Admiral Leighton Warren Smith, Jr., USN (Ret) passed away at his home in Pinehurst, NC on 28 November 2023 at the age of 84 due to complications associated with Parkinson’s Disease.
Admiral Smith, known to friends and his Navy colleagues as “Snuffy,” was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1939. His father, Leighton Sr., was a farmer and small businessman. The strength of character, work ethic, and leadership skills learned in his youth served him well as he initially attended the University of Alabama and later entered the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated and received his Commission as an Ensign in 1962. Admiral Smith received his Naval Aviator Wings of Gold in 1964 and primarily piloted the A-4 Skyhawk and A-7 Corsair II light attack aircraft during his operational flying career. He served on multiple deployments to the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, Western Pacific and Indian Oceans. His wartime service during the Vietnam conflict included three lengthy deployments and over 280 combat missions. He began to gain recognition as a legend of Naval Aviation on 6 October 1972 by successfully leading a strike against the famed Thanh Hoa Bridge, which had survived multiple attacks during the conflict and served as a key propaganda and logistics asset for the North Vietnamese regime. Despite intense enemy anti-aircraft fire, his flight delivered their weapons precisely, knocking out the heavily defended and vital target. He subsequently held command at sea at the squadron and wing levels, as well as major commands that included the replenishment ship USS KALAMAZOO (AOR-6), the aircraft carrier USS AMERICA (CV-66), and commanding CARRIER GROUP SIX as a Flag officer. Admiral Smith logged over 4,200 flying hours and accumulated over 1,200 carrier-arrested landings while flying multiple airframes throughout his career.
Admiral Smith’s Flag staff assignments included serving as the Director of Operations for the U.S. European Command, and Pentagon service as the Navy’s Chief of Operations and Plans, where he spearheaded the immediate post-Cold War strategy known as “From the Sea…” He received the four-star rank of Admiral in 1994 and was appointed Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Southern Europe (NATO). In 1995, he assumed command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia. Admiral Smith and his team’s careful approach in Sarajevo to the intricate and volatile situation received great credit for helping prevent the spread of conflict across the former Yugoslavia and southern Europe. The example and experience of NATO’s first Combined Joint Task Force employing combat forces outside the territory of NATO member states continues to impact United States and Allied military doctrine to the present day.
During his auspicious Naval career he received numerous awards and recognition including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit with 2 Gold Stars, Distinguished Flying Cross with Gold Star, Meritorious Service Medal with Gold Star, Air Medal (Gold Award Numeral 25), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Valor Device and 2 Gold Stars, Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Valor Device, Vietnam Service Medal with Bronze Star and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry Medal with Gold Star. He also received the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary, the French Order of National Merit with the rank of Grand Officer and was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (invested personally by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in Feb 1997).
Admiral Smith was a skilled aviator, tactician and strategist… However, his primary gift (beyond the great hand-eye coordination required of a carrier jet-aviator in the heyday of manual flight controls) was leadership, most often exhibited through his obvious joy in the art of conversation. Whether trading friendly wagers on the golf course, meeting with young Sailors and their families as a senior Admiral, or as a business leader, Snuffy understood the importance of investing in the people he worked, strove and “played” alongside. No observer could miss the obvious joy he took in stepping onto a Quarterdeck and taking the time to greet even the most junior Sailor, query them on their assignment, hometown and family—often to the annoyance of “more important” people… Snuffy didn’t see things that way, and never neglected his most critical responsibility beyond mission success—that to safeguard the men and women entrusted to his command. That same “mission and people focus” was evident throughout his life in his commitment to family, friends, community and Nation.
Immediately post-retirement, Snuffy served the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and the U.S. Naval Academy community as President of the USNAAA Board of Trustees. In 2007, Admiral Smith was recognized by the USNAAA as a Distinguished Graduate (DG), joining a select group recognized annually by the United States Naval Academy Alumni Association Board of Trustees as graduates who have demonstrated a lifetime commitment to service, personal character and distinguished contributions to our nation.
Admiral Smith met his future wife Dorothy (“Dottie”) during a Plebe-year tour of the Museum at the Naval Academy, where Dottie was serving as a volunteer docent. Dottie, the daughter of CAPT Harry McDowell, USNR (Ret) and Adeline McDowell, then of Columbia, SC, having previously lived in Annapolis during her father’s service, was visiting family friends when they met. A Midshipman-career courtship led to Dottie and Snuffy marrying after his graduation in 1962. They joined the ranks of many Service members and their spouses who met the challenges of raising a family through long separations, dangerous deployments and difficult home-station assignments that spanned the United States from Texas to California, Florida, and Virginia. Together they raised a resilient family, including son Leighton III, and daughters Page and Dorothy (DeeDee).
Post-retirement from his Navy career, Admiral Smith and Dottie finally found a home harbor in Pinehurst, NC. Snuffy and Dottie moved to the Pinewild neighborhood in 2000. Snuffy remained active in national and military affairs, while also leading an active business life as a senior consultant and member of several corporate boards. Simultaneously, he embraced “local life” by totally immersing himself in supporting the community. He was an avid golfer and a member of several golf groups. Area residents and friends had a wonderful time playing with him, joking with him, and beating him occasionally. Snuffy served as President of the Pinewild Property Owners Association (PPOA) for several years and he put his communication skills to stellar use in his weekly missives. Additionally, Snuffy provided critical counsel and support to many young men and women in the Pinehurst, NC area who were seeking career advice and admittance to the service Academies—with an admitted bias towards USNA.
Admiral Smith is preceded in death by his parents Leighton and Sara Smith and sister Jean Smith Brown, of Purcellville, VA. He is survived by his spouse Dottie, son Leighton Smith (Marissa) of Mount Pleasant, SC, daughters Page Lewis (Llewellyn) of Whispering Pines, NC, and CAPT DeeDee Smith, USN of Annapolis, MD. The family includes five grandchildren: Taylor and Chase Smith, as well as David, Andrew, and Morgan Lewis. He is also survived by sisters Page Smith of Washington, DC and Lucille Smith Albritton (Hal) of Birmingham AL.
Admiral Smith will be remembered, and his life celebrated with a Memorial Service at Emmanual Episcopal Church in Southern Pines, NC on Saturday December 9th at 3:30 PM. A formal military Funeral service and committal will occur at the Chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD at a later date. Admiral Smith will be buried alongside friends, colleagues and heroes in the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.
In lieu of flowers, the family recommends memorial gifts be made to The Gary Sinise Foundation (https://www.garysinisefoundation.org) or the Michael J. Fox Foundation (https://www.michaeljfox.org).