A book 43 years in the making, the observations made by Jim Smith in Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent’s Last Days in Vietnam, still reside behind the eyes of a long-haired 23-year-old scribe of the Stars and Stripes, the Defense Department’s newspaper. The former Chaminade High School graduate and Albertson native feels the book that chronicles 1971-72 lends itself to affirming the much-debated war’s heroes that fought for the United States.
“I haven’t used 20/20 hindsight to polish it up,” Smith said, now 66. “[The book] validates the year-long tour and pays homage to committed, heroic folks that I met.”
Smith, a 48-year, retired Newsday reporter/editor, enlisted in the Army in 1970 and was sent to Vietnam, writing for the Stars and Stripes, the Defense Department’s newspaper. Smith noticed an ad in that paper, seeking a reporter before typing up his own orders and forwarding them to his commanding officer. He saw every major city in Vietnam from the Delta to the Demilitarized Zone in one year.
“I had a civilian-acquired skill and had qualified to write for the Stars and Stripes,” Smith said.
Two of the 75 or more stories Smith recalls in the book mention his possible demise, the first involving a captured Russian tank during the North Vietnamese Easter Offensive in 1972.
“I was [taking pictures of a friend] on top of the tank and four rockets came in short, long, right and left…I fell face down, breaking my glasses and my friend’s camera lens,” Smith said.
When Smith was near Pleiku in the Central Highlands at Firebase 42, he learned a captain named Ivey, was killed by a B-40 rocket in a daytime attack. Ivey had worked as an information officer in Bien Hoa, Smith said, and always wanted to see action in the field.
“I had just seen him a couple days before he was killed with a smile on his face looking forward to being an adviser,” Smith said. “When I went to the Vietnam Memorial in [Washington] D.C., I made a rubbing of his name. He just wanted to get his ticket punched and it cost him his life.”
Another attack saw Smith take cover in a bar, getting slashed by flying glass during a strike near the Air Vietnam Terminal in Pleiku in 1972. “I was trying to preserve my life, diving behind a bar amid flying bottles,” Smith said.
According to Smith, he had to have been drafted to keep his seniority at Newsday. Smith pressed and won a union grievance, receiving his credited three years of seniority. But the headache led to a brightspot. Smith met his wife, Lynn Brand, in the process. She edited the employee union newspaper.
“When I won my grievance, I was on the cover of the union paper,” he said. “She became Lynn Smith shortly after.”
In 1973, Smith spent two years on the news desk, which he credits to tightening up his writing.
“I covered North Hempstead Town for a while,” he said. “Zoning squabbles, neighborhood stories. In September of ’75, there was an opening in sports and I returned to covering the local colleges and the Cosmos soccer team.”
As Smith was writing in Vietnam, he kept a red grease-pencil nearby to mark up parts of his notes, writing “for the book,” foreshadowing his future plan. Even then, a young, bold Smith knew he was witnessing moments in history that would transcend generations to come.
“While I was there, I knew someday that I would write a book,” he said. “But I never seemed to have the time. My assignments [at Newsday], included six years covering the Giants. And I wrote a book on Harry Carson. Then 13 years covering the Islanders and Rangers. Every time I got a vacation, my wife and I wanted to go away to relieve the deadline pressure so I never had a chance to concentrate on this book.”
In 1999, Newsday cut the pro hockey staff from three to two writers. At 51, he was transferred to the sports copy desk working nights from August 1999 to January 2000, and spent daytime hours writing Heroes.
“I [sent] it around to mainstream publishers, but they weren’t interested,” said Smith. “I was discouraged. Low and behold in 2000 I get the daytime [slot at Newsday in features] and I put the book on the shelf. I didn’t get back involved until 2014.”
Smith set his retirement for Dec. 31, 2014, but approached iUniverse, a subsidiary of Penguin Books, nine months earlier with his idea for the Heroes.
“I wound up rewriting one-third of what I wrote in 1999,” Smith said. “Essentially, I was transcribing the other two-thirds and sending it piecemeal. So it all had to be put back together by the publisher.”
The proceeds of the book will benefit United Veterans Beacon House (Smith is board chairman), a Bay Shore nonprofit that runs more than 30 homeless shelters.
“I wrote it to dispel the notion of the stereotype of Vietnam vets, like being high all the time, alcohol, shooting up water buffalos and torching villages,” Smith said. “I didn’t see any of that. I saw committed people going about their mission. Some of them realized it was a helpless cause, but they fought for what they believed in anyway.”