He died a hero," she continued. "Our biggest hope and prayer is that all the families of the men and women who are yet unaccounted for in Vietnam will eventually receive the same peace that we have, that all of these fine men and women can come home."
A hint of bitterness crept into her voice as she criticized North Vietnam for not returning the body of her husband sooner. "I do not understand North Vietnam's attitude. I don't see what sense it makes for their keeping these men and women. They should send them all home."
She said she was upset when she first heard that her husband's remains had been returned, but later found it comforting to know that her husband died instantly, that he did not have to suffer. She later confided that she believes the lack of information surrounding her husband's fate led to his parents death. "I really believe it did."
The hardest part of the 22-year ordeal was simply not knowing for sure whether her husband lived or died. "The unknown is the hardest thing."
She has been actively involved in MIA support groups, even attending a national convention with her son, Gene A. Smith II, last fall. "I never thought this (the return of her husband's remains) would happen."
"I think I am just now finding out how much this affected us, now that he is home," she said. "But, it is wonderful to have this brought to a close."
But while her personal involvement with Vietnam is closing, she cannot help but feel for others who have shared her grief and that haunting burden of the unknown.
"We lost many friends in that war and shared the terrible burden of the unknown with other families whose husbands and fathers and friends were declared missing in action or were prisoners of war," she said. "Our friends who fought in Vietnam were and are some of the bravest men I've ever known and their families the finest examples of faith, courage and strength. Hope, faith and love have been essential ingredients in enabling us to endure."
Military officials said Thursday that the remains of a second pilot, who's last known address was Salt Lake City, will not be returned to Utah. Maj. Bill Auer, public affairs officer for the 96th Army Reserve Command, said the wife of U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Wallace has apparently moved from Salt Lake. He said he does not know where the remains will be sent but has been told they will not come to Salt Lake City.