Witnessing Pearl Harbor: One-on-one with Major General Perry Smith

The Means Report

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – As the country approaches the 80th Anniversary of the attach on Pearl Harbor, The Means Report is joined by Major General Perry Smith. We discuss his experience in Hawaii that day, what it meant to him, how it impacted his life.

Brad Means: General Smith, thank you so much for everything you do for our community and our country and for being here today.

Gen. Perry Smith: You’re very kind and it’s great to be on your show, Brad.

Brad Means: Well, it’s an honor to have you here, sir. Let’s just start at the beginning, let’s go back to little boy, Perry Smith, or maybe you were still McCoy Smith at that age. This is approaching your seventh birthday, you’re on Hawaii, December 7th, 1941, on your way to Sunday School that morning, do you remember what happened? I’m sure you do.

Gen. Perry Smith: I remember it very well, we were picked up, my sister and I, were picked up by an army truck, from our little house in Honolulu, and we went to Sunday School every Sunday, early because no air conditioning, and when we got to the main gate, they stopped us, the man stopped us at the gate and the truck turned around and we headed back out because the attack had started. They didn’t tell us in the back what was going on, but some of the older kids figured it out, and we saw a lot of airplanes flying around, we saw a lot of smoke, but the noise that I felt was the trucks noise, ’cause he was really smoking, getting us back to our homes.

Brad Means: So what you remember is the revving of that Sunday school truck.

Gen. Perry Smith: Yeah and hanging onto the bench that he didn’t throw me out the back, I mean, it was very scary, I was only six years old, my sister was better, she calmed me down, she said, it’s gonna be alright.

Brad Means: Was there the fear of those planes in the sky doing something bad to you or was just the fear of, Hey, this isn’t my normal ride to Sunday school?

Gen. Perry Smith: It was confusion, didn’t know what was going on, and what do you mean we’re having an attack? That couldn’t be happening, just a lot of, I didn’t know what was going on, but it was scary and I was hanging onto that bench, hoping we’d get home okay and we did.

Brad Means: Well, thank goodness you did. Where did you seek refuge? Did y’all have a basement? What’d you do?

Gen. Perry Smith: Yeah, my mother met us at the front yard, she was very happy to see us, and she gave us both a big hug, and we went to our basement, which had a little tiny basement in our little tiny house, and we spent a whole day in the basement.

Brad Means: Did that inspire you that day, those moments, the days that followed, to join the military? Or was it your father’s example perhaps before that?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, it was my dad’s example, but during World War II, we were really patriotic and everybody came together as a nation, and the soldiers, they were our guy, they were our role models and all, so that got me set up, to eventually go to the military academy and eventually joined the Air Force.

Brad Means: Do you sense that that is not the way that people view the military and service men and women today? Do you think there’s been a change over the past eight decades or so?

Gen. Perry Smith: No, I think the military is still highly regarded because people go in the military with patriotic feelings to serve their country, they’re not in there for the money, they’re there to serve, and of all the institutions in America today, that’s held in the highest esteem, I think the military might be right up there.

Brad Means: Yeah, we do appreciate them, no question about it. So why the Air Force, what made you choose that branch? Did you love planes growing up?

Gen. Perry Smith: No, I didn’t love planes, but I watched the Thunderbirds perform, when I was a cadet at West Point and I looked up and I said, I would like to be like that. So we got a chance to come out of West Point, into the Air Force because the Air Force academy was not producing any lieutenants, and so the military academy and the Naval academy, gave 25% of its graduates to the Air Force, so I signed up, went into the Air Force, had a real hard time going through flying school, but I made it through.

Brad Means: This hard time going through flying school thing, this air sickness that haunted the young Perry Smith and to a certain extent has stayed with you for many years. How did you suppress that and still go on to be a fighter pilot? Because for a lot of folks that’s grounds for disqualification, right?

