Aviation Hall to enshrine SmithPublished 5:30pm Sunday, April 8, 2012
Lt. Gen. Donavon F. Smith has been elected to the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame in the Portage Air Zoo.
Enshrinement is May 19, according to Dan Hamill, a retired commercial pilot who lives in Pokagon Township and researched the World War II ace’s heroics.
Smith grew up in Niles, where the veterans park and plaque at Main Street and M-51 (11th Street) were dedicated to him in 1976.
A P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft and a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor were featured at the Air Zoo’s traveling warbird show at Jerry Tyler Memorial Airport in Niles in May 2000. Hamill flew the Tri-Motor to Niles for the display.
Smith graduated from Niles High School in 1940. In November 1942, Smith joined the 61st Fighter Squadron, 56th Fighter Group, in England and subsequently became commander.
He remained with the squadron throughout his combat duty in the European theater of operations from March 1943 until February 1945, flying 123 combat missions for 385 flying hours in the P-47 Thunderbolt.
“When Smith joined the 56th Fighter Group, they were fighting
in some of the most intense and deadliest air combat of World War II,” according to Hamill.
“The engaged the German Luftwaffe time and again in a desperate struggle for control of the skies. Smith and the other pilots finally wrestled air superiority away from the enemy. Truly the Greatest Generation.”
Smith was a fighter pilot ace with eight enemy aircraft destroyed — six in aerial combat.
Three were shot down on a
single mission over Emden,
Germany, on Dec. 11, 1943.
Smith was awarded the
Cross, second only to the
Medal of Honor, for that mission.
Smith retired in 1973 after a 41-year Air Force career and died of brain cancer in 1974.
The P-47 Thunderbolt, nicknamed Jug, was the war’s heaviest single-engine fighter and the most-produced American fighter, known for massive firepower and durability.
Called “a man for all seasons,” Smith was known for his sense of humor and enjoyed photography, sailing, cars and backyard cooking.
“He lived life to the fullest and was so interested in so many things, but, of course, flying trumped them all,” according to his son, Peter. “He flew anything he could get his hands on.” Peers knew him as “the fighter pilot general.”
Don sponsored Michael Collins (Apollo 11) into the astronaut program in 1963. His funeral took place at the Air Force Academy.
Smith, who was one of only two Americans to command a foreign fighter squadron for the Royal Air Force and chief Air Force adviser to the Republic of Vietnam, was born in Dowagiac.
He enjoyed a rural upbringing and built and flew balsa wood and fabric airplanes, was a Star Scout (one rank below Eagle), played trumpet in the high school band and was an artist.
Raised in Niles, he was at Michigan State University when the war began and he dropped out to serve his country.