In the melee, Smith had destroyed one tank and two self-propelled guns.
Yet another tank appeared in the distance, sweeping the area with a longerrange gun. Still under fire, Smith helped his wounded comrade to cover behind a nearby building and obtained medical aid for him before returning to his position beside the road to combat further enemy action. None materialized, so the battalion was able to consolidate its bridgehead and await the arrival of its own tanks and anti-tank guns. This led to the capture of San Giorgio di Cesena and the advance further north to the Ronco River. Later Smith was hailed as a “one-man army” for the way he had single-handedly fought off the German tanks.
King George VI bestowed Smith’s VC medal at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace in December 1944. Smith’s superior officers were so concerned that he would appear dishevelled, or worse, at the ceremony that they locked him up in a jail cell in Italy the night before he was supposed to board the plane taking him to London for the investiture. That’s another story, like the tale about his nickname, that Smith refused to confirm or deny, although he did allow in one interview that he was kept in custody in London before meeting the King. “There’s a town full of women out there and here I am in jail,” he said with mock chagrin. “It’s only because I was good-looking.”
After receiving his VC, Smith retreated from the front lines and spent what remained of the war drumming up support for the Canadian War Bonds drive. He was demobilized in April 1945 and returned to Vancouver. Two years later he married photographer Esther Weston. Together they operated a photography studio in New Westminster and raised two children, David and Norma-Jean.
Smith re-enlisted in the Armed Forces in 1950 to serve in the Korean War.
He was promoted to the rank of sergeant but was not sent into combat because of his legendary status. Instead he served as a recruiting agent in Vancouver until he retired once again in 1964, at age fifty. He was given the Canadian Forces Decoration for his dozen years of service.
The Smiths opened a travel agency called Smith Travel in 1969, which they operated for more than twenty years, with Smith often taking clients on tours to sites connected with the Second World War. They couple retired in 1992, the year he turned seventy-eight. His wife died four years later, in 1996.
As other veterans died, Smith became iconic as the last surviving recipient of the VC. He was appointed a member of the Order of Canada in 1995 and a member of the Order of British Columbia in 2002. He also made many appearances at veterans’ events, Remembrance Day ceremonies, and significant military milestones, including the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1967, the fiftieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1995, and the consecration ceremony of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa in May 2000.
Smith died at his home in Vancouver on August 3, 2005, at ninety-one, his body was flown to Ottawa to lie in state in the foyer of the House of Commons on August 9. The government flags were flying at half-mast, an extremely rare honour for a citizen who was neither a former prime minister nor a governor general.
Smith’s coffin made the long journey back across the country for a second vigil, at Vancouver’s Seaforth Armoury on August 12, before a full military funeral the following day. As per Smith’s wishes, his ashes were sprinkled at sea, presumably so that his grave could not become a shrine, although friends suggested a different reason: he didn’t want to be put in the ground because he had buried too many of his friends.
As a final act of remembrance, he left instructions in his will that his medals, including the VC, which could have been sold for a huge sum, be donated to the Seaforth Highlanders. The regiment has replicas on display in its museum and exhibits the genuine medals on special occasions only, as a memorial to its most celebrated member.
Excerpts from Working the Deadbeat (c) 2012 Copyright Sandra Martin. Reprinted by permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. www.houseofanansi.com