Gen. Perry Smith: Yeah, if you got sick five times in flying school, they washed you out. So my instructor pilot never turned me in, he thought I could fly, even after I got sick, I wanted to fly in the worst possible way, he was a wonderful man and so he didn’t report me. So I got sick about 60 times, but slowly but surely I figured out how not to get sick, and so I got to go into single engine airplanes and single seat airplanes and whenever I was flying, I wouldn’t get sick, it was when somebody else was flying that I would get sick, and so it worked out okay, and after I got through flying school, I didn’t have any problem with air sickness.

Brad Means: General, where’d you get that determination to say, you know what? I don’t care how sick I get, I want this.

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, I think it goes back to my West Point years when I was at West Point, I was a terrible athlete, I was awful athlete.

Brad Means: You weren’t terrible.

Gen. Perry Smith: I got washed out of the-

Brad Means: Lacrosse stud

Gen. Perry Smith: hockey, but my roommate, who was a first team All-American football player, by the name of Don Hollander, he was a first West Pointer to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he said, Perry, if you wanna be a good lacrosse player, you can be, but you gotta work harder than anybody else. So that determination to make a team and then do well enough and eventually I did pretty well on lacrosse, that determination carried it over into the flying school.

Brad Means: Boy did it, you became a combat pilot, a member of the Triple Nickel Squadron, a man who was a part of, what was approaching 200 combat missions in Vietnam, what were y’all doing in those airplanes? What were your duties?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, it was the F-4D and there was two seater, I had a backseater with me and I was in the front seat. We flew over Laos and we flew over North Vietnam. The idea was to stop the flow of goods and material and weapons into South Vietnam, through Laos, that’s how they were getting them in. So we bombed bridges and we bombed roads and we bombed trucks and we bombed all kinds of things, trying to stop the flow, we weren’t very successful because there were so many restrictions, we couldn’t hit their airports, we couldn’t hit the railroad, we couldn’t hit any town, even though they were shooting at us out of the town, we couldn’t hit the town, and as a result of that, we tried hard, but we were not very successful.

Brad Means: You know what? One of the things that fascinated me when reading about your flying missions and all of your things, jet related, in the book, “Listen Up” was these air to air refueling, this air to air refueling that you would have to do. So my question to you is how do you do that? How do you, when you’re flying at such a high rate of speed, the plane with all the gas in it, is flying at a high rate of speed, how do you all link up?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, we’re used to flying in close formation, as fighter pilots, so all you had to do is join up with the tanker.

Brad Means: Now, when you say like, join up, I touch it.

Gen. Perry Smith: No no, but get within three or four feet.

Brad Means: Got it.

Gen. Perry Smith: And he’s going the same speed you are, you’re going the same speed, so the differential speed is very little and you slide up behind him and then they have the big probe that goes down and sticks into your airplane and starts refueling it, and then you just have to stay real steady for about 10 minutes while they fill you up, I did it at least a thousand times.

Brad Means: It didn’t scare you at all.

Gen. Perry Smith: No, it was a piece of cake, it was very, very easy to do, and the guys who were the boom operators were wonderful, and we talked to them all the time and they gave me gas on a number of occasions where I really needed gas, and they were great to be there.

Brad Means: It’s a place you don’t wanna be running on empty, up there that high above the Pacific.

Gen. Perry Smith: That’s true.

Brad Means: We’re talking to General Perry Smith, about his military career. And when we come back, we’re gonna talk about how that career led to his influence in the world of business and ethics and management, and how he use that expertise from his early days to help so many people over the years, still does, when the Means Report continues.

Part 2
Brad Means: We welcome you back to the Means Report, continuing our conversation with retired Air Force General, Perry M Smith, and his incredible life as chronicled in his brand new book, it’s called “Listen up” and it is the page turner of all page turners. I was exhausted when I finished it, I don’t see how he still has the energy to even be here with me today after your nonstop life, that you continue to lead, General Smith, which includes lessons that you learned in the military that translate into the world of business, and I love how you’ve made that transition from your life of service, to helping people in the private sector. One of those lessons is documentation and how important it is that we document things. You learn that when you tried to shoot a bullpup missile, I think at a cave opening, what happened?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, I shot it, an about two seconds after it left the front of my airplane, it blew up right in front of me, and so I had to grab the stick and pull it straight back to miss all the debris, and so when I got to the ground, all the people who put the bullpup together, said that could never happen, that would never happen.

