Retired admiral's naval career spans four wars

Horton Smith showed a flare for strategic military thinking when he was still a student at Franklin High School. Smith was assigned to do a report about international events, and he not only concluded that America would go to war with Japan, Smith thought Japan was likely to attack Pearl Harbor, he said.

His teacher thought he was being insensitive and cut his final grade from an A to a C, he remembered. But 10 days later, Pearl Harbor was attacked, which surprised his teacher quite a bit, Smith smiled.

A year after that, he joined the Navy while he was still in school in the equivalent of today's deferred- enlistment program. "I was just barely 17," he said. Smith had a choice of going to sea or taking ROTC classes at the University of Washington. He chose the ROTC, a four-year program that was shrunk to 30 months and then shortened even more so that he was commissioned in 1945.

After the war, Smith went to the UW law school and was in the Naval Reserves. "And I became the first officer on the West Coast to earn gold dolphins," he said of a designation for those serving on submarines. "I basically became a career reservist."

Then, in late 1950, the Korean War started and Smith was called up again during the last week of law school, he said. The Navy let him take the bar exam first, and he served on two subs afterward, Smith said.

After that stint, he had risen in rank to lieutenant senior grade and later passed a series of exams to qualify for handling experimental nuclear material, Smith recalled. He qualified with former president Jimmy Carter and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Bill Crowe. "Jimmy and I were both chief engineers in the same submarine group," Smith said.

In the late 1950s, Smith got out active duty and decided to practice law, but he was still in the reserves and served as captain for two mine sweepers, one based in Seattle, one in Everett. "Then I was captain for two destroyers in Tacoma," Smith said.

His unit was recalled to active duty in 1964, that time for the Vietnam War, Smith said. Following that conflict, Smith had risen to the rank of a four-striper captain and was in charged of one-third of all submarines in the United States, he said.

"And God was on my side," Smith said, explaining he helped recover a Russian submarine that had sunk to the ocean floor in the 1970s. It was a project Howard Hughes had a hand in, he added.

Smith had been maintaining a parallel career in law, and at one point Gov. Dan Evans appointed him as a Superior Court judge, Smith said. But Smith lost an election in 1989 and lost his job after 20 years in the judiciary, he said.

He landed on his feet. "I went to work for the California Maritime Academy," Smith said. That wasn't his only involvement in academia. Smith said he also taught maritime and research law at Texas A&M.

He also later studied in San Francisco to obtain a master's license, and had hoped to pilot ships in the Puget Sound. But the oldest pilot in the area crashed his boat, and that put an end to his idea, Smith said.

Later, Smith was on a list of naval personnel up for one of two admiral slots. Former president Gerald Ford called Smith up and told him his chances were slim; there were 330 other officers in the pool, Smith said. But he had an in. Smith was a former Eagle Scout, as was Ford, and Smith thinks that's why he was appointed an admiral for the West Coast, he said.

Smith officially retired from the Navy in the mid-1980s, but his retirement wasn't to last following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "After 9/11, they were very short of masters," he explained. So he was put in charge of a ship that furnished all the jet fuel for two aircraft cruisers involved with the invasion of Afghanistan, he said.

"A young 82," Smith lives in Magnolia with his second wife, Lei-llah, and now practices maritime law in an office near the Space Needle, he said. But after a military career that spanned four wars and more than half a century, Smith is keenly aware of the poor treatment fellow veterans are receiving these days.

He is loath to complain, but Smith suggested that veterans need to be very vigilant about the actions of representatives and senators in Washington, D.C. "I'm just delighted to see the good work [Sen.] Patty Murray has done," he said.

Smith described the ongoing war in Afghanistan as "a real challenge," one that highlights the changes the military services have gone through. Special forces and armored units from Fort Lewis are one thing. "But you can't make use of those motorized forces," he said of operations in the mountainous terrain.

In fact, Smith said, the military had taken a decidedly low-tech approach by buying 2,500 horses and 400 mules for use in the conflict. And the future in Afghanistan? "I think we'll be out of there if we get top leadership in intelligence and special forces," he said.

As for the war in Iraq, Smith sees no light at the end of the tunnel, an analogy first used in the Vietnam War. "In retrospect, most probably, we should not have pursued it," he said. Smith faults various intelligence agencies in the government for not communicating with each other and for using "phony intelligence" about Iraq.

He also sees a parallel between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. "America, in a fast-and-dirty war, does well," Smith said. But it doesn't do as well as an occupying force, he added. Furthermore, Americans are tired of the war and don't see the need for a continued presence in the country, the retired admiral said.

Smith was noncommittal about potential changes if a Democrat is elected president. "If the Democrats win the White House, there will definitely be some reflection on our overseas commitments," is about all he would say.

But Smith did have some advice for the country. "One of the most important things America has to do is be prepared for change," he said.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.

[[In-content Ad]]