After graduating from Columbia Seminary in 1961, Pastor Carl D. Smith answered the call to two churches, one in Hogansville and the other in Gainesville.
Pastor Smith explained, "Well, when you don’t know what you’re doing you get two churches. When you learn what you’re doing, you get one."
Smith learned well.
After serving a church in College Park, he pastored Smyrna Presbyterian Church for 19 years until his retirement in 1992.
He said, "Since I had a pension and received Social Security, I could serve smaller churches that couldn’t afford a pastor." Hemphill Memorial in Henry County and Luther Hayes Presbyterian near Mansfield received Smith’s messages and guidance until he turned 82.
"My wife was ill, so I retired for good to care for her. It was the first time in over 50 years I didn’t have a pulpit."
Few if any of his parishioners knew this Man of God was a World War II Merchant Mariner who manned 20mm anti-aircraft guns against enemy airplanes and whose ships had to evade or outpace enemy submarines.
Doubtful, too, they ever called him "Cookie."
A native of Vidalia, Ga., and son of a Baptist preacher, Smith recalled the "Day of Infamy."
"I was outside playing sandlot football on Dec. 7, 1941. We had no idea where or what Pearl Harbor was."
After high-school graduation in 1944, 17-year-old Carl Smith decided to join the Navy. It wasn’t to be.
He remembered, "My buddy wanted us to join the Merchant Marines, so we flipped a coin. I lost."
After being sworn in, the future Presbyterian preacher traveled to St. Petersburg, Fla., for maritime school.
"It was basic stuff," he said. "We also jumped into a swimming pool that was on fire to learn how not to get burned if abandoning ship. I guess that wasn’t very basic when you think about it."
His choices after training: deckhand, "black gang" (below deck engine room personnel) or cook.
Smith said, "I asked them what they needed. They replied, ‘cooks’, so I volunteered." Consequently, his nickname became "Cookie."
He learned to cut meat, debone hams and bake bread, cakes and pies. How many pies?
"Oh, about 300 each night," he said.
Sea duty was learned aboard an Army ship.
"The captain would inspect for cleanliness wearing white gloves, even during a hurricane," Smith recalled. Asked if he experienced seasickness, Smith replied, "No, but several guys sure did. They wanted to jump overboard."
Smith caught his first maritime ship out of Port Arthur, Texas.
"The tanker delivered petroleum to Tampa and pumped it into the Texaco and Gulf Oil tank farms. Enemy subs patrolled the waters, but we stayed blacked out."
During the war, 70 ships were lost to German submarines in the Gulf of Mexico; one tanker was sunk at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Smith made more than 15 tanker trips, then switched to cargo ships. In 1945, he traveled cross-country via bus to San Pedro, Calif., where he boarded a Victory Ship destined for the Pacific. (Not as well-known as the Liberty ships, Victory ships were larger and had bigger engines).
Sailing out of San Pedro, Smith recalled, "A sub trailed us for a couple days. He had to stay submerged during the day, so we’d outrun him, but he would surface at night and almost catch up with us. Our stern gun would lob a shell at him now and then to let him know we knew he was there." Air power finally drove off or possibly sank the enemy sub.
The Victory ship joined a huge convoy and sailed into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
"We had no idea where we were going," Smith recalled. The vessels finally split into two convoys: one headed to Saipan, and Smith’s convoy to an island called Okinawa.
"The vivid image that remains in my mind is sailing into Buckner Bay off Okinawa and seeing thousands of white crosses on the side of a big hill. We realized the sacrifice, the true cost of freedom, and we realized the war was far from over." Indeed.
Carl Smith and thousands of men and ships were slated for the upcoming invasion of Japan.
In the meantime, the Navy became a bit chintzy supplying the Merchant Marines. Smith recalled, "Mutton and more mutton, that’s all we got. Three times a day, mutton."
The Navy Armed Guard manned the anti-aircraft guns, but the Merchant Mariners had to assist loading.
Smith said, "I had to feed ammo into a 20mm anti-aircraft gun. The suicide planes (Kamikazes) usually targeted carriers, battleships, and hospital ships, but we had to join the fray and try to bring them down." Many ships were hit, including the battleship Pennsylvania.
Two atomic bombs ended the war. Smith said, "Sporadic fighting still took place on Okinawa, but at sea things were peaceful. We no longer had blackouts at night. I couldn’t believe all the ships lit up at night; it looked like a carnival."
Mother Nature signed no surrender. In October 1945, a typhoon nearly wrecked the fleet off Okinawa.
Smith said, "Bigger ships rode out the storm at sea, but smaller ships tied up alongside our Victory ships and hoped for the best. Sailors came aboard our ship, and our galley never closed. The typhoon did what the Japanese couldn’t."
The typhoon of October 1945, coupled with one in December 1944 and another in June 1945, sank several Navy ships, damaged more than 50 more, destroyed about 220 airplanes and killed more than 800 sailors.
Carl "Cookie" Smith remained in the Merchant Marines for a year after the war. He said, "I thought about sailing for the rest of my life, but an old sailor in Brooklyn told me, ‘Cookie, they’re making me retire, and I don’t even know if I have a relative.’ I thought about his life, and that’s not what I wanted for myself."
Smith returned to Vidalia, worked in concrete-block construction, married his sweetheart, worked in the wholesale grocery business, and eventually kept the books and sold parts for a tractor company. After a stint as general manager, dissatisfied with the direction of his life and looking for what was missing, Smith entered the seminary in 1958.
"The Good Lord wanted me to be a pastor," he said. "That’s what I was called to do. I guess I did OK, too, since none of the churches ran me off."
Smith helped found Rockdale House, Rockdale Cares, and presided over the Conyers Rotary Club in 1977 and ‘78. He lost his wife, Jessie, in 2010 after 63 ½ years of marriage.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.