Brad Means: Not our equipment.

Gen. Perry Smith: And I was able to find the camera that we had on the airplane, took a picture of the bullpup blowing up, so I blew it up, showed it to him, and he said, oh my gosh.

Brad Means: So they apologized.

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, not only that, but they learned a lot, you know, what did they do wrong? How did they put together? You know, so we’re not gonna have it happen again. So by documentation, you able to make them realize that they had to do something for all the future bullpups. So that was very helpful.

Brad Means: Tell you what a lot of human resources people, watching right now, are nodding their heads about the importance of documentation. What else did you learn? What other lessons in the military that translate to business?

Gen. Perry Smith: Yeah, I had the pleasure of having run a large organizations. So I learned a whole lot about dealing with people, about trust, of integrity, documentation, and all that stuff, and having to fire people, how to hire people, how not to fire people, I learned a lot along the way. So I wrote a book called “Rules and Tools for Leaders” and that book has sold 350,000 copies, it’s my most successful book, and it has all kinds of chapters, but the thing that makes it good, I think, it’s got checklists how to hire, how to fire, how to plan and all that business, and so you can use that. For instance, if you’re raising money, I have the 20 steps to how you best to raise money.

Brad Means: Yeah, your fundraising skills are unmatched, and a lot of people in our community know that and could learn a lot from you. You saved an airliner with, well over a hundred passengers on it, when you were just in your F-15, what happened that day?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, that was really interesting, I was flying by myself in a single seat airplane, nobody in the back, F-15, wonderful airplane, I got a call from the control agency, say, we have an airliner in real trouble, you think you can help? I said, I don’t know, so I went over, got on his frequency, got on his wing.

Brad Means: Where did this take place?

Gen. Perry Smith: Over Germany.

Brad Means: Germany, thank you.

Gen. Perry Smith: He was coming from the United States, coming into Frankfurt International, he had lost his airspeed indicator, his airspeed indicator indicated zero, he had no idea whether he was going fast or slow or medium and coming down final, if you don’t know what your speed is, that can be a problem, you go too slow, you crash, you go too fast, you run off the end of the runway, so I said, “well, just get on my wing and I’ll take you to Frankfurt International” he said, “I can’t do that” I said, “why not?” He says, “I don’t know how to fly formation.” Now this is an airline pilot, and so I said, “okay, I’ll fly on your wing” and I got on his wing and I read off the airspeed, every couple of seconds, my airspeed was the same as his, ’cause we were flying together, and we came all the way in down base, he put his gear down and he was a wonderful pilot, he wanted to stay at 128 knots, and he was within one or two knots all the way down, I kept reading out 128, 127, 128, took him all the way to the ground, and just as he touched down, I went off and back to my base.

Brad Means: How close to his wing were you?

Gen. Perry Smith: Oh, I was maybe 20, 30 feet off.

Brad Means: Oh what?

Gen. Perry Smith: But I often wonder what the people in the airplane must have thought.

Brad Means: Oh sure.

Gen. Perry Smith: What’s this fighter guy hanging on our wing for? All the way down to Frankfurt International. I never got any feedback on what he said.

Brad Means: Okay, did you ever get a thank you note from that guy?

Gen. Perry Smith: No thank you note, no bottle of champagne, no free meal, I never heard anything back.

Brad Means: No, nothing from the airline and in the multimillion dollar jet you saved?

Gen. Perry Smith: No, it doesn’t matter, a good feeling that I’d saved these lives.

Brad Means: Amen, oh my goodness, what an adventure. Another adventure that comes to mind, and I promise you there’s one on every page of “Listen Up” folks, was when you and your brother in arms, Lieutenant Mike Keenan were flying, he had to eject from his aircraft over Vietnam and was stuck down there and please tell us what your role was that day.

