World War II Marine, 90, Fights to Correct AWOL Record

ABC News
World War II Marine, 90, Fights to Correct AWOL Record
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World War II Marine, 90, Fights to Correct AWOL Record (ABC News)

A World War II veteran who has tried for two years to correct a record that claims he went AWOL during the Pacific campaign has appealed to President Obama for help in erasing the allegation before he dies.

Thomas Smith, Jr., who is 90, said he was being treated for a back wound at the time he was allegedly AWOL, and the records have confused him with another soldier with a similar name.

Smith was drafted on Nov. 28, 1942 and served as a Marine scout and a rifleman in some of the war's fiercest fighting on the battlefields of Tinian Island, the Marshall Islands, Saipan and Iwo Jima. He has two Purple Hearts and was wounded in the arm, leg and back.

He discovered that he was listed as having gone AWOL for a month when he requested his military records in 2006 in preparation for writing a memoir. He was shocked to discover a document containing the allegation, ABC affiliate WTEN first reported.

“The file had my name on it,” Smith told ABC News. “But the signature read Thomas Jefferson Smith Jr. My [middle] name is Joseph.”

His month-long desertion allegedly took place during his unit's deployment on Marshall Island.

“That was when I was wounded in the back on Marshall Island,” Smith said.

The island hopping that his unit did through the Pacific had been grueling and bloody.

“My company had 229 men and when we came out of the Pacific, there were only 29 of us. So we took a heck of a beating,” Smith said.

Although Smith received the records in 2006 he didn't begin his effort to correct the record until two years ago because he was busy taking care of his late wife. What he thought would be simple has turned out to be frustrating.

Smith first sent a letter to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo., in 2012, the office that had initially sent him his military records. He was referred to the Board for Correction of Naval Records. From there he was sent to the Marine Corps, and the Marine Corps asked him to contact the National Archive. He was last sent to the National Personnel Records Center, the office where his original letter was sent.

“It is a very simple thing. What is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong,” Smith said. “A 6-year-old child can distinguish between Joseph and Jefferson.”

He is now bucking the chain of command.

“I sent a letter to President Barack Obama about two weeks ago. I didn't want it to be a joke, but I did it for self-satisfaction because this is the highest I could go,” he said.

“It really just shows how bureaucratic Washington is,” Smith said.

Smith hasn't heard back from the Obama administration, but said he won’t give up.

ABC News contacted the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Board for Correction of Naval Records, the Marine Corps, and the National Personnel Records Center. None of the agencies could provide a comment on Smith's attempt to clear his name.

The National Archive sent ABC News an email with a web page on how to correct military records with a note that said, "I hope this is helpful."

After the war, Smith went back to school and obtained a bachelor’s degree from University of Miami and a doctoral degree from Indiana University. He later served as the principal at Rockway Junior High School in Florida. He retired in 1988 after 42 years as an educator.

In recent years he moved to Glenville, N.Y., and he likes to meet up with seven other veterans who survived Iwo Jima at the Home Front Café in Altamont, N.Y. But he has one last fight in him, to correct his record.

“I am an old man,” Smith said. “If nothing changes before I die, I would be disappointed.”

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