OWATONNA — “It’s not about me; it’s about the veterans and bringing honor to them.”
Al Smith is a friend, a neighbor, a husband, a writer and an artist. But above all things, he is a patriot.
Having grown up in the World War II era, Smith said that he has been entranced by all things military since being a young child. Seeing how much all aspects of the war impacted the world around him, Smith said that he has always been compelled by the stories of men and women who serve.
In 2017, Smith was able to merge his patriotism with his love for art, resulting in four pencil sketch series that outline wars and soldiers whose stories may not be as known as others. These series include The Vietnam Experience, War Heroes, World War II Iconic and Women of War.
On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Smith will be presenting his Women of War — or WOW — series to the Owatonna Veterans Open Roundtable at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church beginning at 7 p.m. During his presentation, Smith will unveil the stories of 18 women who have served the allies during World War II while displaying pencil portraits of each individual.
“I found all these women from different nations that all contributed greatly to the war effort,” Smith said with enthusiasm. “Young ladies who came out of nursing school and joined the service, just to be thrown into a medical air transport in the army. Or the WASPS [Women Airforce Service Pilots] who taught our boys to become pilots. These women never turned down hazardous duty.”
Since first developing the WOW series in late 2018, Smith has been invited to present the stories of the women throughout the surrounding area. He said that this not only adds to his ability to honor the women, but allows him to bring them to life through his own unique storytelling.
“I am hoping to bring them back to life in a way so that people know that these women did remarkable things,” Smith added. “There’s a significant number of women who have done outstanding things, but I feel very few people know about them.”
Though Smith has a fondness for all the women in his series, he admits that there are a few stories that are among his favorite to share. This includes the story of Mary Ellis, the English pilot who — despite the perception of what women were capable of — brought hundreds of heavy bombers to the front lines of the war.
“I was able to find a really good, sharp photo of her in her 90s and she just looked like this wonderfully nice woman,” Smith stated. “But she has this whole colorful past of flying every airplane that was used in the war. That richness of her past is very exciting to tell.”
Some of the other stories that Smith has favored includes Nancy Wake, the French secret agent who was named the “White Mouse” for her ability to elude capture from the Gestapo. Wake was one of the leading figures of the French Resistance and considered the Gestapo’s most wanted person by 1943 with a five-million-franc price on her head. Wake later became one of the Allies’ most decorated servicewomen.
“This is just one way that I can honor the military and all the men and women who serve,” Smith said. “Hardly anyone knows these women’s stories, so I’m telling the stories for them so everyone can know how significant they were.”
The Veterans Open Roundtable in Owatonna meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month at Good Shepherd Church. The events are free and open to the public.