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, he was in an airplane that got shot down and he got out, but the parachute didn’t open very much, and so he was very badly hurt, but he had his little survival radio and he was talking to me, I was up high, I called the control agency, got the Jolly Green Giant Helicopters come in, and they came in after about an hour or so flight, they came in and saved him, but he was so badly hurt that the PJ Sergeant that took him up on a cable, almost dropped him, ’cause he was covered with blood, he was hit, he hit a tree, his helmet flew off, he hit a tree, 37 stitches from here all the way down there. But he survived.

Brad Means: And you never, you know, for all intents and purposes, left him, it wasn’t you never left his side, but you never left being there near by for him.

Gen. Perry Smith: I stayed on top and I needed gas, so I go to tanker, get some gas and come back, I would only be gone for five minutes, so I stayed with him until he finally got rescued and they finally pulled him up and they said, “we got him” it brought tears to my eyes because you know, if he had been captured, he would’ve been killed, if you got shot down in Laos, they killed you, if you got shot down in north Vietnam, you became a prisoner. So we knew we had to get him out of there, and get him out of there quick and it worked out fine.

Brad Means: Thank goodness it did, and thanks in large part to you and your team. You have, as I mentioned, been able to take so many of the lessons from your military career and continue to use them throughout your life. My question is so much changes general over the years, technology has changed, in some ways, business practices have changed, people’s personalities are always changing, how do you still connect with others when you’re in front of a room?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, you give them stories and you tell them about how the world has changed and how you manage electronic media and things you can do like batching and not stay on your computer, when you’re talking to somebody, put your computer aside, put your iPhone aside, give them your full attention, that kind of stuff, and then get out and be with people, rather than just sit around your desk and play around with your computer. And that’s really important, walking around and being with your people and knowing their names and thanking them, all day long, you thank people, all day long, you think people, and by that, they begin to love you, they begin to trust you, you love them, you tell them you love them, these people that are working for you and it ends up being well. But you have to give examples to your audience that will relate to what they’re doing.

Brad Means: I’ll tell you what, I hope that the teenagers and the 20 somethings will play back that last part about your personal devices and how there is a time to set them down and engage with your fellow human beings. What about throughout your life, whether it’s in the military, whether it’s in the workplace, wherever you have found yourself, academia, you’ve never been afraid to let your opinion be known, you’ve never been afraid to offer your assessment of the way things are going, and I’m talking whether it was at the Pentagon or whether it was having an audience with Bill Clinton himself, you speak up, why not just keep your head down and go through the motions and collect your paycheck?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, I’ve always felt, ever since I was pretty young, that you need to tell your bosses what the heck’s going on, and if they’re not doing it right, tell them that there are areas that they could improve. Now sometimes you gotta be subtle about it, you can’t say you’re dumb boss.

Brad Means: Sure.

Gen. Perry Smith: But you can say there may be a better way, or the people are very unhappy with the decision we’ve just made or some things like that. And then at my session with Clinton, I gave it to him directly twice, about things that he needed to do that he had not done and so I was the only one in the room that day, that raised questions with him.

Brad Means: Do you think that, and you touched on this in your answer, but do you think that for the most part, people will respond positively, if you are straightforward and respectful, that they’re not gonna get mad at you and say you’ve spoken out of turn, they’re going to listen to you?

Gen. Perry Smith: So to a large extent, that’s true, now I did get fired from that job in the Pentagon and the guy who I would tell things, he didn’t want to hear it, he didn’t like me, he didn’t respect me and I was gone, and when you get fired out of a big job in a Pentagon, you know, that seemed like the end of the world, but it turns out I got away from him, I got back to airplanes and next thing you know, I’ve got a wing of 4,000 wonderful people working for me.

Brad Means: And that was the dream job of all dream jobs, wasn’t it?

Gen. Perry Smith: Of all dream jobs, was a wing commander of an F-15, brand new airplanes, the best airplanes ever invented at that time-

Brad Means: State of the art.

