The branches of Clifford Smith’s military family tree took centuries to come into focus.
The retired chief master sergeant and Vietnam War veteran kept meticulous track of the 30 years, eight months and seven days he spent in the Air Force serving his country.
The Las Vegas resident also was aware that his father, uncles and four brothers had all served in various branches of the military. And he obviously knew that his two kids — a daughter and a son — and two of his grandchildren had enlisted in the Air Force.
But it wasn’t until a decade ago that he discovered his family military lineage extended all the way to the Revolutionary War. All told, he said, more than 30 members of his family have served their country since its founding.
“I’m a patriot first,” Smith said. “It’s something to be proud of.”
Saturday is Armed Forces Day, and for Smith the third Saturday in May is a day to remember the sacrifices that his family and countless others have made, including those being made by the current generation of service members.
“It’s about showing respect for men and women who gave their all for this country,” he said. “And respecting what the military has gone through, past and present.”
He still vividly remembers arriving at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Vietnam on his first deployment and seeing about 20 tractor trailers with aluminum caskets being loaded into airplanes, each with a flag draped over it.
“Those are the true heroes,” he said in an interview this month. “The ones that gave everything they had.”
Smith, 77, joined the Air Force just a week past his 19th birthday, on Feb. 24, 1961. He worked in aircraft maintenance and civil engineering as he made his way up the ranks.
He met his late wife, Elena, in 1963, when he was celebrating his 21st birthday in the Philippines. He approached her as she sat with a group of other women, and they began talking.
“You know, you and I, we’re getting married,” he recalled telling her.
It took 17 months for him to persuade her, but, true to his word, they were married in 1964 on the Fourth of July.
Smith’s father, Philip, who served for a short time in the 1920s, never talked about military life, Smith said. His three uncles all served in World War II. And when he was younger, he remembers watching his four older brothers shine their shoes every morning.
“That isn’t for me,” he recalls thinking.
In the Air Force, however, you didn’t have to do that because the boots had a satin finish, so he enlisted.
“I guess it was ingrained in me,” he said.
Vietnam “was the war we had, and I thought at that time that I should go, and I did, because my brother had fought in Korea,” Smith said. “Then I started to see what was going on, and I didn’t protest or anything, but I didn’t really like it, because I had met a bunch of beautiful people there.”
Reunion kindled interest
Smith learned of his deep military roots when he and his family attended a reunion outside Pittsburgh in 2009, when talk turned to Smith’s younger brother, Phillip, who had died as a baby.
Smith took an interest in his family genealogy and soon discovered his late uncle Lagene Smith, who served as an Army cook in Italy during World War II, had kept an extensive record of the family lineage.
That’s when he found the tattered photos and military records of his great-great-grandfather William Smith, who served as a captain in the War of 1812. William Smith’s father, Samuel, and his brother, James Smith, formed a ranger unit in 1765 to defend their community against raiding Native American war parties. When the Revolutionary War began, their militia joined many other outfits to help form what became the Continental Army, according to records that Clifford Smith uncovered.
Most of the records had been kept at a historic stone farmhouse that doubled as a museum in western Pennsylvania called the Burtner House. Smith is now actively working through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ extensive genealogy records to continue exploring his family tree.
Because no war stories were passed down from generation to generations, Smith knows next to nothing of the stories of those early relatives.
But according to all accounts of more recent generations, the Smiths have been exceptionally lucky. The only family member ever wounded, as far as he knows, was his late brother, Clarence, an Army soldier who recovered and returned home from the Korean War.
Smith does remember stories he heard from his brothers, though.
His late brother Bill was an Army medic stationed in England in the 1950s. He once shared a story about taking the Army ambulance through slippery roads and accidentally running over a farmer’s chicken coup.
His brother Bob, also deceased, spoke fluent German when he was in the Army. He participated in top-secret missions and helped intercept and decode radio transmissions from the enemy.
His only living brother, 87-year-old Donald Smith, served 32 years in the Army 101st Airbone Division. His wife, Nancy, also served for a few years, as did his son.
‘A really huge tree’
“We have a really huge tree with all the branches out there,” retired Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Smith, who worked in special weapons and at the Pentagon during his career, said. “My dad never talked much about the military, except that he wished he had stayed. It’s important to us, we were bred together, and it’s a special sort of bond.”
Clifford Smith also has some vivid memories from his service. He remembers once pausing to watch a Douglas A-1 Skyraider approach for a landing in Vietnam when he saw a venomous blue-green snake was entangled in his boots, a mouse dangling from its mouth.
Another time, he said, he literally bumped into John Wayne while preparing aircrafts at Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam to be shipped to Thailand. Wayne was at the base to shoot the 1968 film “The Green Berets.”
“He was an awesome guy,” Clifford Smith recalled. “He was big. He didn’t even move when I hit him, and I was going full force.”
Afterward, the two had beers together, he said.
But, he said, all his military memories eventually circle back to the Smith legacy. To Clifford Smith, it’s about serving.
“Serving the best country in the world, keeping it safe and secure,” he said. “And keeping the same tradition that our forefathers did.”