PROFILE: After arrests, veteran turns to faith

Published 2:39 pm Thursday, March 17, 2016

Nathan Smith, left, with his good friend and fellow Marine Chris George. Smith has turned his life around since he was involved in criminal activity several decades ago. (Reporter Photo/Neal Wagner)

Nathan Smith, left, with his good friend and fellow Marine Chris George. Smith has turned his life around since he was involved in criminal activity several decades ago. (Reporter Photo/Neal Wagner)

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

The word “Faith” is clearly visible atop a framed Bible verse hanging in a small frame next to the living room window in Nathan Smith’s Columbiana home, followed by a succinct, accurate description of 92-year-old Smith’s life up to this point.

 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence,” reads the framed copy of Ephesians 3:12, hanging only a few feet from a collection of U.S. Marine Corps books sitting atop the metal meal plate Smith used while serving in the Corps during one of the most violent conflicts the world has ever seen.

It wasn’t always this way.

For a significant portion of Smith’s life, faith did not play a major role in his decisions, and he has the criminal record to prove it. But since a fateful dinner with his son nearly a half-century ago, he has made the decision to more than make up for his past wrongs.

“He says, ‘I was the chief sinner in Birmingham, but when Christ came into my life, it changed all that,’” Smith’s wife, Patricia, said with a smile as she looked toward her husband sitting in a rocking chair on the other side of the room. “It tells people that you can always make a change. It’s never too late.”

Nathan was quick to agree.

“My thought back then was ‘How can I scam people?’” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Now, it’s ‘How can I tell them about Jesus?’ It’s a complete reversal from the way I used to be.”


Fighting spirit


Nathan grew up in Woodlawn, and was raised by parents with differing outlooks on life. While he described is mother as “completely devoted to the Lord,” he had a different description for his father.

“My dad was an alcoholic,” Nathan said, making the only reference to his father during a two-hour conversation. “One day, he got up under the porch and drank kerosene, and it killed him.”

Soon after his father’s death, Nathan, like most of the nation on Dec. 7, 1941, received a shock he will never forget when the Japanese military carried out a surprise attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

From then on, he knew he was destined to fight.

“I saw the Marine dress blues and all the headlines that read ‘Be the first to fight,’” Nathan said. “Fighting sounded good, but once we found out the Japanese were shooting back at us, it got a little more realistic.”

Nathan joined the Marine Corps in 1942, and attended boot camp in 1943 in San Diego before moving on to Camp Pendleton. His first deployment was to the Marshall Islands, where he saw little action before moving to Pearl Harbor.

Although Nathan later was later involved in some of the bitterest combat of World War II, his experience at Pearl Harbor still stands as the scariest day of his life.

On Sunday, May 21, 1944, Nathan was preparing a landing ship known as an LST for an assault on Japanese-held Pacific islands when one of the LSTs exploded.

“They were all loaded with ammo. When the third one exploded, I counted and saw that I was on the seventh one,” Nathan said. “I went down below and saw that I was the only one still on there.”

Nathan then jumped off the ship and swam to the eighth LST, which was on fire. After climbing up a rope ladder to the eighth LST, Nathan manned a fire hose to help the crew put out a fire near where the ship’s ammunition was stored. When the fires were extinguished and the explosions stopped, more than 160 men died in the incident.

“We always believed it was sabotage,” Nathan said quietly. “It was probably the most afraid I was in the Marine Corps.”


Combat experience


After the harrowing experience at Pearl Harbor, Nathan and his 4th Marine Division began their tour of duty by traveling to the Japanese-held island of Saipan.

While there, Nathan and his fellow Marines were engaged in several firefights with the Japanese, including one battle for which Nathan earned a Silver Star, which is the third-highest combat decoration a member of the United States armed forces can earn.

In the battle, the Japanese army had pinned down Nathan and his fellow Marines on a rocky hill.

“We couldn’t see them. We lost a lot of men,” Nathan said, recalling the battle. “We lost that battle, we got driven off the hill. But I was the last to leave, and I tried to keep them pinned down.

“The lieutenant put me in for the Silver Star. The Marine Corps made him write it up like we had won the battle, and we didn’t,” Nathan said.

After a stop at the island of Tinian , which was “not nearly as bad as Saipan,” Nathan and his division made it to Iwo Jima. Shortly after landing on the island, he received a battlefield promotion to platoon commander because all of his superiors had been injured or killed.

Three days after Nathan landed, he suffered a bullet wound to his left leg, right above his ankle. He credits his faith – and some prayers from his mother ­– with helping him to survive the ordeal.

