Smith's grave marker
April 10, 1870|
|Died||October 30, 1925(aged 55)|
|Place of burial||Cypress Hills National Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Navy|
|Rank||Chief Gunner's Mate|
|Unit||USS New York (BB-34)|
|Awards||Medal of Honor|
On that day, a sanitary tank which collected runoff from the torpedo room, anchor chain locker, and anchor engine room was scheduled for a routine cleaning. The tank was inadequately ventilated, and the air inside was discovered to be too foul for men to enter. After allowing the empty tank to air out, the three-man cleaning crew was ordered to commence work. A hose was run to the tank from an ammunition handling room, of which Smith was in charge, and one sailor, Ordinary Seaman Peter J. Walsh, descended into the tank to begin cleaning. Walsh was quickly overcome by fumes and fell unconscious to the bottom of the chamber. His two companions rushed to the handling room where Smith was working and shut off the hose. While one of the men tried unsuccessfully to save Walsh, Smith gathered a rope and prepared to make his own rescue attempt.
Short and stocky, Smith struggled to fit his 192-pound (87 kg) frame through the small hatch into the tank. Making it through with great difficulty, he climbed to the bottom and tied the rope to Walsh's limp body. While ascending out of the tank, he too was overcome by the noxious gases and was pulled through the hatch unconscious by his fellow sailors. Both Smith and Walsh were taken to sick bay and resuscitated by use of a Pulmotor device. An officer on the New York stated that "Smith not only saved the life of Walsh, who could not have been resuscitated if he had been allowed to remain any longer, but he took a very great risk of not being able to get back himself through the manhole on account of his being so stout." For these actions, Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor three months later, on April 6.
Medal of Honor citation
Smith's official Medal of Honor citation reads:
On board the U.S.S. New York, for entering a compartment filled with gases and rescuing a shipmate on 24 January
- "Medal of Honor recipients - Interim Awards, 1915-1916". Medal of Honor citations. United States Army Center of Military History. August 3, 2009. Retrieved 2009-09-10.
- "General Order No. 202: Award of Medal of Honor and Gratuity to Wilhelm Smith, Gunner's Mate, First Class". United States Navy. April 6, 1916. Retrieved 2009-09-11.
- "Wilhelm Smith (1870 - 1925)". Find a Grave. March 3, 2000. Retrieved 2009-09-10.