Gen. Perry Smith: and handpicked people, 4,000 of these wonderful people, and all you had to do is just say, you didn’t give orders, they just came up with ideas and you grab their ideas and go with it, I gave very few orders, I just picked up on their creativity.

Brad Means: Does that make every other job in your life a piece of cake, after you oversee thousands and thousands of folks? It seems like everything else would be easy after that.

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, no, when I came back to the Pentagon, after I had been the wing commander, and they gave me the job, as being the planner for the Air Force, my job was to plan the long range future the Air Force, a hundred billion dollars a year for 20 years, that’s $2 trillion, and my job was to make sure that we plan well, we spent it well and we didn’t waste a lot of money, and that was a wonderful challenge, and I had people above me that would listen to me, and we did some pretty good stuff.

Brad Means: I can’t let our time run out, without talking about your wife’s father, Marine Lieutenant Colonel, Jimmie Dyess, and his life and legacy, that you have so tirelessly worked to preserve, a winner of the Medal Of Honor, for his heroism in the military, winner of the Carnegie Medal for his civilian heroism. Are you satisfied with where that legacy is now, or would you say there’s still work to be done?

Gen. Perry Smith: There’s still work to be done, there’s a big development at Sullivan’s Island, where he jumped into the water to save those two women, and earned the Carnegie Metal, they found exactly where he was, and we’re gonna put up a beautiful plaque, a two-sided plaque that tells the Jimmie Dyess story, and the Carnegie metal, very few people know about the Carnegie metal, it tells that story. So I’m always looking for opportunities to bring the story up, we have the Jimmie Dyess symposium, that takes place every year, this year, we’re gonna have it in early next year, on the 13th of January, medal of honor recipient, Bob Kerry, former senators coming to that, and so we continue to figure out ways to get the story out there, particularly young people, because he is a wonderful role model, the only person ever, to win America’s two highest awards for heroism.

Brad Means: Both of them. And you can’t leave without talking about your lovely wife, Connor, she has been with you for so much of this journey. You have great military advice, General Smith, you have great advice for civilians in the workplace, how can we have a marriage as strong and beautiful as yours?

Gen. Perry Smith: Well, it is strong and beautiful, we’ve been married for 62 years, I think the first thing I’d say is mutual respect, she respects me, and mutual trust. The second thing is whenever I do something dumb or get a little carried away with myself, or if somebody tells me I’m wonderful and my head begins to expand, she can bring me right down, and when I’m down, like when I got fired, she can bring me up. She also is a great editor, she’s a beautiful singer, she sung for Presidents of the United States, she sang for Jimmy Doolittle, 90Th birthday.

Brad Means: That’s amazing.

Gen. Perry Smith: As thee soloists and as a result of that, she is a delight in many ways.

Brad Means: Yeah and she was sought out, over the years, to take the stage all over this world.

Gen. Perry Smith: She did, all over the world and she had great audiences, she had opera and light opera and musical comedies, and I mean, she is an absolutely terrific person, and you know that Brad, ’cause you her.

Brad Means: I do, I know her and love her and she’s awesome. You’re going to be at the Augusta Museum of History, one of your favorite places, for a book signing, as we mark the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, tell us about what we need to do on December 7th, this year.

Gen. Perry Smith: December 7th, which is Tuesday, at between noon and two o’clock, I will be there to sign three books, my memoir “Listen Up” my book on Jimmie Dyess, and my leadership book, which we haven’t talked about very much, but that’s the one that’s done so well, and so anybody who wants any of those books, I will sign them, personalize them, and we’ll sell them at discount and all the money will go to the museum, it doesn’t come to me.

Brad Means: Well, General, I cannot thank you enough for your service to this nation. A lot of people when you were walking in for this interview said that, and we mean it, and for all you continue to do, for the greater Augusta community.

Gen. Perry Smith: You’re most kind, it’s a great, great pleasure, Thank you.

Brad Means: Absolutely General Perry Smith, our special guest today, his new book is called “Listen Up” he is an accomplished author and has others that you need to check out, go to that signing and get those three big ones, that he’ll be autographing that day.

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