‘Do your duty’: Local military veteran Robert Smothers reflects on serving his country during three wars

Robert Smothers says his military service is the highlight of his nearly 99 years.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

To further highlight years of military service marked by medals and other commendations, retired Air Force officer Robert Smothers received a Korean War medal and proclamation as an official ambassador for peace.

The package containing the proclamation and medal arrived at Smothers’ home in late September from the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Los Angeles, along with a letter from the consul thanking Smothers for his “noble contribution to the efforts to safeguard the Republic of Korea.”

Smothers, a longtime La Jolla resident who moved last year to the Wesley Palms retirement community in Pacific Beach, said he “was honored to get the award.”

“I saved some people’s lives,” he said of the 101 air rescue missions he flew during the Korean War, earning a Silver Star for one of them. “We knew it was important.”

Robert Smothers received a Korean War medal and proclamation as an ambassador for peace.
Robert Smothers received a Korean War medal and proclamation as an ambassador for peace from the Consulate General of the Republic of Korea in Los Angeles.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

The Korean War medal sits in a glass display case in Smothers’ living room, just around the corner from a wall showcasing 16 other medals, including the Silver Star and French Legion of Honor, and framed memorabilia that the veteran collected during service spanning World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

During World War II, Smothers flew bombing missions over Germany and executed food drops and POW rescue missions.

Smothers earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering from Stanford University between World War II and the Korean War.

After the Korean War, the Air Force offered him a regular commission, which he accepted, Smothers said. “I sometimes say I decided I liked the Air Force better than working for a living,” he said.

Smothers served in Air Force civil engineering in many global assignments and served on staff in Vietnam.

Being in the Air Force “was adventurous,” he said. “It really worked out well for me. It was a way of life that I enjoyed. I liked getting up every morning wondering what the day would bring.”

The biggest lesson he learned? “Just do your duty.”

Smothers moved to La Jolla after leaving the service, working first as director of general services for San Diego County and then for 14 years as vice president and director of general services for the Scripps Clinic & Research Foundation.

Once entirely retired, Smothers, who turns 99 on Dec. 2, took up writing, completing biographies on his parents, great-grandfathers, his second late wife and his current girlfriend, with whom he enjoys dancing and travel.

He believes he may have inherited interest in writing from his uncle, who was a journalist. “It runs in the family,” he said.

He said he writes biographies “so family and friends would have a record of these awesome people.”

Smothers, who was married twice with a son and two daughters, has eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren spread across the country.

He’s completed his own biography and said he hopes anyone who reads it will learn the importance of “duty and honor to country.”

Though he feels like “I’ve lived three or four lives,” the three wars in which he served “are always special.”

Reviewing the medals, photos and certificates lining his wall, Smothers summed up his life: “So far, so good.” ◆