As a youth in Alabama, Smith was nicknamed after comic strip character Snuffy Smith, and the name stuck. In November 1995, in the midst of ethnic war, the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia reached a peace settlement called the Dayton Accords. Admiral Smith was ordered as commander of the NATO Implementation Force to enforce the agreement. In recognition of his effectiveness in that role, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II bestowed an honorary knighthood on 5 March 1997. The following is an edited excerpt from an oral history interview with the Naval Institute’s Paul Stillwell in March 2006.
During our trip to England, my wife Dottie and I stayed with Bill and Shirley Crowe. He was a retired admiral, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and now ambassador to the United Kingdom. They lived in a magnificent home. The morning of the ceremony came, and Dottie and I were told that an air vice marshal who was a member of the royal household was coming over.
He spent about two hours briefing us on what was going to happen. He said, among other things, “If you care to curtsy, that would be fine. If you care to bow, that would be fine. Don’t feel like you have to go all the way down. We’ve had people go all the way down in a curtsy and not be able to get up.” He said the Queen would be briefed on us and, “She’s very good at these things. She will make you feel quite comfortable.”
Well, I was looking forward to this. I wasn’t particularly nervous because I’d been in the presence of heads of state before, and I’d also met the King and Queen of Spain. I figured they were just like everybody else, just very nice people, and this was just a different level and for a different purpose. Dottie and I got dressed, and Buckingham Palace sent a car to pick us up. I had on my service dress blue; Dottie had on her suit and gloves and a hat.
Right outside the door was the car with a uniformed driver. I stopped and looked at Dottie, and I said, “You know, it never occurred to me when I was slopping pigs on that farm in Alabama that I would someday be going over to be knighted by the Queen of England.”
We went into a small office on the second floor of Buckingham Palace. We were just chatting about how this thing was going to go, and all of a sudden something happened. The light came on, and a lieutenant commander jumped up and said, “It’s time.” We followed him into Her Majesty’s private office on the second floor, and she was standing over by a desk roughly 20 to 25 feet away. Of course, I had my hearing aids turned full up. The lieutenant commander said, “Your Majesty, Admiral and Mrs. Leighton Smith.”
I walked over to greet her, which I was advised to do. She extended her hand and just about yelled in my ear, “Hello, Admiral, how are you?” She had been briefed I was deaf as a post. I remember my absolute first impression. I took her hand, bowed, and I said to myself, “The photographers have not done this woman justice. She has got the most gorgeous blue eyes, and the skin is just as flawless and pretty as anything you’ve ever seen.” The second thought that crossed my mind was, “If I could get my hand on that sapphire and diamond brooch she’s got, I would never have to worry about money again.”
After I introduced Dottie, the Queen said, “Well, I’ve got something here for you.” Then she gave me the proclamation of honorary knighthood. [The award was Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (Military Division—KBE)]. There was no reading of the folder. There were no swords tapping me on the shoulder. I didn’t get 20,000 acres of land or 20 hot running wenches. I just got this piece of paper.
Then she invited us to sit down, and we’d been told that we would know when the conversation was over. She has a little pocketbook. (By the way, just for historical value, we were told that she carries nothing in that pocketbook except treats for horses.) So, anyway, she picked up the pocketbook and went over and sat down on the sofa. We talked a little bit about Bosnia. I wanted to make it a point to comment on how professional her forces were. So I said, “I’m quite certain that you know without me telling you that the forces that I had the great pleasure to command were absolutely perfect.”
While we were still in the office, the Queen asked Dottie a question about the family and where we lived. Then she asked me a question about something. As I was answering, she picked up her pocketbook, and that was the signal. When I finished with the answer, I said, “Your Majesty, I know you have quite a schedule, and I don’t want to take any more of your time, but I do want you to know how very, very grateful I am for this honor.” She escorted us to the door, and we walked out.