“God took over again. The shock made me throw my BAR (firearm) away, so I started hopping trying to get underground. My foot was flopping, but I don’t remember it hurting at all,” Nathan said, noting he was able to safely hop to a set of stairs leading to underground trenches. “After I got down low enough to get out of the line of fire, I took my belt off and made a tourniquet.”

As Nathan laid in the stairwell “waiting to get killed,” a Marine tank crew pulled up and rescued him.

After recalling the story, Nathan uttered one of his favorite Bible verses: Philippians 4:19.

“And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus,” he said.


Into darkness


Following his injury, Nathan was carried off Iwo Jima to a hospital ship, which transported him to Saipan and then back to Pearl Harbor.

“He was on the hospital ship when (the Marines) raised the first flag on Iwo Jima,” Patricia said.

From Pearl Harbor, Nathan was transported to San Francisco, and eventually to a hospital in Pensacola, Fla. He was granted an honorable discharge from the Marines because of his injury, and soon took a job with the Post Office in downtown Birmingham.

After about a year with the Post Office, Nathan took the exam to become a Birmingham police officer, and recorded the highest score of anyone who took the test with him.

“The supervisor with the jail asked for the guy with the highest score. He thought I could type, so I went to work with the Birmingham Jail for 18 months,” Nathan said with a laugh.

It was a fateful career change, as entering law enforcement soon placed Nathan on the wrong side of the law.

Following his stint working in the city’s jail, Nathan worked his way up to a patrol position with the department. Not long after taking to the streets in his blue uniform, the green officer became aware of something sinister.

“I found out that the Birmingham Police Department was doing all the burglaries. They could crack safes and break into businesses easily,” he said. “Everyone was involved, and I didn’t want to be a snitch.”

The police-conducted burglaries continued for about a year after Nathan hit the streets. He said he never took an active role in the crimes, but he never did anything to stop them.

One night, the scheme came to an abrupt end when they got tangled up with the wrong people.

While on patrol with Nathan, one of the department’s officers broke into a business and stole a boat motor. The officer gave the boat motor to Nathan, who had no use for it, so he gave it to an acquaintance who was an avid fisherman.

As it turned out, the acquaintance was the nephew of the Birmingham assistant police chief, and was arrested when he was found in possession of stolen property.

“They arrested him and brought him to police headquarters,” Nathan said. “I said ‘If y’all will let him go, I will say I had the motorboat.”

As a result, the entire shift faced criminal charges for their actions in the burglary ring, and Nathan spent five years on probation for burglary and grand larceny charges.

Nathan’s lifestyle then led him to become a bookie for about a decade, which caused him to become involved with the local mafia. This led to investigations by the FBI, and eventually federal gambling and conspiracy charges against Nathan.

“My attorney got me off somehow,” Nathan said.


Change of faith


Having already been placed on probation for the burglaries and facing an ever-narrowing FBI investigation, times were not good for Nathan in the 1970s.

But one dinner served as the beginning of a new chapter for the man who had at one time fought for America and fought crime on the streets of Birmingham.

“There was a guy who worked at a Christian radio station, and he witnessed to (Nathan’s) son over the fence one day. His son came and witnessed to us at dinner one night,” Patricia said.

“My son started telling me how he had invited Christ into his life,” Nathan said, noting he was 52 years old at the time. “I couldn’t wait to get back to my apartment and invite Christ into my life.”

Since then, Nathan’s has led a much different life.

“Everything he has done from 52 to now has been led by Christ,” Nathan’s friend, Shelby County Chief Deputy and retired Marine Chris George, said. “For the first 52 years, he dealt with all those things, but it has been a total transformation.

“You’ve got 450 people in that (Shelby County) Jail who think they’re lost,” Chris said. “All is not lost if you give it all to God. Nathan is a testament to that.”

Today, Nathan enjoys spending time with family and friends at his Columbiana home, and regularly publicly speaks on the power of faith in changing a person’s life. Today, he is actively involved in the Marine Corps League and the Tres Dias Christian organization, and he estimates he has “probably introduced hundreds of people to Christ.”

The 92-year-old has no intentions of slowing down, and has a Bible verse at-hand to apply to nearly any life situation.

“There is nothing in the Bible that says it’s time to retire,” Chris said, patting his friend on the back. “We shouldn’t ever stop witnessing to people. Nathan is a shining example of that.”

“All the answers to life are in the Bible,” Nathan said with a nod.