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Veterans from World War II, Afghanistan reflect on their experiences
Local Marine will speak at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville
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Pete Smith talks about a picture that shows himself and fellow crew members of the USS Atherton with pieces of a German U-boat they sank at the conclusion of World War II. The U-boat sinking was the last one of the war. - photo by Tom Reed

Honoring veterans

What: An Evening of Thanks and Remembrance
When: 6:30 p.m. Nov. 28
Where: Riverside Military Academy, 2001 Riverside Drive, Gainesville
Featured: Corps of Cadets Pass In Review, remarks by U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Paul Herdener and a panel discussion about U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Event details are still being worked out.

Decades of American warfare separate the two military veterans, and the gulf between them is filled with so many differences — from how battles are fought to the weapons we use.

The tie that binds Pete Smith and Paul Herdener of Hall County is their commitment to serving their country — a passion being recognized and appreciated in Veterans Day ceremonies throughout the country today, including many in the Hall County area.

Herdener, 26, a 2004 North Hall High School graduate now serving in the Marines, is thankful for those who came before him.

"I think a holiday like this is important to take a time out and remember the past," said the first lieutenant, stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif. "We are a free country, a democracy. The military doesn't run the nation, but it's been a huge player in our nation's success and independence."

Smith, 87, was part of the American military that helped put down two of history's biggest threats to world peace, the World War II axis powers of Germany and Japan.

From 1943 to 1945, he served aboard a Navy destroyer escort, the USS Atherton, as part of convoys shuttling troops and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean.

"We went to several places in Africa — Algeria was one of them and Casablanca was one of them," said Smith, a gunner's mate, 3rd class. "We went up to Palermo, Sicily ... getting ready to invade Normandy."

The Atherton and USS Moberly, a frigate, destroyed the German submarine U-853 in waters off Rhode Island, after the enemy vessel refused to surrender, on May 6, 1945.

By that time, the war was over in Europe, with Germany surrendering to the Allies officially the next day.

"We went to the Pacific after Germany and we were liberating Japanese islands — they didn't know the war was over," Smith said.

He also recalled an ailing German POW who required immediate surgery being transferred from a merchant ship to the destroyer for medical treatment. Smith has pictures of the prisoner, including one of the surgery.

After the war, Smith drove a gas truck for Gulf Oil Co. for 16 years. These days, he works at the Candler compactor site off Poplar Springs Road.

His wife of 54 years, Juanita, died nine years ago. The couple had five children, nine grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren, with all but one family living in Hall County.

He also has still-vivid memories from his days in two theaters of action.

Smith recalled one attack by German airplanes near Palermo.

"We just threw up a barrage (of artillery fire) and we could hear those (enemy) bombs going off," he said.

"They saw that barrage and they wouldn't come in (close), but they dropped their bombs anyway."

Herdener, a 2004 North Hall graduate, had to deal with a much different enemy in Afghanistan. The Taliban, which lost power after the U.S. invaded in 2001, has often worked in secret, planting roadside bombs that have taken many military and civilian lives.

"Our company and battalion was spread over 20 small patrol bases, ranging from platoon to squad size," said Herdener, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2010. "It was very isolated and we were there in the summer, so temperatures ranged between 100 and 120 degrees."

His deployment lasted from March 1 to Oct. 1. He returned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he is part of the Marines' 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, which is in the First Marine Division.

Herdener will return Thanksgiving Day to Gainesville and plans to stay eight days before returning to Pendleton.

During his stay, he will speak at An Evening of Thanks and Remembrance, set for Nov. 28 at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville.

The event is intended as a thank-you to the Gainesville community for its support of "Operation Shaving Cream."

Earlier this year, area residents raised money for shaving cream cans and shipped them to Herdener and fellow Marines, who used them to mark possible bomb sites.

"It was great to see Gainesville get involved and study up, basically, on what was going on (in the war)," Herdener said.

The Riverside event also is meant to "acknowledge the men and women in service in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to remember those who sacrificed all," according to program notes provided by Lt. Col. Kevin Jarrard, the school's commandant of cadets.

Herdener said he has paused to reflect on how much the U.S. has poured itself into Afghanistan, America's longest war.

"Our country has invested a lot of money, time and blood on that soil," he said. "I think it's great that Osama bin Laden got killed, but at the same time, that's not the end. The end is denying these other people the safe haven to conduct terrorist acts."

Smith said he believes America should have finished off the war in Afghanistan years ago.

"We've got technology, but the officials won't let them use it," he said.

"We shouldn't have been there 10 years. Look what we did in four years (during World War II) - we whipped Germany and the Japanese and we didn't have the technology that we do now.

"I can't understand that war over there now. I can't understand these young people protesting," Smith. "I'm too old-fashioned, I guess."

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