His service in World War II is not something Grovetown resident Willard C. Smith likes to talk about.
"I don't think about it. Most people don't," said the Silver Star recipient, who is still upset by his memories of combat.
Smith was legally too young to fight when his actions in combat in Germany in 1945 earned him one of the military's highest honors.
He was so eager to serve his country during World War II that he tried to join the U.S. Merchant Marines when he was only 15. The native of Rensselaer, N.Y., said he even altered his birth certificate to enter the draft so his older friends wouldn't go off to war without him.
He was drafted in 1944 at age 17 and went on to earn a Purple Heart and numerous other honors for his service.
He was a young private first class in the fall of 1944 when he joined the 78th Division, 310th Infantry Regiment in combat during the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest.
The fighting was brutal and the weather was just as severe. One of Smith's best friends was shot and killed.
One frigid night, Smith said he decided to turn himself in because he couldn't take it anymore.
"I was too young to be here and I lied to get in," he said. "The next morning it was sunny and wouldn't you know, they pulled us back."
On April 9, 1945, then-Sgt. Smith volunteered to lead a patrol along the Sieg Canal in Siegen, Germany, to lay mines and monitor for enemy patrols. Enemy soldiers attempting to cross the canal opened fire, killing his gunner.
According to his official commendation for the Silver Star, Smith took over the machine gun, wounded four German soldiers, captured three and helped to lead the wounded men from his patrol to safety.
"When those 20mm (shells) hit near me, I got some fragments in my back," he said. "That's how I got that Purple Heart."
After the war, Smith met a German woman named Ursula. They later married and had two children and two grandchildren.
Smith went on to work as photographer and videographer for the Army, producing instructional videos for service members stationed around the world. He also fought in Vietnam before retiring as a master sergeant in 1972.
Though he isn't eager to speak, he said it is important to share his story.
"I was out at the hospital the other day and I saw a couple of guys there that I know and they're in bad shape and I said, 'They can't tell their story, so I better say something.' "
Click here to hear retired Army MSG Willard C. Smith read an excerpt of a letter to his family recounting how he earned his Silver Star and a Purple Heart during World War II.
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