By James Beaty
The story of a 17-year-old soldier from Pittsburg County reaches all the way from a North Korean prison camp to a raucous homecoming in Indianola after the war ended —but it didn’t end there.
After receiving an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, he later re-enlisted. He died while serving with the military while piloting a helicopter in Germany in the early 1960s.
However, that’s still not the end of the story.
Another chapter in the saga of Robert Dean “Dirt Dobber” Smith will be written this week.
A ceremony is set for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the New Hope Freewill Baptist Church in Indianola, approximately a quarter-mile from the Rock Creek bridge, on State Highway 113, which will be dedicated in his honor.
District 18 state Rep. Donnie Condit, D-McAlester, is set to serve as emcee for the ceremony.
“I think it’s great we can honor any veteran who has given their life for this country,” Condit said.
The ceremony is set at the church, instead of at the bridge, largely for safety purposes.
“You don’t want a bunch of people around a bridge,” Condit said, referring to the fact that the bridge will remain open for traffic.
Teresa King, of Ada, is Smith’s daughter. She has few memories of her father, which makes the Tuesday dedication service all the more special to her.
After serving in the Korean War, her father met and married Anna Stafford, who would become her mother, King said. Robert Dean Smith re-enlisted in the U.S. Army in Dec. 1953 and King said she was born the following September.
The move to name a bridge after her father came as a surprise to her.
“W.R. Weeks and Rackey Lusk went to school with him and were raised in Indianola with him,” King said. She said Weeks contacted her about their hopes to have a bridge named in her father’s honor.
“I knew he was one of my dad’s best friends,” she said. “But I was surprised because it’s been so long.”
King still has some of the letters, passed to her from her grandmother and mother, which her father — a teenager at the time — had mailed back to Indianola from the North Korean prison camp where he’d been held since his capture.
The American POWs obviously were not allowed to write about their treatment in the prison camp. Instead, Smith usually asked for news from home —and also requested small items that could make a big difference in making life a little easier for a teenaged POW
In a letter to his mother, Smith asked that “Each time you write, send something: a pocket comb, razor blades, needles, Kool-Aid, newspaper clippings, pictures of new cars —just anything.
“But the next time you write, send a cheap fountain pen (be sure it’s a cheap one, because I might not get it.)”
Apparently the POWs were allowed to try and provide some of their own food, because Smith suddenly mentioned another item he hoped to receive from back home.
“Oh yes, fish hooks,” he added.
He also learned of the fate, apparently in a letter from home, of comrade-in-arms whom he feared had been killed in the fighting.
“I was very glad and much more to hear that Sgt. Dupree was all right,” he said. “I definitely plan on looking him up when I get out.”
At another point, he asks his mother if she’s still receiving his military pay.
“Is the allotment still going through? If you need the money, use it,” he said.
Smith also added a line that showed POW or not, he still shared the dreams of many teenage American boys in the 1950s as he spoke of the time when he would return home.
“I plan on getting some kind of an old car,” he said.
Smith wrote at one point of spending another birthday in the prison camp.
“This makes three birthdays I’ve spent here,” he said. “Well, here’s hoping it’s the last one.”
When the war ended and the American POWs were released, Smith sent his mother a telegram dated Aug. 11, 1953, from Tokyo, where he had a stop before returning home to Indianola.
“Dear Mom, am on my way home. Nothing’s wrong with me your cooking won’t cure.”
Smith had a bigger homecoming than he could have expected. A contemporary newspaper article states Indianola’s population grew from 300 to 3,000 as part of a welcome home celebration for the returning soldier.
Those attending included Carl Albert, then a U.S. Congressman for Oklahoma’s Third District .
King said she remembers a few things about her father. She certainly remembers learning about the day he died in the helicopter crash in Germany.
The recent call from Weeks, about the efforts to have a bridge named for her dad, had caught her unawares.
“He said ‘I was a friend of your dad’s. We thought so much of him. I thought it was time to do it.”’
The helicopter crash that took her father’s life also took the life of another soldier with Pittsburg County roots, according to King. She said Clayton L. Anderson, a former Ashland resident, had been the other soldier who died in the crash.
King said her father’s brother, Allen Smith, plans to travel to McAlester for the Tuesday ceremony. Her children, Jessica Stockton and Travis Stockton, also plan to attend.
Condit said those who have confirmed they will take part in the ceremony include the Honor Guard of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
He said he hopes to help honor others in the future, especially veterans who gave their life in defense of this nation. He said he encourages anyone who knows of a veteran who should be so honored to get in touch with him, or District 17 state Rep. Dr. Brian Renegar, D-McAlester.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.