Luther Smith, a decorated World War II veteran, was one of the first African American students to receive an engineering degree from the University of Iowa
Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Luther Smith’s contributions and achievements over his 89 years were many. As one of the pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen, he was a decorated World War II hero. He experienced discrimination throughout his life, especially after the war when he worked as an aerospace engineer—a time when few black men or women held such positions.

He was also a Hawkeye.

“When he came to Iowa to study engineering, he didn’t have a particular interest in being an engineer. He did it because that would allow him to become a military aviator,” says Gordon Smith, Luther’s son. “The University of Iowa had the best engineering program in the state, and I think that had a lot to do with it.”

Luther Smith enrolled in the UI College of Engineering in 1938, during a time when Iowa City and the UI were segregated. Like all black students at the time, he was not allowed to live in the residence halls and instead stayed in the home of one of the city’s black families.

Smith attended the UI until after the start of World War II, when he decided to pursue his dream to become a military pilot. He was accepted into the Tuskegee Institute Flying Program in 1942, an all-black unit of pilots that would later become known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Upon completing flight training, Smith deployed to Europe in support of the Allied bombing campaigns. His service with the 332nd Fighter Group included 133 combat missions within eight months. During his final mission, he suffered serious injuries and was held as a prisoner of war for seven months. Due to those injuries, he was forced to retire in 1947.

Gordon Smith said it wasn’t until the last 10 or 15 years of his father’s life that he learned the details of his father’s military career and accomplishments.

“He was very modest and humble,” Gordon Smith says. “He was part of the Greatest Generation. He didn’t think what he did was all that special, but actually he was—as we all know now—very special in what he had done and what he had accomplished.”

Gordon Smith says his father first experienced discrimination because of his race when, en route to Tuskegee, Alabama, he was forced to move to the back of the train car.

“I think that made a big impression on him, when he saw the way blacks were being treated,” Gordon Smith says.

The experience was eye opening to his father, who later became a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, once telling the History Channel, “We fought to have a better life, and a better life was worth fighting for.”

After the war, Luther Smith returned to the UI and graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering in 1950. Smith tried for months to find a job, a task that proved difficult for an African American man with an engineering degree—even as a veteran with a decorated war record.

In 1951, he was hired by General Electric as an aerospace engineer.

During that time, Gordon Smith says, his father encountered discrimination—having to ride in freight elevators at hotels or not being allowed to stay at the same hotels as his white colleagues—but was undeterred.

“I’ve always thought that his commitment and passion to do things was a hallmark of his life,” Gordon Smith says. “Even if it’s not what he wanted to do, he knew what he wanted to achieve and so that’s what he would do.”

Luther Smith died in 2009, having contributed significantly to racial equality in the U.S. and helping change the face of the U.S. military.

In November, he was honored by the UI with the Hawkeye Distinguished Veterans Memorial Award.

The honor would have made his father very proud, Gordon Smith says.

“Events like this are really special because you’re recognizing something that took place more than 70 years ago,” Gordon Smith says. “It’s neat that the University of Iowa wants to recognize that.”