A tip of the hat to ‘Big Dan,’ and ‘Smiley’ Backherms

November 10, 2021

Veterans Day is a touching time for many Americans. It’s a time when we look back at those members of our families, our friends and loved ones who didn’t come home from service in the U.S. armed forces. It’s a time to thank those who gave their everything to make sure we enjoy the lives we lead today.

Like many, I'll take a moment on Nov. 11 to honor the memory of those who served. For me and many of the guys I did time in the U.S. Navy, it’s a time to look back and remember a former shipmate — Robert Wallace “Smiley” Backherms, Jr. It’s been more than two decades since Smiley died in an accident aboard the U.S.S. Iowa, but I’m sure he’ll live on in our memories forever — or, at least, until the last man who served with him passes away.

Even though most of us were only together for two or three years, the bond we developed was close. Even now, nearly 30 years after I walked off the ship, I can remember the names of many of my shipmates … Jorge (George) Castellano, Brian (Hedrick) Galle, John (Dibby) Dibbens, Ed (Big Ed) Turley, Richard (Richie) Cunningham, Charles Vopal, David Luna, Jim Vopatek. I’ve always believed I would have gone to Davy Jones’ locker for those guys if I had been called to do so. I'm sure they would have done the same for me.

Smiley didn’t just think that. He did it. Fortunately for me, the Great Sailor in the Sky allowed me to meet Smiley a few years before he died in the April 19, 1989, explosion on Turret 2 at the age of 29. I was a fresh-faced hick from Texas learning the ropes on the U.S.S. Manitowoc (LST-1180) and he was the guy that everyone liked. You just couldn’t keep from liking the guy. Honestly, Smiley (everyone has some sort of nickname in the military) was one of the nicest individuals you’d ever meet. Always had a welcoming smile and a friendly word for everyone. He worked hard to become a Gunner’s Mate. I remember sitting with him outside the paint locker the day he found out he was going to be transferred to the USS Iowa. To be sure, he was the happiest guy on the Little Creek Amphibious Naval Base in Norfolk, Va. His eyes would light up when he talked about getting to work with the big 16-inch guns.

Like many of my brothers on the Manny, we teased Smiley and then sent him off to the Iowa with a smile and a slap on the back.

In March of 1989, I walked off the Manny and headed off to reunite with my young wife. About a month later, I read about the explosion onboard the Iowa, and was saddened to learn that Smiley had been one of the 47 that died that day. I was sad for Smiley’s wife and two children. I was sad for his parents. I was sad for all of those guys who were chipping paint, standing watch and going wherever Uncle Sam sent them. And I was sad for our country. Like the countless men who have died making this country what it is since way before 1776, the loss of Smiley was a loss for America.

If you ever happen to find yourself standing in front of Section 60, Site 4074 at Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll see the final resting spot of a real hero. As Billy Ray Cyrus wrote in a song, “All gave some, some gave all.” I’ve always considered the sacrifices the guys I served with made them all heroes. But Smiley is special. He gave all he ever was and all he ever will be while protecting you and I and his country. That makes him a man to remember in my book.

So, like many on Veterans Day, I'll tip the hat to two fallen member of my military family - Smiley and my older brother LCPL. Danny R. Wells.

My brother served two tours in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine. Truth be told, Danny influenced my choice to join the Navy by telling me stories of having to scrape leeches off with a knife after crossing rivers.

A Cross of Gallantry and Purple Heart recipient, Danny died from complications to Agent Orant in 1997.

Here’s wishing those fair winds and following seas, Smiley.

Tommy Wells is the editor of the Carnegie Herald.