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James Smith gets his medal

April 19, 1999

James SmithBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer




McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. - It took 40 years, but James Smith and thousands of American servicemen like him are getting recognition for their roles in fighting a little-remembered incident of the Cold War.

Smith received his Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for taking part in the Quemoy-Matsu incident in 1958-59 off the Communist Chinese coast.

U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., made a special trip to McConnellsburg to present the medal to Smith person during a brief ceremony at the Fulton County Courthouse on Monday.

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Smith's job in 1958, and that of the Marines in his air night fighter unit and thousands of American soldiers, sailors and airmen, was to protect the islands of Quemoy and Matsu from invasion by the Chinese.

The reason it took so long for the veterans of that incident to receive recognition was because the government had classified the records for nearly four decades.

The U.S. mission was to help Nationalist Chinese President Chiang Kai-Shek protect the islands from Communist takeover. Like many operations in those days, much of it was done in secret, although there were news reports at the time.

The big threat was Chinese missiles which were aimed at what is now Taiwan, but back then was known as Formosa. The Communists kept the pressure on for nearly a year by constant shelling of the islands in the Taiwan Straits.

Smith, 70, was an aircraft mechanic whose job was to keep the Marine night fighters in the air.

The Americans left the area in August 1959, leaving missiles pointed at China for the Chinese Nationalists to man.

Nothing more came from the incident.

Smith did not know he was eligible for a medal until he made a chance discovery while visiting a friend in Massachusetts.

"I was in his basement. He had a bar there and a bunch of old VFW magazines. I was reading through one when I came across a story on how they were giving medals and recognition to those who served there," he said.

The recognition also included eligibility for membership in the VFW, said Smith, who wrote to Shuster's office and asked if they could help him get his medal.

He also found that he was eligible for a Republic of China Honor Medal for his service in the Formosa incident. It came in the mail in December packaged in an elegant red velvet case which he showed with pride Monday after the ceremony.

"There were thousands of guys like me who never got the recognition. I think we deserve the medals for what we did over there," he said.

Smith and his wife bought a house in Fulton County in 1970 while he was still working for the federal government in Washington, D.C. They came up on weekends to renovate and moved in permanently in 1978, the year he retired.

Smith said he spends his retirement doing volunteer work.

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