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Cold saved soldier's life; Brooklyn man earned 10 medals

Robert Smoot in his U.S. Army uniform while serving.
Robert Smoot in his U.S. Army uniform while serving.

The Army doctor said the cold saved Robert Smoot's life in 1944.

Smoot says someone else saved him.

"I was hit by a shell in my back and leg," said Smoot, placing his hand on the right side of his lower back and running it down his right leg. "I felt the pain, but after awhile the pain went away -- I guess because of the cold weather."

After a moment of unconsciousness, he woke to the sight of his wounded leg covered in frozen blood. After a three-hour ride through the mountains of Italy and a half-mile walk, Smoot arrived at the field hospital.

"When I hit the heat in the tent, I heard a guy say, 'Get a wheelchair,' and I passed out. When I came to, I was in bed with needles in both my arms."

The doctor told Smoot his wounds should have killed him, but the cold weather kept him from bleeding to death.

Smoot, 85, of Brooklyn, said it couldn't have been the weather that saved him. Several fellow soldiers died in that same cold.

"I said 'No, the cold weather didn't save my life, Doc. The Good Lord did.'"

The Purple Heart that Smoot earned is one of about 10 medals he received for his World War II service. He also received the Silver Star, the third-highest Army decoration, awarded for "gallantry in action."

It was in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy, and Smoot said the mission was to "hold the position" and keep German forces out.

Smoot was a sergeant in the U.S. Army's 92nd Infantry Division, the "Buffalo Soldier" division that was the only black division to see combat in Europe. His job was to lead his squad up the side of a mountain to relieve a company of about 200 soldiers who were under German attack.

"We needed ammunition and troops to help us on the mountain," Smoot said.

When he called down the mountain for help, he was told neither ammunition nor troops would be available until the next day.

Still under attack, Smoot got an order to "fix bayonets," a phrase he said really means "get ready to die." He pushed his squad up the mountain that night.

"Then a strange thing happened," he said. "Fog came down the mountain so thick you could raise your hand 6 inches in front of your face and you couldn't see it. Then I knew we were safe through the night."

The squad moved into the German position the next morning only to find the Germans had retreated.

"They'd left their dead and anything they didn't need," Smoot said.

When Smoot wasn't in combat, he dealt with being far from home and missing special family occasions.

"Every day was the same," Smoot said. "You could say every day is Christmas, or you could say every day is Monday."

He was 19 when he left college to enter the draft in 1942, and 23 when he returned home in 1946.

He said missing three Christmas dinners was especially difficult. He remembered December 1944 when his unit was promised a Christmas dinner. It would be their first hot meal since going overseas. It was canceled by a German attack.

"We never did get our Christmas dinner," he said.

Although he was at war in a foreign land, Smoot said there were some parallels to life back home -- such as racism.

He saw racism back home in the United States, such as when he was stationed in Fort Polk, La. Members of his all-black division and town residents clashed after a group of black soldiers were severely beaten during a visit into town.

A general was sent from Washington to relocate the unit to Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

In Europe, Smoot said his division ran into racism again after German soldiers spread rumors among Italians about the Buffalo Soldiers, whom the Germans dubbed "the African Outfit."

"The Germans told the Italians all-black outfits will rape your girls and women, and take anything you have when they sweep through," he said.

Smoot and other black soldiers dispelled the stereotypes after spotting Italian children playing in the mountains and finding their whole family had been in hiding. After he and other unit members assured the family they weren't there to harm them, one of the men in the family made the signal for other families to come out of hiding.

"He waved and I guess there were 100 people that came out," Smoot said.

Smoot said his personal goal was "to try and get the job done and get back home."

Medals didn't mean as much to Smoot as getting home to Brooklyn.

"Everybody made a big deal out of it," he said. "In a way, I was so glad to get home it didn't really matter."

When he finally made it home, his post-war plans had changed.

"My ambition was to finish college and become a coach," said Smoot, who had been one of the top high school athletes in the St. Louis. "But after three years overseas, everything left. My ambitions -- boom -- blew up."

Smoot took a job as an instructor with the Army Reserve Corps and went on to become one of few blacks of his time to earn a Green Beret. Smoot served a total of 38 years in the Army before he retired in May 1980.

He married in 1950 and had a son and daughter before divorcing two years later.

"She thought I loved the Army more than her," he said.

Smoot has been asked to share his story at local high schools, and even got an offer from famous director Spike Lee to talk about his experience for a film expected to come out in October.

He said although his life didn't turn out as planned, his service left him satisfied.

"It was something that needed to be done," he said.

Contact reporter Rickeena J. Richards at rrichards@bnd.com or 239-2562.

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