It was May 26, 1941 and Leonard B. Smith, an American Navy ensign, shouldn’t have been involved in any wars. But it was a little late to think about that. The patrol plane he was flying for Britain’s Royal Air Force 550 miles west of the southern tip of England had just broken out of a cloud bank and into a hail of antiaircraft fire from the mammoth German battleship Bismarck.
“I didn’t do a very good job of driving the airplane, so we came out right over that silly ship,” Smith recalled recently at the motel he now runs in Kearney, Neb. “I could have spit on it, and I thought, ‘My God, what have we done?’ ”
What copilot Smith had done—when RAF Flying Officer Dennis Briggs radioed their position—was to end a frantic British search for the Bismarck. It had begun two days earlier after the German battleship had destroyed the mighty battlecruiser Hood, the pride of Britain’s fleet.
Smith’s participation in the British patrol was absolutely illegal under the U.S. Neutrality Act. The U.S. role has been hinted at ever since the Bismarck finally sank at 11 a.m. May 27—victim, with most of its 2,000-man crew, of British torpedo planes and a small armada of warships. But it was only recently that the American airman received public recognition for his part in the historic battle, with the publication in London of Pursuit: The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck, a new book by Ludovic Kennedy.
Smith, then 25, was one of a group of 17 American Navy pilots who had flown to England seven months before Pearl Harbor. Their job was to train British airmen of the Coastal Command in the operation of U.S.-built Catalinas, long-range amphibious planes needed for patrolling and convoy escort in the battle of the North Atlantic.
“I’ll never forget the briefing when they told us what we were going over to England for,” Smith recalls. “The admiral said to us, ‘Fellas, I want you to go over there and learn everything you can, because it’s not a question of whether we’re going to war; it’s just that we haven’t picked out the date.’ ”
Smith found out how right the admiral had been at his next assignment: Pearl Harbor. He was flying a Catalina from there to an aircraft carrier headed for Midway Island on December 7 when he heard on his radio news of Japan’s surprise attack.
“That night I was standing on a hangar on Midway talking to a buddy,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I bet they attack us tonight.’ ‘Naw, they won’t,’ I said and bet him a buck on it. But the bet was never collected; he was killed that night when a Japanese ship lobbed some shells in.”
Smith served throughout the Pacific during World War II and later during the Korean War, retiring from the navy as a captain in 1962. Although the U.S. Navy awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943 for his Bismarck mission, he has never been decorated by the British for his contribution to a naval victory celebrated in several books and a memorable motion picture.
Today, sitting in the Windjammer lounge of his motel—with its Captain’s Table dining room, its live palm trees surrounding an indoor swimming pool—the retired officer still looks very navy in his blue and white yacht club outfit, his flier’s eyes still clear and cool, his haircut military. The Bismarck and the war seem a long way off. “It wasn’t important,” he says, taking a sip of coffee. “We recognized there was a job to be done, and it was best to get on with it.”