PortraitDean Smith has always considered himself a lucky man. With his good fortune, he’s hit two holes-in-one, survived a lightning strike, appeared on Candid Camera and traveled the world through his Army service. “Now if he could just put that to use and win the lottery,” says Patti, his wife.

But Smith, who now lives in the small town of Yamhill, Ore., already thinks he’s hit the jackpot. He’s lived his life doing what he is passionate about – mechanics. The dream was made possible by his three-year service in the Army, fixing combat vehicles during the Korean War.

Today, Dean Smith’s kitchen counter has the usual items: coffee, freshly baked cookies, a bowl of strawberries. But on the day we met, it also was neatly lined with pictures, newspaper clippings, ribbons, maps and certificates – all from Smith’s military days. Smith’s story of service began the way all good tales do: with a memory.

“I’ll never forget that day when I left the railroad station, and yelled ‘Goodbye, pops!’” Smith said. He was 19 years old, with little discipline and a knack for brushing past police. He had no idea he would return a cultured man with a passion and a skill set that he would use for the rest of his life.

The beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 prompted the start of the draft. Smith still remembers the day he and childhood buddies drove from his home in Compton, Calif., to Los Angeles to enlist in the Army.

He signed paperwork, took a few tests and, before he knew it, found himself on a train to Camp Roberts, Calif., to begin basic training and his three-year enlistment in the Army.

“The camp had been closed since the end of World War II,” Smith said. For the first portion of his 16-week stay at Camp Roberts, he and other new recruits worked together to clean up, paint and repair their new home.

“The last eight weeks was all work in the field. We fired everything we would ever need: mortars, bazookas and automatic rifles … and of course, we had the M-1,” he said. The gun was infamous for accidentally catching the thumb of unprepared soldiers in the process of reloading.

But luckily for his thumbs, Smith’s training was the only time he used the weapon. In fact, Smith never went to the front lines.

“After basic, they told us we were going to Korea, and just like that we started,” Smith said. “They called us all out one morning and started giving our assignments.”

Smith watched as men he knew were shipped off to different posts. He anxiously waited for his name to be called.

“After 16 weeks of infantry training, I thought I’d be going straight to the front line,” he said.

But to his surprise, Smith was sent to the Hiroshima Specialist School to do something basic training never taught him – cooking. “The Army was always hurting for cooks,” Smith said. “But I didn’t know what I was doing.”

After two days as an inexperienced cook, Smith threw in the towel. “I finally went to the company commander and I told him I had quite a bit of experience as a mechanic instead,” said Smith, who had always had an interest in mechanical work. Before enlisting, he spent many summers fixing up hot rods and tractors.       

The company commander agreed to transfer Smith, and for the next seven weeks, he trained to be a vehicle and wheel mechanic.

Smith realizes now that what seemed like an unfortunate cooking assignment worked out in his favor. “I think that pork-and-bean cook job is what really saved my life,” he said.

After Smith completed his mechanic training, he was sent to Seoul, South Korea. The city “was in rumbles” by the time he arrived and, for the first time, he saw real warfare. He remembers women washing clothes with rocks and children begging in the street. “War is really hard on little kids,” he said.

Smith spent 10 months stationed in Seoul, working on medical cars and combat vehicles. “They were good vehicles,” he said. But the strain of war broke them down regularly and kept him busy.

Weather was also extreme. Cold temperatures would freeze the vehicles at night. “We’d have to go out there and torch them before they could move,” he said.

Storms were not uncommon. “I can remember sitting in a tent playing cards, and the next thing I know, I am picking myself up off the ground,” he said. “I was thinking we were under attack,” but instead, Smith and his companions had narrowly missed a lightning strike. “We were pretty lucky there,” he said.

Smith spent 10 months in Seoul before shipping back to Camp Cook, Calif. He was awarded the Army Commendation Ribbon for his work overseas. But soon after he arrived at Camp Cook, the camp was shut down.

On a whim, he applied for a position in Europe. “I thought with a year left to go, they’ll never let me in. … And then sure enough, I’m going to Europe,” he said.

Smith has photos of this time in his service. The pictures show servicemen posing by cars, playing horseshoes and smiling with their arms draped across one another’s shoulders. Their affection for each other shines through the dirt smudged on their faces.

“It got to be like basic training all over again,” he said of his time in Germany. To entertain himself, Smith decided to go out for the football team.

“But that didn’t work out, so golf came up. And luckily it did – they would have killed me in football,” he said, laughing. He made the golf team, and he spent the rest of his enlistment with the team.

In 1954, his adventure in Germany ended, and he received his honorable discharge in California. “Man, it felt good,” he said.

As a civilian, Smith was able to put his new skills to use. He continued his work as a mechanic and attended Compton Junior College, playing on the golf team. Soon after, he met his wife Patti, and in 1969, they moved to Yamhill, Ore., the town they’ve called home ever since.

“For a guy in the Army, I got to see quite a lot of the world,” he said, gazing at his photos and maps of his travels.

Smith’s three years in the service set the stage for the rest of his life. “I never regret going into the service. No, that was a good experience for me,” he said.

Writing: Cassidy Davis
Photograph: Joey Paysinger