George Smetaniuk started life in a World War II displaced persons camp in Altenstadt, Germany, born two years after the war ended.
The weapons of war had been stilled, but Europe was still in disarray, with many people uprooted from their native lands and living in limbo at these camps where babies sometimes had to be born. Smetaniuk’s Ukrainian parents, Wasyl and Paraska, however, caught a break.
The family arrived in America in 1949 and settled in Western New York.
“I still have the steamer trunk that we came here with. It had all our worldly possessions, but now I store Christmas lights and ornaments in it,” Smetaniuk said.
His parents had experienced the horrors of war firsthand and, decades later, when their only child got a draft notice for Vietnam, they were shattered. History was repeating itself.
“My mother started crying, and my dad went off drinking,” Smetaniuk said. “I was the first one in my group of friends to get a draft notice.”
The thought of going to Vietnam was unnerving, and Smetaniuk said he headed to the recruiters to see if he might join the Air Force or the Navy instead. Both had waiting lists.
“I was about to leave the recruiters,” Smetaniuk remembered, “and a guy from the Marines said that if I joined up, he’d make me a jet pilot right out of high school. I may be dumb, but not that dumb.
“Then the recruiter from the Army said to me, ‘How’d you like to do what I’m doing?’ He was sitting behind a desk with his feet up. He said, ‘You can have this kind of job as a clerk in Vietnam or go there a draftee infantryman.’ So I chose ‘clerk’ and enlisted for an extra year, a three-year stretch, rather than take my chances with two years as a draftee.”
But when he arrived in Vietnam in May 1967, he was promptly informed that his slot as a clerk was already filled and that he would have to serve in the infantry.
“I argued that I was a clerk, and they gave me a choice – take an M16 rifle or a portable typewriter – but I was going out into the boonies no matter what. So, of course I took the rifle. What was I going to do with a typewriter, type out ‘bang, bang?’ ” said Smetaniuk, who was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division up in the Central Highlands. “The only way you got out of the jungle was sick, wounded or going home.”
Far from his promised desk job, he frequently was in skirmishes with the enemy, he said, and the battle of July 12, 1967, remains forever seared in his mind.
“We were on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and a regiment of North Vietnamese soldiers was moving down toward Saigon. They were going to give support to the Viet Cong guerrillas down south,” Smetaniuk recalled. “There was a lot of chatter on radios. They didn’t want contact and were avoiding the different companies in our battalion.
“But then they had no place to go but through my company. All hell broke loose. There were about 1,000 of the enemy, and we had about 110 soldiers. What really saved us was the air support, artillery from our firebase and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ an old World War II plane with miniguns. When Puff talked, people disappeared. The plane had guns fixed to it and came in close.”
Yet casualties were heavy.
“Our command group – the captain and everyone – was wiped out,” Smetaniuk said. “The remaining 45 of our company regrouped. This lieutenant took us back to our previous night base. We waited there for further attacks, but they never came.”
Though Smetaniuk still had nearly a year to go before he returned to the States, the worst was behind him.
Still, living in the jungle was no picnic. “You were just as much an animal as the animals were,” he said. “I actually had a pet baby monkey. Sometimes we got to bathe when we came to a river if we had time. It was funky.”
Needless to say, it was a relief when he finally returned home, he said, but “I did not come home accepted as a hero as they do today. It still sticks in my craw how Vietnam veterans were received.”
And while he was spared physical wounds, he said, he has had to cope with post-traumatic stress from the war.
Nevertheless, Smetaniuk added, he has experienced goodness in life, quick to say that he married “the beautiful Nancy Stoiber” of Buffalo and that they raised two children, Melissa and Adam.
Smetaniuk is a retiree from Curtis Screw Co., where he worked as a quality-control inspector. “Life is good,” he said, “and I still remember my fallen brothers.”
George Smetaniuk, 65
Hometown: Altenstadt, Germany
Residence: Town of Boston
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: 1966-69
Most prominent honors: Army Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service medal, Vietnam Campaign medal
Specialties: Clerk, infantryman