Santas bring gift to WWII pilot's kid sis

There's a special cheer in the air this holiday season for Betty Smith Hembree of Wenatchee, Wash.

And it's thanks to three Santas in the form of an alert MT reader, a Central Point resident and a man in France.

Their thoughtful gift was simply letting her know that her brother, Lt. Irving A. Smith Jr., a young pilot from Josephine County killed on D-Day — June 6, 1944 — in France, has not been forgotten.

"I'm so thrilled someone would want to remember my brother after all these years," says Hembree, 84. "It's just wonderful.

"That anyone would remember ... that makes me feel so good," she adds in a telephone interview.

It all began with Jacky Emery, 51, living in Saint Aubin some 200 kilometers west of Paris.

For years, Emery, an auto industry worker with a wife and two sons, has been researching Allied pilots who died in the Sarthe area near the town of Le Mans. He then holds a memorial and lets family members know their loved ones are remembered. He has even lobbied to have French streets and parks named after fallen Allied servicemen.

"I have a debt for all my life with all the Allied soldiers who make the war to give again freedom to my family, to my country, to the world," Emery explains in an e-mail of his quest for Lt. Smith's relatives.

Early last month he contacted Central Point resident William Villani, 37, a military aviation history buff who had written an article for the Josephine County Historical Society newsletter about Lt. Smith in 2005. He is working on a book about Josephine County casualties during the war.

Villani, who is employed by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, rolled up his investigative sleeves and went to work.

He determined that Smith was 20 when he joined the Army Air Corps on Dec. 23, 1941. The young officer, a P-51 fighter pilot in the 363rd Fighter Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group based in England, apparently crashed after suffering vertigo while flying through clouds at 2,400 feet, Villani learned.

The pilot went missing until the grave of an American serviceman was exhumed in Ouen-le-houx in February of 1945. The dog tags confirmed it was Smith's grave. In 1948, his remains were reinterred in the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, Calif.

Villani's sleuthing also determined Smith had attended what is now Southern Oregon University in Ashland. The pilot's mother was Alice E. Smith of Williams; his sister was Betty Y. Smith Hembree, Villani discovered.

But he wasn't able to track down any relatives. So he wondered if yours truly and Off the Beaten Path could help.

Sure enough, a reader of the Dec. 2 column focusing on the quest by Emery and Villani recalled Betty Smith, a member of the Grants Pass High School class of 1941. He also remembered that she had wed classmate Gene Hembree, now deceased. He tracked down one of Hembree's relatives, got her address and sent her a copy of the column.

"I was so happy to learn about this," Betty Hembree says. "I was two years younger than Irving. We were pretty close. He was such a nice guy."

Born in New York state, the siblings moved with their parents to Southern Oregon in 1930 during the Great Depression.

Their father, Irving A. Smith Sr., had been wounded and gassed while serving in the U.S. Army in France in World War I. Health problems caused by mustard gas poisoning would take his life in the VA hospital in Roseburg when he was 37, according to his daughter.

Her mother, who died in 1980, eventually remarried. Her second husband was Alva Davidson, a nephew of Elijah Davidson who discovered the Oregon caves in 1874. She would retire as Josephine County treasurer in 1965 after serving for 26 years in office.

Betty's brother returned to New York for a short period before coming back to Oregon where he attended college in Ashland.

"All through school he got top grades," she says. "He was majoring in English literature. He loved to read. And he really loved Shakespeare. But when the war broke out, he said he wanted to fly."

Smith was stationed at an air base in Northern California when he received orders to ship out.

"He called to let us know," his sister recalls. "We jumped in the car that night and drove all night to see him the next day.

"I was hoping so much that he would make it through the war," she adds. "I'm glad somebody remembers him after all these years."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at

Share This Story