News reporters were gathered on the tarmac of the new Cork Airport, each one of them wanting to snatch a survivor for an interview before medical personnel could get to them. Two Royal Air Force helicopters were alternately landing with one or two survivors with each delivery. They were collecting survivors from the deck of the Swiss ship MS Celerina as it waited 8 miles off Galley Head point, a distance of 22 miles from the airport.
One of the newsmen was Stars and Stripes London Bureau reporter John Krueger. He was to catch two survivors in one attempt. They were Pvt. Willie Smith Jr, 18, of Atlanta, Georgia, and Capt. Robert C. Eldred (retired), 47, of East Dennis, Mississippi.
Krueger snared an interview with Eldred before both were whisked away by medics. The captain, who was barely injured, stood fast throughout the interview, with his hands on the shoulders of the young young paratrooper Pvt. Smith.
Eldred held on to Smith throughout the interview. He said, “He made me, an old soldier for 20 years, feel proud.”
Eldred went on in his interview that he used Pvt. Smith as an example of the conduct of all of the troops. He went with a long list of compliments to all of the green troopers, Capt. Murray, the entire flight crew, and the crew of the Celerina for their discipline and professionalism.
Smith was taken to a hospital ward in Cork where he was later interviewed about his experience.
Smith told reporters that he tried to help others launch a life raft from the back door of the stricken plane but they couldn’t get it to inflate. Precious minutes later, the proper levers were located and the raft inflated, although upside down. Survivors immediately started piling in.
Smith gave a tragic report on the fate of his buddies who couldn’t swim.
He said, “After jumping into the water many of us linked arms to try to stay afloat. There were seven of us clutching arms in my little group and four of them could not swim.”
This scene occurred in the midst of raging winds and frigid seas.
Finally, Smith said, he managed to break away and get into the raft, only to find the raft was full of water. Its middle was sagged in by the weight of its occupants.
Smith said, “The water in the raft reached my neck and I became unconscious. But before passing out, I could see heads bobbing up and down.”
Just before the ditching, Smith said, “a friend of mine was sitting beside me praying and crying and I was trying to keep him from acting the way he did.
“I told him not to worry, we were going to make it.
“He didn’t make it.”
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Editors note: We have been unable to locate Willie Smith Jr. or any of his relatives. Can you help us in our search? There are many Willie Smith Jr. entries in Georgia.
[Footnote: Capt. Eldred’s wife made it to the life raft, was pulled in and endured the six hour journey to the rescue ship. Unfortunately, she died only moments before she could set foot on the Celerina. Read more: Wife dies on over-crowded life raft. And to read the Captain’s story, click Green Troops make “Old Soldier” proud.]