The Smiths and World War II

World War II caused global upheaval and change. Closer to home, two schoolteachers from Detroit—Melvyn and Sara Smith—and their dream of building a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright would have to wait for war.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Sara Smith recalled her husband’s concern: “One day he confessed to [me] that in addition to his worries about the catastrophe the country was facing, he felt if there was a war, that also would be the end of his Frank Lloyd Wright house.”

Melvyn Maxwell Smith’s draft card, 1942. Source: U.S. WWII Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

In February 1942, Melvyn Maxwell Smith was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. “Smithy thought about being a conscientious objector because he didn’t believe in wars,” recalled Sara, “but the more he thought about it, the more he decided he would have to go. ‘We want peace and I’m going to do what I can to help,’ he told me.” The thought of Smithy going off to war weighed heavily on Sara. They had only been married a short time, and now they were being separated.

Smithy was sent off to training, first at Fort Custer near Battle Creek, Michigan, then Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, and finally Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Smiths could only see each other during school vacations (Sara was still teaching) or holidays, provided Smithy was not shipped off to the front.

Melvyn (circled in back row) and other officers, circa 1943. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

In Atlantic City, Smithy was offered the opportunity to train as a Warrant Officer in the Army Air Corps. He would be sticking around Atlantic City for a while and, with an officer’s salary, Sara could finally join him. At Christmas 1942, “[Sara] boarded the night train to Atlantic City and her new life.”

Sara and Melvyn Smith in Atlantic City, 1942. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

After Atlantic City, the Smiths were relocated to Goldsborough, North Carolina. Sara and Smithy lived in a studio apartment in an Army project. Sara enjoyed living there, commiserating with all the other Army wives. Since they were all typically newly married and removed from their families, the wives helped each other. “The women, on their own during the days, supported each other by sharing supplies and tips and small and large acts of kindness.”

Warrant Officer Melvyn Maxwell Smith. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

It was in Goldsborough that Sara became pregnant with her son Bobby. When she was seven months pregnant, Smithy was transferred to Gulfport, Mississippi. Sara was sure this would mean Smithy would be shipped to the front. Smithy worried too, so he asked Sara to return to Detroit and her family for the birth of their baby, instead of following him to Mississippi. While Sara was in Detroit awaiting the birth of Bobby, Smithy was again transferred, this time to Biloxi, Mississippi, for which the Smiths were happy. It meant not being overseas.

In July, Bobby was born. He weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces, and was 21 inches long. Sara was a very tiny woman, so having such a big baby was a surprise. After three months in Detroit, Sara and Bobby joined Smithy in Biloxi. They rented a room in a house until they were able to secure a home of their own—a small log cabin near the water.

Melvyn and Bobby Smith in Biloxi, Mississippi. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Their idyllic life was uprooted yet again when Smithy was transferred to Fort Worth, Texas. There he would work for the Intelligence Division on a cumulative history of the war—even in the Army, Smithy was still a teacher.

In Fort Worth, they were living in a military housing complex with other Army families. “On weekends, Smithy, Sara, and Bobby spent a lot of time at the zoo and walking through beautiful local gardens and parks . . . Sara, playful and full of ideas, had fun taking her golden-haired child on adventures during the day.”

Sara and Bobby at the zoo near Fort Worth, Texas. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.
Melvyn and Bobby at the park in Forth Worth, Texas. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.
Sara and Bobby in a local garden in Fort Worth, Texas. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

In August 1945, the war ended. “For Sara and Smithy, the end of the war meant a return to Detroit, a return to teaching, a return to their families and friends, and a resumption of optimistic living. It also meant the revival of Smithy’s deep and abiding, but for a time, submerged, dream of building a Frank Llyod Wright house.”

Now that the war was over, Smithy was safe, and they had their son Bobby, the Smiths could continue with their dream.

The Smith House in 1950, as featured in the Pontiac Daily Press. Courtney of Smith Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

*In-person Public Tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Smith House resume on September 11, 2020 and continue through Thanksgiving weekend. For more information, health and safety measures, and to reserve your spot on a tour, please visit the Center’s website.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

Note: All quotes are taken from Building a Dream: The Sara Smith Story by Kathryn Watterson (Santa Barbara, California: Smith Publishing Group. 1999).

3 thoughts on “The Smiths and World War II

  1. This is fantastic! Thanks for keeping the story- as well as the home- of the Smiths alive! My family truly appreciates it!!

    Love, Anne Smith Towbes

    Sent from my iPhone



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