On January 7, 1942, one month after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey was presented with a proposal for the U.S. Navy’s first significant offensive operation in the Pacific.
Halsey’s flagship, the carrier USS Enterprise, would team with Yorktown to strike the Japanese-held Marshall Islands and Gilbert Islands, while Lexington would hit Wake Island. Enterprise‘s aircraft would launch their raid about three weeks later, on February 1, and ultimately would succeed in demonstrating the damage the Navy’s carrier-based forces could do.
Enterprise‘s aircraft would be credited with destroying a dozen Japanese planes while sinking three ships and damaging eight others in raids around the northern Marshall Islands that morning. With her own planes recovered, Enterprise set a course back toward Hawaii at high speed after spending hours within the reach of enemy airfields.
Before she could get out of range, though, the Japanese managed a strike of their own with five twin-engine bombers. None of them managed to score a direct hit on the mighty carrier, but one bomb detonated close enough to kill Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Hoyle Smith.
George Hoyle Smith was born three weeks after the end of the Great War, a conflict that had claimed his uncle, Fred Smith, in France in October 1918.
George H. was the second-oldest of George C. and Rosa Smith’s six children. He grew up near Cool Spring (now Springs) in Iredell County, North Carolina, about 50 miles north of Charlotte.
Hoyle, as he was called, was active in the 4-H and competed with the debate team during his high school years. A week before his 17th birthday, he was chosen as the harvest king at the Cool Spring School’s Harvest Festival.
About a year and a half later, though, Smith’s life took a dark turn.
On March 24, 1937, he drove his aunt, Rebecca Reid, and two other women to nearby Statesville to watch a movie. On their way back to Cool Spring around 11:30 p.m., the car being driven by Smith collided with a westbound car full of teenagers who had attended a junior-senior banquet at Cool Spring High School.
Smith would later testify that he though the other car’s driver, Wade Webb, was turning left, when in fact it was turning right. As he realized his error and tried to swerve out of the way, Smith’s car struck Webb’s and overturned “a time or two,” according to a local newspaper report.
One of the passengers in Smith’s car, Mrs. T.S. Clodfelter, a widow who was living with his Aunt Rebecca, was seriously injured in the wreck and died two days later.
A coroner’s jury found Smith had operated his vehicle “in a careless and reckless manner” and he eventually was charged with manslaughter. However, Solicitor Charles L. Coggins eventually determined that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Smith, and the case was dismissed in late May.
A little over two months later, Smith enlisted in the U.S. Navy. On May 12, 1938, Enterprise was commissioned into service, and Smith was part of her crew.
Enterprise would be Smith’s primary home for the rest of his life, but he didn’t spend all his time on the ship. In 1941, Smith married Roene Anderson of Fort Collins, Colorado, a young woman his parents hadn’t even had a chance to meet.
The Pacific Fleet moved from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in May 1940, but Enterprise and the other carriers were at sea and thus spared in the December 7 attacks. She returned to Pearl the following evening and was quickly stocked up for war duty.
About two months before the attacks, Smith had been promoted from Coxswain to Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class. His original enlistment expired on December 17, but he reenlisted on the spot, eager to continue serving his country.
Smith was assigned to Enterprise‘s aft 5-inch guns, and in those duties was at the ready all morning on February 1, 1942, as the crew scanned the skies for Japanese planes.
They finally arrived shortly after 1:30 p.m., and quickly exploited the Enterprise‘s untested defenders. Four fighters sent to intercept the five inbound Japanese twin-engine bombers failed to head them off, and close-in anti-aircraft fire from the ship’s batteries was ineffective.
That allowed the enemy planes to get in close enough to drop their bombs, but their accuracy also was lacking. Just one exploded close enough to the ship to do any significant damage, hitting the water some 30 feet off Enterprise‘s port side. Shrapnel from that explosion mortally wounded George H. Smith, who was standing on the gallery walkway near Battery No. 6’s .50-caliber machine guns.
Smith was the only shipboard fatality that day, and was buried at sea February 2 as Enterprise steamed back toward Pearl Harbor.
Smith’s family learned of his fate a little over two weeks later. One of his younger brothers, Fred Allen Smith, told the Statesville Daily Record: “If he had to go this way, we are glad to know that he died in the service of his country.”
(Fred would join the Army in 1944 and be taken prisoner by the Germans in Belgium shortly after the Battle of the Bulge. He was liberated at war’s end. The youngest Smith brother, Jerry, spent 20 years as an Air Force pilot.)
One month after Hoyle Smith died in the Pacific, a memorial service was held for Iredell County’s first son killed in World War II. Family and friends gathered at the New Hope Baptist Church, where local American Legion post commander J.W. Hendricks recounted Smith’s life and read a letter sent by one of his shipmates, Marshall G. Beattie, to the fallen sailor’s parents: “We, his shipmates, sympathize and mourn with you in the great loss of a loved one and a tried and proven friend.”
A memorial headstone was erected in the cemetery behind the church, not far from the marker placed in memory of Smith’s uncle Fred.
Smith’s widow, Roene, paid a visit to Cool Spring that fall, spending 10 days at George C. and Rosa Smith’s home. It was her first time meeting her husband’s parents.