Korean War veteran still young at heart

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Nov 11, 2013
Photo by: Shelby Harrell Wiley Howell Smith, 85, shows off his Purple Heart medal he received after being injured by a grenade during the Korean War in 1951.

Wiley Howell Smith is a self-proclaimed survivor.

At age 85, he is alive to tell two tales of survival — from a Chinese grenade explosion during the Korean War and a battle with prostate cancer.

Smith is homebound in a small Waynesville apartment because he can’t walk easily due to lymphoedema, a swelling that developed in his legs as a result of continuous radiation treatments. However, the radiation treatments have been successful, and Smith is currently in remission after eight years.

But leg swelling wasn’t enough to keep Smith from walking to his bedroom to find his Purple Heart medal to show off. After 62 years, it still rests in the original case.

“On June 4, 1954, a tragedy happened,” Smith said about the injury he received while in the U.S. Army. “I was critically wounded in action. I suffered 47 pieces of shrapnel in my lung and I have three still in there, but it scarred around it. I’m lucky to be alive today, but I still have flashbacks today about when I was wounded.”

After being injured in Korea, Smith was transported to a hospital in Japan to be treated for internal bleeding. The treatment was a “lung tap,” which lasted for three months.

“That’s where they stick a needle in your back through your lung and drain out the blood,” Smith said, reliving the experience with a painful expression on his face. “And then they had to put blood back in your body. … That was the worst thing about it, the treatment. But I still survived.”

Once Smith recovered, he was sent back to Korea, where he spent his last year as a sales officer for the Army. Upon returning home, Smith went straight to college at Western Carolina University in 1956 and eventually became a teacher and tutor for a total of 30 years.

Though he was only in the Army for two years, Smith credits his military experience for making him a mature person.

“When you’re there, you have to grow up so fast,” Smith said, adding that he was 22 when he was drafted. “They just sent me overseas right away. It gives you strength to cope, and once you get there, I think you really strive to get back home."

The homebound shrapnel survivor is still mentally alert and continues to pursue hobbies that stimulate his mind. He admits to being an orchid-lover, and enjoys crossword puzzles and a good book.

“From the waist up, I’m all right,” Smith said with a laugh. “Reading is what saves my soul.”

Though Smith was born in Franklin, he has been a Haywood County resident for most of his life. Smith is the sole survivor of his family since he never married or had children.

“Somehow I must have that survivor gene,” he said with a laugh.

Smith also has outlived all of his Army friends. He receives medical assistance from Veterans Affairs each week to care for his legs, but otherwise spends his days alone inside. He said his orchids gave him a purpose, and something nice to look at.

“Before the cancer, I had 70 orchids, but now I can’t keep that many in here,” he said, while pointing to the dozen that are placed in his living room near the window. “Being housebound is tough, but so many of my students stop by and that makes it bearable.”

Even though Smith is in many ways alone and can't leave the house, he chooses to focus on the positive.

“You learn to play the cards you’re dealt, so that’s what I’m trying to do,” Smith said.

Looking back, Smith said his military experience had helped provide a full, long life for him, adding that the Army paid for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“I think it helped lengthen my life rather than shorten it — even though I was wounded,” Smith said. “I never dreamed I would be 85. I think the Army taught me patience more than anything else.”

Smith is hoping his legs will eventually recover, and he looks forward to walking down Main Street in Waynesville once again — something he hasn’t done in four years.

“I try to stay young at heart — there’s no point to not,” Smith said. “I try to keep my spirits up.”