Bradley Smith was accompanied by his wife, Kirsten, when he traveled from Bradenton, Fla., recently to attend a reunion of the Jackson-Milton High School Class of 1957. Smith, who grew up in Lake Milton, was held captive at prisoner-of-war camps in and near Hanoi, North Vietnam, for seven years.
By Sean Barron
Special to The Vindicator
For several years, a partial itinerary of a typical day for Bradley Smith looked something like this: Endure beatings, wear rags as clothing, eat garbage, withstand torture and be cut off from the rest of the world.
“My chances for survival I thought were about 50-50,” the Bradenton, Fla., retired Navy carrier pilot recalled about the seven years he was held captive at prisoner-of-war camps in and near Hanoi, North Vietnam.
The passage of 46 years has done little to diminish the memories Smith has of the day his single-engine A-4 Skyhawk plane was shot down in March 1966 over North Vietnam.
The event proved to be the beginning of a long, painful odyssey in which he was first listed as missing in action, then as a POW.
Smith, who served 24 years in the Navy, was finally repatriated Feb. 12, 1973.
Smith, a 1957 Jackson-Milton High School graduate who grew up in Lake Milton, spoke about his ordeal and strength during his recent 55th high-school class reunion in the Jackson Township administration building, 10613 Mahoning Ave.
Accompanying Smith was his wife, Kirsten, his brother, Paul, and most of the 39 fellow class members.
During a mission, his plane was hit, and the next thing Smith knew he was quickly losing altitude while traveling close to 600 mph.
A short time later, he escaped via parachute and awoke in a body of water, though it wasn’t long before several members of a North Vietnamese paramilitary unit captured him there.
Shortly afterward, the brutal treatment started, which among other things resulted in a 75-pound weight loss, he said.
Smith, however, survived in part by setting simple daily goals and developing an ability to use his mind to rise above his predicament and many of his adversities, he continued, adding that his last two years of captivity saw slightly improved conditions, such as better food.
Also keeping Smith going was the deep belief that the American people would be there for him upon his return.
“I became very tough and very strong over time,” Smith said.
He also became determined not to be bitter. That attitude, along with his strong mental stance, helped him get through his captivity and live a fulfilling life.
Shortly after his release, Smith returned to Lake Milton — and to a hero’s homecoming ceremony that included being given a key to the city of Youngstown, he proudly recalled.
Nevertheless, he said, “I received the hero treatment, but considered myself as doing my duty, not as a hero.”
He added, “I’ve become a better person because of my service.”
In addition, Smith returned to his duty as a pilot before retiring from the military in 1985, he said.
After that career ended, Smith entered the corporate world. He also ran a stained-glass window and design business in the Bradenton area.
Smith also saw his family grow to comprise a daughter and four grandchildren, all of whom he enjoys spending time with.
Even though he’s been a civilian for 28 years, don’t think that he’s abandoned an interest in planes. Smith owns a hangar to house the two model airplanes he’s building, including a metal two-seat RB-6 type that can fly up to 200 mph.
“He’s one of a kind, and I consider him the definition of a hero,” Kirsten Smith said, adding that her husband loves to share his story with youngsters by giving presentations to schools and churches. “He speaks to young children and they’re grateful to him.”
Smith also is grateful to Mahoning Valley residents, who he said provided hospitality upon his return from Vietnam and over the years since.