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Bayside WW II veteran fights for French medal

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When Clyde Smith was 21, he answered his country’s call and joined the U.S. Army, fighting in the World War II invasion of France and eventually serving for three years as a private.

Last year the longtime Bayside resident responded to another call, this time from U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman’s (D-Bayside) office looking for veterans who had served in Normandy to present them with a special award.

Smith, who is black, was told he was not eligible to receive the award because his discharge papers list northern France and not Normandy as the location in which he served.

But in the three months since Smith, 76, said he questioned the rejection, the longtime Bayside resident said no one at Ackerman’s office took the time to answer his inquiries.

“Normandy is a part of northern France,” Smith said during an interview at his Bayside home last week. “I was right in there.”

The congressman’s office insisted this week that the parameters for the medal were set by the French government.

Ackerman was seeking veterans who had participated in the Normandy invasion to present them with a special medal commissioned by the French government and the citizens of Normandy during a ceremony in June. The Jubilee of Liberty Medal has been presented to more than 35,000 Americans since it was commissioned in 1994 and nearly 60 veterans were honored in the ceremony arranged by Ackerman earlier this year.

A spokesman for Ackerman’s office said Smith was not the only one to be declared ineligible for the Jubilee of Liberty Medal.

“The criteria for this were set by the French government,” spokesman Jordan Goldes said Monday. “The discharge papers must say Normandy. We had about 10 others who were rejected.”

Ackerman, a longtime congressman whose father was a veteran, is well-known for his efforts to honor those who served their country.

A May 2001 letter from Ackerman’s office informing Smith of his ineligibility for the Jubilee of Liberty Medal said those sponsoring the medal “were unable to verify your participation in the Normandy Invasion.”

The Normandy Invasion lasted from June 6 to Aug. 31, 1944, during which 175,000 men, more than 5,000 ships and landing crafts, 50,000 vehicles and 11,000 planes crossed the English Channel to land on Normandy beaches. The invasion set the stage for the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Smith, a father of 10 who has lived in Bayside since 1956 and whose wife Mamie is a longtime member of Community Board 11 in Little Neck, remembers his time in the war clearly.

“We went to Liverpool, England and then to Southhampton,” said Smith, who served from 1943 to 1946. “Then we went over the English Channel. We landed in Omaha Beach and from there we went into battle.”

Smith was a private who helped shuttle troops, ammunition, prisoners of war and food supplies to soldiers on the front, facing the same dangers as any other soldier.

“You were in combat — you were in danger,” he said.

“I took the draft, I didn’t duck the draft,” Smith said of his choice to serve in World War II. “I did my duty as a citizen.”

After the war Smith moved from his native New Orleans to a house on 206th Street in Bayside, where he has lived ever since. Smith retired from the city in 1984 after working for 32 years as a subway motorman. The Baysider has 10 children, 14 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Smith’s daughter, Rhunette, said she would like to see her father get recognition for his contributions to the war effort.

“I told my father it was a cover job,” she said of Smith’s rejection for the Jubilee of Liberty Medal. Whenever Ackerman honors veterans, she said, “there’s never a black person.”

Goldes, Ackerman’s spokesman, insisted there were no ulterior motives for not including Smith in the Jubilee of Liberty Medal ceremony.

“We are thankful and proud for Mr. Smith’s service,” he said. “If he believes there is a mistake on his discharge papers, even after all these years we can try to help get it corrected.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:16 pm, October 10, 2011
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