MARIANNA, Fla.— Rarely do you meet someone who has lead as interesting of a life as Jesse Smallwood.
Smallwood, 78, was raised in a small town in northeastern Oregon. In 1957, when he was only 17 years old, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
“Now, all I’d been around was dry land, so the Navy had a certain appeal to me,” he said.
During his physical, Smallwood thought he would be turned away due to his poor eyesight.
“I think it was because I learned how to read with just coal lamps instead of electricity,” he said. “Anyway, my eyes are in bad shape. And when I was leaving, the guys that administered the test told me if I needed a Seeing Eye dog, they could help me find one.”
Smallwood attended several schools around the country during his time training. He went through basic training in San Diego, California. Following that, he worked in Corpus Christi, Texas for six months while waiting for an opening in a basic maintenance aviation school. Once an opening finally appeared, he went to Norman, Oklahoma to attend. One he “learned what a screwdriver was,” he went to electronic school in Memphis, Tennessee.
According to Smallwood, he was able to see much of the far east on the USS Yorktown.
“It was an interesting trip,” he said. “We went to several places in Japan, Hong Kong, Guam, Okinawa, then we came back to Hawaii.”
Smallwood said that although he was an aviation electronics technician, on the Yorktown, he served as a plane captain. As part of his duties on the ship, he would use chains to tie-down planes that had landed.
It was during his time on the ship that Smallwood said they lost an aircraft.
“There was one trip, we lost an aircraft that we thought was due to pilot vertigo,” he said. “He had to fly about 50 feet off the water. And we think he thought up was down or something similar. But anyway, he didn’t trust his instincts. And all we could find was some debris. The aircraft was water-tight, but we found a couple of things, like the radar.”
Smallwood recalled what it was like to see the lost plane’s captain standing alone.
“One of the saddest sights I ever saw was the plane that got lost, his plane captain was standing there with all of his tie-downs and no plane— his reason for existence and everything else,” he said. “All of a sudden, his environment changed.”
After his time on the USS Yorktown, Smallwood and his squadron ended up in the Long Beach area in California.
“It was interesting there because I had never experienced California fog,” he said. “And at night, you would have to have someone on the hood of the car with a flashlight to figure out where the white line was. One night, we followed a car into his garage. Luckily though, he was only a block or two away from the base and he gave us directions.”
In 1960, Smallwood got out of the Navy and stayed in the Long Beach area.
“Long Beach was an interesting town,” he said. “They had all-night restaurants, all-night movie theaters, a lot of things a country boy from eastern Oregon wasn’t used to.”
Smallwood ended up finding a job at a restaurant in Long Beach and worked as a cook for some time. This didn’t last long, however.
“The owner said, ‘You’re not doing very good here. So why don’t you go back in the Navy?’” he said. “And I thought, ‘Why not?’ So, I went back in.”
After rejoining the Navy, Smallwood was sent to Korea, where he was one of only five naval aviation types in the country. There, he worked keeping two planes in operating for transportation for the admiral.
“We got over there and I got off the plane, and I don’t know if it’s still tradition, but the person I was relieving in Korea couldn’t leave until I showed up,” he said. “So he met me with some long-handle underwear and a fifth of whiskey and told me, ‘You’ll need both of these.’ And so I believed him and I did need both of them.”
Smallwood said that during that time, he experienced what some would call a hostage situation.
“We woke up one morning and low and behold, we were told that we were restricted and we wouldn’t have to work until notified otherwise,” he said. “So everybody thought we kind of got a vacation day we didn’t know about.”
Unfortunately, the situation at-hand was no vacation.
“We were happy until we were told there was a tank out at the main gate and the canon was pointed inward,” he said. “And another person also told me they had a Korean with a German Shepherd patrolling the perimeter of the fence with a Thompson submachine gun. Some people would call us Prisoners of War, but we weren’t at war.”
Smallwood served in the Navy for a little over nine years, until December of 1966. He has the military to thank for much of the person he is today.
“It gave me a sense of accountability for anything that I did,” he said. “And a thirst for knowledge. In the service, you’re constantly ending up with new technology you have to learn.”
Smallwood now lives in Marianna, where he has happily found a home.
“I like Marianna because it’s so much like my hometown,” he says. “And I especially like the people here. That makes all the difference in the world.”