-Heroic ‘Thief’ honored for WWII service
Robert “Bobbie” Gene Smotts never received a medal for his service fighting in the South Pacific during WWII, nor did any of his fellow Marines in the Scout Snipper Platoon, known as the 40 Thieves, 6th Marines Regiment.
“We refused them,” Smotts said. “They said they would distribute medals, but there weren’t enough to go around, so we refused them. We wanted them to go to the families of the men who were injured or died.”
And many died in the fight for Saipan. For America, it was the most costly battle of the war in the Pacific. Nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives and over 10,000 were wounded.
Belatedly, Smotts was honored by the Dahlonega Chapter of Quilts of Valor on Dec. 29 thanks to volunteer coordinator Dinah Davis with Homestead Hospice. The organization checks with each veteran they serve to see if they have a quilt. If not, they request one be made and presented.
“We just want to make sure they get honored,” Davis said. “And this guy is so special.”
Indeed, Smotts is special. He was a member of specially trained warriors, the forerunners of the Green Beret.
“[The 40 Thieves] were no Boy Scouts,” said Joseph Tachovsky, who wrote the book 40 Thieves: Saipan. “These guys were unique, one-of-a-kind and trained differently. They learned to operate behind enemy lines, to cripple and kill silently.”
Smotts is one of three living members of the 40 Thieves who responded to letters of inquiry Tachovsky sent to names on a roster he discovered after his father, Lt. Frank Tachovsky, died. Frank was the lieutenant who led the 40 Thieves, a fact he didn’t learn until the funeral.
The younger Tachovsky went looking for his father’s foot locker. In looking through it he found a roster of his dad’s platoon and recognized one name—Bill Kruppel. He recalled visiting him several times with his dad. He contacted Kruppel, and was amazed at what he learned from his dad’s former platoon sergeant.
Unlike his dad, who never talked about his Marine Corps experiences, “Bill … had no hesitation with sharing his remembrances,” Tachovsky said.
Kruppel had a box of memorabilia, including a diary and a memoir he wrote, a DVD of an interview and photographs. The two talked for two hours, then, Tachovsky said, “he pushed the box toward me and said, ‘This would make a good story.’”
And so began a seven-year mission to record the exploits of the 40 Thieves.
“Nobody had heard about the 40 Thieves until Joe’s [Tachovsky’s] dad died and he wrote this book,” said Smotts’ wife Alma.
“Bob Smotts, Roscoe Mullins and Marvin Strombo deserve much more than my gratitude for their willingness to discuss their service,” Tachovsky said. “All were at first hesitant but being armed with some intimate knowledge of the platoon acquired from Knuppel, they were soon at ease. Being the son of their commanding officer didn’t hurt the cause.”
“Bob wouldn’t talk to him if I was in the room,” Alma said. “He didn’t want me to know about the horrible things he had to do to survive. I had to read about it on the website.”
Alma said the men “were trained to kill, kill, kill. Then when they came home they told them, OK, now don’t kill.”
“The platoon was quarantined and had to miss Christmas. They had to go through reorientation before they could come home,” Tachovsky said.
As to why the platoon was called 40 Thieves, Bob said simply, “Because we stole. We stole commodities, canned food, mostly.”
He was being modest, according to Tachovsky.
“The Marines were notorious thieves. They were the poorest equipped branch of the service. They stole out of necessity,” Tachovsky said. “But this group’s thieving exploits were legendary. They stole cots, radios, booze, a pig for a barbecue—anything they needed.
“Leon Uris wrote about men in the 6th Marine Regiment who stole an Army colonel’s Jeep in his book, Battle Cry. I asked Bob about it and he said, ‘no—we stole an Army captain’s Jeep—and beat the hell out of it.’”
The Marines also took on the Japanese forces on Saipan. The island was critical strategically to the war effort in the Pacific. A part of the Mariana Islands, its capture allowed America to build runways long enough for the B29 Superfortress to take off and reach the mainland of Japan and return.
Saipan was the the locale used for the aircraft that eventually carried and dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending the war and saving untold numbers of American lives.
Smotts turns 95-years-old Thursday, Jan. 10. He and Alma will have been married 75 years come Feb. 7. They have lived quietly in Dahlonega since 2010, moving here to be close to their daughter, Cheryl Smotts Carter. And though Smotts seldom talked about his experiences as one of the 40 Thieves, the small ceremony in his honor by the Quilts of Valor group, his family and Tachovsky meant a lot to him, Alma said.
“He was really touched.”
For more information on obtaining a Quilt of Valor for a veteran, family members or veterans themselves can download an application from lumpkincounty.gov/veterans-affairs site, or QOVF.org website.
Tachovsky recently finished re-writing 40 Thieves:Saipan as a narrative rather than an oral history, enlisting the help of award-winning author Cynthia Kraack. The two are currently submitting the manuscript to agents and publishers. To learn more about Smotts and the other 40 Thieves, and the story behind the book, visit Tachovsky’s website, 40thievessaipan.com.