A South Dakota pilot who participated in one of the most daring air raids in World War II will be the subject of a program at 7 p.m. CST on Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.
Paul Higbee will tell the story of Don Smith, who piloted one of the 16 American bombers that struck Japan in April 1942 in what became known as the Doolittle Raid. Higbee is the author of “The First Strike: Doolittle Raider Don Smith,” published in 2019 by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. The program is sponsored by the Press and the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation.
All are welcome to attend the free program.
“Higbee tells how Smith went from a South Dakota boy who spent most of his childhood in Belle Fourche to an American hero,” said Catherine Forsch, chief executive officer of the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, which is the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society.
The air raid, planned, led by, and named after Lt. Col. James Doolittle, was a pivotal moment in history. The Doolittle Raid showed that Japan could be attacked by air and boosted the morale of American people as it was the first strike on Japan after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The 16 B-25 bombers, each carrying a crew of five, launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the western Pacific Ocean. The plan called for them to bomb military targets in Japan and fly on to China and regroup. The plan was considered daring -- aboard the aircraft carrier, the bombers only had about half the distance they normally needed to launch.
Smith successfully led his squad to a target in Japan, safely executed a perfect water landing off the coast of China, and led his crew to safety through Japanese-occupied territory in China. He would die in November 1942 in a plane crash in England.
Higbee, who lives in Spearfish, first learned of Smith in 2001 when Belle Fourche celebrated Smith’s life and achievements. Higbee is a longtime contributor to South Dakota Magazine, and an article Higbee wrote about Smith appeared in the magazine a year later, at the time of the raid’s 60th anniversary.
Letters Smith wrote to his parents, Doolittle Raiders who remembered Smith, and others who knew Smith provided Higbee with material to write “First Strike.”
“There were three things that made me want to write about Don,” said Higbee, who will speak in person at the program. “First, I was surprised by how forgotten he was even among South Dakotans who knew a good deal about the Doolittle Raid in general. Second, I liked that he did not fit the gung-ho image of a war hero. He hoped the United States could avoid the war. Also, I appreciated that he was an insightful writer, as reflected in his war letters to his parents.”
The book is sold at the Heritage Stores at the Cultural Heritage Center and the Capitol, online at www.sdhsf.org, or by calling 605-773-6346.
People may participate in the program via the internet or by telephone. Please call 605-773-6006 at least two days in advance of the program for more information.
About the South Dakota State Historical Society
The South Dakota State Historical Society is a division of the Department of Education. The State Historical Society, an Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, is headquartered at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. The center houses the society’s world-class museum, the archives, and the historic preservation, publishing, and administrative/development offices. Call 605-773-3458 or visit www.history.sd.gov for more information. The society also has an archaeology office in Rapid City; call 605-394-1936 for more information.
About the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation
The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation is a private charitable nonprofit that seeks funding to assist the South Dakota State Historical Society in programming and projects to preserve South Dakota’s history and heritage for future generations.