Know Your Military

Medal of Honor Monday: Marine Corps Pvt. Albert Smith

Feb. 11, 2019 | BY Katie Lange

The majority of service members who earn the Medal of Honor do so during times of conflict, but several recipients earned it for bravery that didn't have anything to do with war.

Marine Corps Pvt. Albert J. Smith is one of those recipients, and he earned his medal on this day 98 years ago.

Smith was born in Calumet, Michigan, on July 31, 1898, to parents who had emigrated from Austria and Germany. According to the historical society of Schoolcraft County, Michigan, the family eventually moved to a farm in Thompson, Michigan, where Smith spent his childhood helping his father.

Smith was fascinated with flying, so in October 1919, when he was 21, he joined the Marine Corps in hopes of becoming a pilot.

A year later, Smith was stationed at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida. It was the only U.S. naval air station during World War I and had been responsible for training 1,000 naval aviators — most of whom were officers — by war's end.

A Marine in his uniform circa 1920.
Marine Corps Pvt. Albert J. Smith
Marine Corps Pvt. Albert J. Smith.
Photo By: National Archives photo
VIRIN: 191213-M-ZZ999-490C

On Feb. 11, 1921, Smith was on duty as a sentry at the station's Marine barracks. According to the Michigan newspaper Manistique Pioneer Tribune, two naval machinists were warming up a seaplane when something went wrong, and it took off. The plane came crashing to the ground right near the gate where Smith was posted, and its gas tank exploded, sending fire everywhere.

Smith immediately sprang into action to help Plen Phelps, the one machinist who had been on the aircraft when it took off. Without any concern for his own safety, Smith pushed his way through until he found Phelps pinned under the burning wreckage.

Smith managed to drag the unconscious Phelps out, despite suffering serious burns to his head, neck and hands.

Smith received the Medal of Honor for his actions on Sept. 29, 1921. According to the Tribune, he was presented the medal by the brigadier general who commanded the 1st Marine Aviation Squadron in Santo Domingo in the modern-day Dominican Republic, where Smith was stationed after Pensacola.

View of the Medal of Honor, with an American flag as the backdrop.
Medal View
The Medal of Honor.
Photo By: Oscar Sosa
VIRIN: 180514-N-ED767-212

Smith's actions just go to show that service members are ready to come to the rescue at all times. We thank them for that!

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.