Vietnam War veteran Robert J. “Bobby” Smith was just 19 years old when he lost his life in enemy sniper fire and never made it home to West Seneca.
Smith was killed in action nearly 48 years ago, on Sept. 29, 1967.
Sunday was a significant marker for Smith’s relatives, who were presented with two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, along with several other medals of distinction honoring Smith.
The ceremony in West Seneca’s Veterans Memorial Park was a moving one for Smith’s relatives, who still feel the pain of losing him.
“For many, the Vietnam War is a discussion, a chapter in a history book, or a movie on TV. For our family, Vietnam looms very large over us. In fact, it’s a demarcation point for us,” said Michael Hughes, one of Smith’s nephews. “Anyone younger than 48 in our family was not fortunate to meet, or barely remembers, Bobby Smith. Those 48 and older see that war as a dark time; and the point when Bobby didn’t come home.”
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, presented Smith’s three nephews – Bill, Jerry and Michael Hughes – with the medals after detailing the soldier’s bravery. One of the nephews had reached out to Higgins’ office, prompting the medal awards.
During the presentation, Higgins and Smith’s relatives sometimes referred to him as a corporal, but the official citation identifies him as “Private Smith.”
“Corporal Robert Smith is a hero who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I’m honored to express our nation’s gratitude to his family,” Higgins said. “As we celebrate our nation’s independence, we remember all, who like Corporal Smith, have given their lives so we may have a free and united America.”
Smith grew up in the Old First Ward and later lived on Edson Street in West Seneca. After he enlisted on Sept. 30, 1966, he served in C Company, 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.
Michael Hughes spoke of many letters Smith sent home. “He was like any other 20-year-old at that time – sarcastic, hardworking, fun to be around and he loved his family,” Hughes said. “But he was also worried about coming home. Above all else, soldiers want to come home. Yes, they fight for their country, and die for their friends, but they live to come home.”
On Sept. 29, 1967, Smith’s platoon was moving across an open rice paddy when they were ambushed, Higgins said. “In the initial burst of hostile fire, Private Smith was wounded seriously. Ignoring his painful wound and the withering hail of enemy fire being directed at him from three sides, he continued to relay artillery and air strike requests from his platoon leader, who was also wounded,” he said. “Private Smith was mortally wounded by enemy sniper fire, but his fearless actions enabled his platoon leader to bring in effective supporting fire on the enemy positions and completely destroy them. Private Smith’s devotion to duty and personal courage were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit and the United States Army.”
While Smith’s family remains sad and hurt, Hughes said they hold their heads high, knowing of his valiant service to the country.
“He was a proud member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, a paratrooper for the infamous Screaming Eagles. This unit was the perfect place for a kid like Bobby Smith,” Hughes said.