Drawing on lessons learned in war, veteran rebuilds family business torn by fire - The Buffalo News

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Drawing on lessons learned in war, veteran rebuilds family business torn by fire

Leon H. Smith III, 63

Hometown and residence: Buffalo

Branch: Navy

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: Enlisted, Navy Reserve, 1969; active duty, Jan. 1, 1972 – Dec. 31, 1973

Rank: Seaman

Most prominent honors: Navy Commendation, Good Conduct Medal, Combat Action Ribbon

Specialty: Gunner’s mate

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

After graduating from Bishop Neumann High School, Leon H. Smith III followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father working at the family business, Niagara Lubricant, which at that time was in the Bailey-Clinton farmers’ market area.

The company was founded in 1923 by Smith’s maternal grandfather, Ferris Wentworth, and produced lubricants for the automobile industry. Growing up, Smith always knew that he was destined to be part of the family enterprise.

But, there was a war and Smith also knew it was only a matter of time before he was drafted and on his way to Vietnam. So, he enlisted in the Navy Reserve and three years later was called to active duty.

His first billet in 1972 was on the USS Newport News, the flagship for the 2nd Atlantic Fleet, which seemed a safe place to be. But the North Vietnamese rocked the boat and initiated a huge offensive to try and overrun South Vietnam.

President Nixon responded by ordering thousands of sailors to participate in the first multi-cruiser strike force since World War II and Smith’s ship arrived in record time in Southeast Asia.

“It took us 21 days to go through the Panama Canal and cross the Pacific,” he said. “We sailed directly to Haiphong Harbor, the harbor for Hanoi. I was a gunner’s mate for a main battery shooting an 8-inch, rapid-fire gun.”

Targets were bountiful and the Navy guns blazed, but the enemy fought back hard. Rockets, bullets and mortars sometimes pierced the maritime barrage.

“This was serious. We were shooting at railroad depots, tanks, fuel depots, military barracks, military headquarters,” Smith said, explaining that the action was part of a broader strategy with an end game of peace in mind.

As the ships pounded selected targets at the harbor and other seaports, low and slow flying American planes dropped mines into the water to choke off the possibility of the enemy receiving future supplies.

“Our ships were the bait that the enemy fired at and because they expended all their arms they couldn’t reload fast enough to shoot at our planes mining the coastlines,” Smith said. “Basically we were trying to starve them out. The New York Times Magazine did a 16-page spread on our task force.”

Danger persisted and on Oct. 1, 1972, a turret on the Newport News exploded and killed 20 of Smith’s shipmates.

“Eleven of those guys were in my 30-man division,” he said. “These were my buddies and they all died and we almost lost our ship.”

But the strategy, paid for in blood and death, worked, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was back in France finalizing the “Paris Peace Accords.”

“This is when the POWs were returned to America,” Smith said. “It was a huge moment in our history.”

Married and the father of a 3-year-old daughter, Smith was back on the job at the family business in January 1974.

“I’ve done every single job there is to do at the business, filling grease tubes, filling quart cans, making truck deliveries to local customers,” he said, adding that the GI Bill funded his participation in a management trainee program.

Fast forward several decades to a few years ago. Smith was now president of Niagara Lubricant and it was prospering. Then on July 13, 2011, a fire destroyed the plant, which had moved to Chandler Street in Black Rock.

Smith now faced the biggest business battle of his life and drew off of his experience as a combat veteran, knowing that if he persevered he could rebuild Niagara Lubricant.

After the flames had been doused and a couple dozen bewildered workers looked on at the ruins, Smith called them into a huddle and told them their jobs would be safe. He would find a way to make sure the paychecks continued.

The first order of business was to move to temporary quarters, which took them to a structure on the East Side’s Northland Avenue, where slowly Smith’s team, which included his son, Leon H. Smith IV, started rebuilding.

In 2013, another major step was taken. They began a process to relocate into what would be their permanent residence at the closed American Axle factory off East Delavan Avenue.

That move was completed on June 1 and the company occupied 65,000 square feet of the abandoned factory for its new digs.

Today, Niagara Lubricant’s production is ahead of what it was back on Chandler, before the fire of undetermined origin nearly killed the business.

Smith recalled that he never dreamed he would be fighting for his economic life in his 60s, but with the help of his “team members,” he says, they won the battle.

Proud of his military service, Smith is equally proud of the family business and is happy to point out that Niagara Lubricant “is the only veteran-owned lubricant operation in Western New York.”

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