World War II airman to pilot Memorial Day parade in Park Ridge
Park Ridge resident Richard Smaus, holding up two photographs of himself taken during World War II, was grand marshal of the 2012 Memorial Day parade. He died Aug. 9.| Sun-Times Media
NAME: Richard Smaus
BEST KNOWN AS: Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal
HOMETOWN: Park Ridge
Updated: June 29, 2012 9:32AM
As World War II raged on the other side of the world, Richard Smaus was training pilots to fly twin-engine planes in Indiana.
But when the opportunity came to fly combat missions over the Pacific, the U.S. Army Air Corps pilot eagerly volunteered.
“That’s where all the action was,” explained Smaus, 89, of Park Ridge.
Flying with student pilots had gotten boring, the veteran acknowledged — especially after hearing about the heroic and exciting exploits of men he knew who had already been sent overseas.
Smaus would go on to fly 38 combat and reconnaissance missions as a B-25 pilot during World War II, his missions taking him to Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines and a number of small Pacific islands.
On May 28 Smaus will preside over Park Ridge’s annual Memorial Day Parade as grand marshal. He was selected for the role by the Park Ridge-based American Legion Post 247, of which Smaus is also a member.
“I think it’s an honor,” said Smaus, who has marched in the Memorial Day parade for more than a decade with the American Legion.
Spectators are often thrilled to see World War II veterans taking part in the parade, Smaus noted. As soon as they see “World War II veterans” written on signs taped to the car that travels ahead of them, the parade watchers “all stand up and start applauding,” he said. “I’ve had a couple women come out and give me a big hug. It’s very rewarding to have people do that.”
Smaus joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943 after a college fraternity brother, a civilian flight instructor, began sharing his flying experiences.
“He would tell me all these stories about the students he had, all the goofy things they did,” Smaus shared. “I thought that sounded interesting.”
Smaus is proud of his military service, which involved bombing enemy planes and ships over the South Pacific and visiting many different and unusual places. One of the stranger missions Smaus found himself on involved destroying one of the Army’s own planes, which had been shot down and was submerged in water just off the coast of an island. The crew on board had escaped safely, but the plane was a liability if the Japanese found it and any Army intelligence information that was still on board.
Bombing one of his own planes “was really hard to do,” Smaus acknowledged. “But we had to do it. We couldn’t let it get in the hands of the enemy.”
Smaus also kept a clear head when, while traveling in the Philippines, he and a group of other serviceman found themselves waiting for a train to pass. The train cars, the men discovered, were filled with Japanese prisoners and one of Smaus’ fellow airmen was contemplating killing them.
“There were so many terrible stories about what (the Japanese) had done to our guys. He was going to shoot everyone in there. I had to talk him out of it,” Smaus recalled. “Then we got back in the car and never talked about it again.”
Smaus, a resident of Park Ridge for the past 51 years, joined the American Legion about 25 years ago. Many Roosevelt School students know him as one of the local veterans who speaks to classes every Veterans Day.
Smaus was also an active volunteer for the Boy Scouts organization for 40 years, earning the Silver Beaver Award, the highest award given by Boy Scouts of America. Park Ridge Presbyterian Church also recently awarded him the Celtic Cross for his service to youth.
For Smaus, Memorial Day is about honoring those who have served in the military, but it is also about reflecting on the lives of loved ones — those still living and those who have passed away.
“It’s just a good time to remember people who have done so many things and who are an important part of your life,” Smaus said.