MILLVILLE — Howard M. Smith, who entered adulthood during the Vietnam War, grew up in a religious household in a family with a military background.
During World War I, Smith’s grandfather, Thomas Smith Sr., served. One of Smith’s uncles was in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Another one of Smith’s uncles, Thomas Smith Jr., was in the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War. Smith’s brother, Kenny, is also a Vietnam War veteran, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1972.
Smith, 68, who grew up in Port Norris, Commercial Township, graduated from Millville Senior High School in 1968. He went to work for seven months at the Armstrong Cork Co. in the glass division in Millville before joining the service.
With no doubt in Smith’s mind that his draft number would come up, he decided to volunteer. By volunteering for the draft, he figured he could at least pick the branch of service he preferred. He wanted to be a Marine because he liked the way the uniform looked.
“Some of the guys that got drafted that were my age, that got drafted later down the road, they ain’t here,” said Smith, who lives here now. “So I’m thinking whatever happened with me was ordained by the man upstairs, being at the right place at the right time.”
Before Smith arrived in Vietnam at age 19, he was stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina; Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina; Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California; and Okinawa Island in Japan before arriving at age 19 in Vietnam.
“You know where you are going. They are telling you that some of us aren’t going to make it back. You just have to have faith in the Lord that he will bring you back,” said Smith, who added his church family at Shiloh Baptist in Port Norris was praying for him. “It wasn’t my time.”
Smith served in the military for 1 year, 5 months and 22 days. He spent most of his time walking for miles as the point man for Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division.
“You’re the lead. You have to look out for booby traps and ambushes. Nine times out of 10, you are not going to see anything until you hit it,” said Smith, who added he had to be helped by God to survive.
Smith graduated from point man to squad leader and was close to finished with his Vietnam rotation. He was injured with shrapnel when one of his fellow Marines stepped on a landmine. He earned a Purple Heart medal because of what happened to him.
After Smith’s time in the Marines, he returned to work at the glass factory where he stayed until he retired in 1999.
Over the decades, Smith learned to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder from serving in Vietnam. In recent years, he has shown his pride in his military service by marching in parades and talking to school children.
“It had its good days and its bad days. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Smith looking back on his time in the Marines. “The camaraderie is a blessing.”