Nearly 80 years after Roger Smith landed a glider plane in a vineyard in the Le Muy area of southern France, the retired Air Force major has been honored with the country’s highest order of merit.
Smith, now 100 and living in Loveland, was awarded the distinction of knight in France’s National Order of the Legion of Honor Thursday — recognizing his accomplishments in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ lesser-known glider pilot program and its role in the Allied invasion of southern France at the end of World War II, according to Zach Cromley, Smith’s neighbor and friend.
Cromley, a pilot for United Airlines, befriended Roger and his late wife, Glenna Smith, when he moved next door to them in North Loveland just over a decade ago. As Cromley got to know Roger, he learned about his Air Force background, time as a glider pilot and role in a pivotal Allied operation.
Over the years, Cromley said he helped Roger go through his shoeboxes of photos and documents from his time in the war, ultimately organizing everything into an album with a corresponding timeline. When the opportunity arose, Cromley quietly nominated his neighbor for France’s National Order of the Legion of Honor.
“If I had told him I was submitting his application, he would have been against it,” Cromley said. “He’s always been a really humble guy. He doesn’t like a lot of recognition, and he shies away from interviews.”
Fittingly, Roger declined an interview with the Coloradoan, instead nominating Cromley to talk about his military career and recent honor on his behalf.
Despite Roger’s private nature, “I wanted his story to be told,” Cromley said.
“This story has to be told so your family and future generations can understand how important what you did was,” he said he told Roger.
Other local news: Longtime Fort Collins public servant James Paul Johnson dies at 93
Roger is originally from Flemington, New Jersey, where he graduated from high school in 1941 and started working various service and labor jobs while taking flying lessons, according to a press release from the office of Julie Duhaut-Bedos, the French Consul General in Los Angeles.
Roger was recruited out of flight school by the U.S. Army Air Corps and entered active duty in July 1942. He underwent glider pilot training and became a flight officer in October 1943. That same month, he and Glenna wed in New Jersey.
While mostly used for sport before World War II, glider planes allowed the Allies to fly heavy machinery, like vehicles and anti-tank guns, into mainland Europe, Cromley said. Unlike paratroopers, who usually ended up scattered over large drop zones, glider planes also carried troopers, allowing greater concentrations of soldiers to land in more precise locations.
As part of the Air Corps’ glider pilot program, Roger was deployed to Casablanca, Morocco, in the spring of 1944 and later moved to Italy.
On Aug. 15, 1944, Smith flew his CG-4 glider into the Le Muy area of southern France as part of Operation Dragoon — a “hugely successful” operation that secured vital French ports and a new supply route for the Allies and expelled the Germans from southern France, according to the National World War II Museum.
While originally planned to take place simultaneously with the Allied invasion of Normandy two months prior, Operation Dragoon was ultimately postponed to later in the summer. By September 1944, after the liberation of Paris and Operation Dragoon, France was largely liberated.
Following the pivotal mission, Roger was evacuated back to Corsica and, ultimately, Rome where he flew eight more combat missions as a co-pilot on C-47s.
He was discharged in December 1945 and stayed in the Air Force Reserves. Roger was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and reenlisted in the U.S. Air Force in June 1953, according to the French Consul General’s office.
Fort Collins history nerds, rejoice. Here are 35 binge-worthy ‘podpast’ episodes.
Roger retired as a major from the Air Force in March 1970. All told, he served 27 years.
He and Glenna moved to Loveland in 2004, according to their daughter, Linda Smith.
Glenna died in late 2020. The couple had been married 77 years, according to Cromley.
Today, Cromley said Roger is still a man of routine.
“Roger’s a pretty unique guy,” he said, adding that the 100-year-old takes himself trap shooting at two different gun clubs three times a week.
“Oh, there he is,” Cromley added, pausing briefly during our phone interview. “He’s walking his dog right in front of my house.”
On his 100th birthday earlier this summer, Loveland Fire Rescue Authority, Larimer County Sheriff’s Office and Loveland Police Department brought emergency vehicles out for a parade down Roger’s street. Soon after, the families in his neighborhood followed with their own parade.
The next day, Roger went up to Wellington’s Owl Canyon Gliderport for one very special birthday outing. There, he got to climb aboard a sail plane — today’s version of a glider plane — and take flight. It was his first time in one since World War II, Cromley said.