BOOK REVIEW: Journey to Command – The Naval Career of Captain J.C. Smith

by Carol Smith,, Charleston, SC, (2009) 186 pp.

Reviewed by Charles H. Bogart

While this book focuses on the naval career of Captain John C. Smith U.S. Navy, the book is more than just a biography. Written by his wife Carol, using material gathered from her husband, the book, as written, is autobiographical in style.  It is, however, much more than just an account of Smith’s service in the Navy. We learn in its pages about the importance of mentoring, the responsibility of taking care of your men, working to become the best even after your naval career deviates from the path you wish to travel, and balancing the needs of one’s family to your own desires.

Captain Smith started his naval career as an enlisted man. He used a fortuitous encounter to enter the Navy’s pilot program and achieve his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. This dream ended while still a Nugget when he failed to find a mentor during his service with his first squadron. Stood down for infractions as a pilot, he converted to a career as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) and rebuilt his dream to fly. The heart of the book is the story of his determination to make the NFO more than “The Guy in the Backseat.” He saw the pilot and NFO as a team that functioned in harmony to bring out the best characteristics of the F-4 Phantom. Captain Smith’s personal mission, from his first flight as a NFO, was to turn the crews of the F-4 into team players. How he accomplished this task is well told.

Mixed in with the above is the story of his meeting Carol, their marriage, and their life together raising five children. We learn within these sections the tension his marriage suffered while he was deployed overseas or worked long hours while stateside. Much of this is recounted in letters written between the two of them while he was deployed overseas.

The heart of the book is Smith’s tale of being an F-4 NFO. The chapter detailing the preparation Smith and his pilot Lou Page made in learning their aircraft’s parameters and building a mutual trust is a must read.  This effort resulted in their achieving the Navy’s first Vietnam War MIG kill.  In addition, his account of the problems he and others had to overcome to organize and get running the Top Gun School is a sad commentary on the ability of many to accept innovation. Yet we can see within the book what can be accomplished when you are willing to persevere to bring to life what you believe in.

Considerable text is devoted to Smith’s service with VF-121, VF-92, and VF-114. These chapters are well worth reading by anyone preparing to assume a command position. The chapter covering the September 28, 1972, Sparrow Missile attack by his aircraft that resulted in the sinking of two PT Boats in the Gulf of Tonkin is well worth the cost of the book.

The final chapter of the book tells of Captain Smith’s decision to leave the Navy when there was every possibility his career path was leading to a carrier command. This decision was not an easy one, and he is very forthcoming in the agonizing he went through in trying to decide what was best, not just for him, but also for his family. I am sure many in the Navy have gone through the same family deliberations on when to retire. This is an excellent look into the dynamic workings of a Navy family.

Overall, this is a well-written book on one man and his family’s relationship with the Navy. The book is well worth reading.

Charles H. Bogart of Frankfort, KY, served in the Navy from 1958-1961. He recently retired as a Planning Supervisor from the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs and is now employed as a Historian by Frankfort Parks and Historical Sites.

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2 Responses to BOOK REVIEW: Journey to Command – The Naval Career of Captain J.C. Smith

  1. David Wickersham says:

    Is Captain Smith still alive and if so, where does he live?

    • Merl Fuchs says:

      Last time I saw him was in San Angelo, TX, many years ago (1988). He had already retired from the Navy by then. He was a friend of my father and wrote a recommendation for me when I was applying to the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School. He was quite a character and always called me “tiger” when I visited with him. I hope he’s still araound.

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