Local veterans honored in special flight honoring Sherman Smoot’s legacy and the bravery of all veterans

PASO ROBLES — Thursday, June 6, marked the 80th anniversary of D-Day — when United States military and other allies landed on the beaches of Normandy in France and led to the liberation of France from the Nazis, which served as a turning point in World War II. This year also marked the first Sherman’s Legacy Flight, a commemorative event dedicated to celebrating the life and legacy of Sherman Smoot. 

The flight is in partnership with Honor Flight Central Coast (Honor Flight). Smoot was a devoted supporter of the nonprofit, which is dedicated to honoring veterans by providing them with an opportunity to visit memorials in Washington, D.C., free of charge. This annual tradition, set to take place every year on the anniversary of D-Day, honors Sherman’s memory and the bravery of all veterans.

In September 2022, Smoot lost his life in a plane accident in Kern County. He was born into an aviation family in San Luis Obispo on July 29, 1948. His father pioneered the aerial pipeline patrol industry in California. Adding to his aviation destiny, Smoot was initially raised on the original Paso Robles airport.

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Photo by Derek Luff

He then entered the aviation industry for himself in 1971 when he entered flight school in Pensacola, earning his wings the following year. Smoot excelled as a Navy aviator, piloting F-4Js from the USS Ranger Aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf. Some would say his life paralleled the likes of characters in “Top Gun” and “Top Gun: Maverick.” 

The inaugural flight took local veterans aboard the Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber (Betsy), which calls the Estrella Warbirds Museum home and can be seen flying over Paso Robles nearly every weekend. Now owned by the Gooney Bird Group in Templeton, Betsy is actually a C-47 first accepted into the U.S. Army Air Force on Sept. 4, 1944. She served in the 9th Air Force in Europe but was too late into service for D-Day.

Betsy’s name comes from her time in the Berlin Air Lift in 1948. In later years, the plan served with the Belgian, French, and Israeli air forces until retirement in the early 1990s. Many planes from the wartime era were converted for civilian transportation, including the Spirit of Benovia. However, Betsy was never converted, and remains one of the most authentic planes of her kind still flying.

On Thursday, Betsy took off at about 11 a.m. from the Estrella Warbirds Museum for a 40-minute tour over Morro Rock and around Hearst Castle before returning to the museum. Supporters of Honor Flight and veterans waved flags on the Cayucos and San Simeon piers. A crowd was waiting for them back at the Warbird Museum with American flags in hand.

Many of the veterans on board served during the Vietnam War and did not receive a happy welcome home back to the states. 

A father, his son, and son in law were on Betsy for the local Honor Flight on Thursday. Robert Barrios, 88, served in the Korean War in 1953 with the 40th Division. He then went into the United States Air Force for five years and has a total of eight years of service. Barrios still runs his dump truck business hauling and avidly works in his yard.

His son, Bill Lathrop, served in the United States Army in Vietnam, stationed in Quy Nhon from 1969 to 1971. AndOwen Betts, Barrios’s son-in-law, served in the United States Air Force and was at several stations throughout his career from 1967 to 1971.

The local Honor Flight was especially meaningful to Lathrop. “It meant a lot,” he said. “Being able to go up with Dad. We couldn’t go back to Washington due to health and stuff like that, but this was just as good.”

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Photo by Derek Luff

Barrios was especially happy to be on the flight with his sons and to meet the other veterans on board, expressing his gratitude for all of them.

“We’ve had our lives since we were in the service. And when we first got here, you know, we knew these other guys were in the service,” said Betts. “But once you get on the plane and kinda get together, everybody knows what to do, and they help the other guy, it brings it all back.”

This was the first Honor Flight for all of them and a welcome home was not something they had received following their service.

“When I first got back from Vietnam, traveling out of Washington back to California, [there was] a lot of hassle in thein the air terminal,” Lathrop described his experience. “But me and the two other guys I was with, they came and got us and made us leave because, you know, we were causing trouble. We didn’t do anything, but I’m glad that’s behind us.”

Barrios echoed that those who served in Vietnam did not receive the credit they deserved.

Moving forward into 2024, Lathrop asked citizens to “Please pay attention to the mess we got going around the world and just ask yourself for you and your kids and their kids and their kids after that: What’s the right thing to do?”

Betts added, “Respect the regular individual in the military. You might agree, disagree, but once you’re in there, I think that the country should support them. Whatever views they have, they’re there.”

Dale Thompson, who is 96 years old, grew up in San Luis Obispo and enlisted to serve in World War II at the age of 17.

“The veterans were coming back, and I decided I needed some growing up,” said Thompson of his decision to enlist. 

He boarded a ship in San Francisco on Dec. 9, 1945, spent Christmas Day on the ship, landed in Japan the next day, and waited for his assignment. 

“I was assigned to a 736 engineering battalion or company, which was right in the Tsurumi River between Tokyo and Yokohama,” Thompson said. “The company’s job was to repair heavy equipment that would have been used all during the conquest of the islands coming up to Japan, bulldozers, cranes, and so on. So we had heavy shops and had little Japanese personnel working for us. We were sort of supervising the rebuilding of this equipment.”

The experience influenced Thompson to become a mechanical engineer, which he did after graduating from Cal Poly after his service.

This was Thompson’s first Honor Flight, which he enjoyed thoroughly while taking plenty of photos and making plenty of conversation.

In a press release, Honor Flight said, “A heartfelt thank you goes to the family of Sherman Smoot for their generosity and dedication to honoring Sherman’s legacy through this commemorative flight. Honor Flight Central Coast is truly honored to pay tribute to Sherman Smoot and celebrate his legacy and the bravery of our veterans.”

For more information about Honor Flight, go to honorflightccc.org.

Feature image by Derek Luff