The Fifth Field Excerpt
Charles H. Smith was a rough man, a real badass born in Salem, Missouri on October 6, 1909. Smith had a lengthy criminal record, being arrested for speeding and fighting – he was fast with his temper and faster with his fists. Pocket-change offenses, but in 1930, Smith hit the big time, receiving a twenty-year sentence for an unarmed robbery in Granite City, Illinois. He did “seven years on the river” at the Chester, Illinois penitentiary before being released in 1937. Chester – later renamed Menard – Prison, located at the base of a limestone bluff a few hundred yards from the Mississippi River, was a rough old place. It had opened in 1878. From October through April – out in the exercise yard – the wind coming off the ice on “Ol’ Man River” cut through a man’s clothes to the bone. More than half the prison population worked in the stone quarries; it also had an asylum for insane convicts, although in this 122-acre frozen hellhole, everyone was a little bit crazy.
Smith was an inmate at Menard in early 1931, when Murley Johnson – a twenty-six-year-old broom-maker from Mattoon, Illinois – was executed in the electric chair located in the laundry building, for the murder of a woman and her two children. Murley’s final words were “So long, boys.” Menard topped that on December 11, 1931, when the state “fried” Hazel Johnson, Henry Pannier, Willie Green and James Jackson in a single day. Life was rough at Menard, where there was only one guard for every seventeen inmates; perhaps the Army would be a little easier. However, as Charles Smith would find out, after he was inducted at Camp Grant, Illinois on May 11, 1942, the Army could teach the boys at Menard a thing or two about playing rough.
Six months later, on May 7, 1943 at about 7:30 p.m., Private Smith – who had been drinking since 1:00 p.m. – visited the “Villa de Roses,” a house of prostitution in Oran, Algeria. It was not exactly the Ritz; one of the other privates went inside, but said he “didn’t like the looks of the girls” and departed. American MPs patrolled the bordello in case some of the troopers got a little too exuberant. Standing in line, Smith was getting too exuberant – waiting for an hour or two in front of a whorehouse did not bring out the best in a man’s character. The ex-con had his knife out and was showing his fellow soldiers how sharp it was – when a Military Policeman guided him to the front entrance and told him “it was time he was going home.” Smith replied, “You God-damn military pricks don’t give a man to have a chance to have a good time.”
Smith also told the MP, Private Sephus Joe Stinnett, if he came outside, Smith would cut his throat. About that time, another MP walked over, tapped Smith on the shoulder and started to lead him away from the establishment. The MP did not get far. In less than eight steps, Smith whipped out the knife and slashed Corporal William L. Tackett’s throat.