In Recess December 2022
'A Constant Source of Ideas'
A Marshall attorney's fascination with World War II put him on the path to be a lifelong learner
Interview by Will Korn
Smith poses with his scratch-built model of the battleship USS Texas (BB-35) positioned on a dock. Photos courtesy of Michael C. Smith.
Marshall-based patent attorney Michael C. Smith can recall recreating World War II battles with toy soldiers in his family’s garage as a boy. Then, an account of the Battle of Midway—perhaps one of the most important battles in the Pacific theater during World War II—sparked his fascination with seaborne warfare. Smith, who completed a master’s degree in World War II studies from Arizona State University in 2021 and is currently pursuing his third master’s degree, an LL.M. at Baylor Law School, spoke to the Texas Bar Journal about about his lifelong love of military history and how that is carrying over into his studies at Baylor Law.
YOUR INTEREST IN WWII ORIGINATED IN YOUR CHILDHOOD. WAS THERE
A MOMENT OR EXPERIENCE THAT FIRST SPARKED THAT INTEREST?
I remember reading an account of the Battle of Midway at my grandparents’ house, and I was hooked on carriers after that. I was probably the only kid with a World War II-themed 10th birthday party.
An 11-year-old Smith holds a model of the aircraft carrier Hornet (CVS-12) at his great-grandmother’s birthday party in 1975. Photos courtesy of Michael C. Smith.
WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE AUTHORING OF YOUR TWO
BOOKS ON AIRCRAFT CARRIERS IN 1997 AND 2001?
I had just built a couple of models of carriers—one scratch built and the other heavily kit-bashed—and entered them in a model contest in Plano. I had written descriptions of the ships depicted and got into a conversation with a military history publisher whose table was across the hall. He was looking for someone to write the next book in their series on aircraft carriers—coincidentally the one that covered one of the ships I built. I already had all the necessary reference books from my model work for the text, and I did the photo research for both books in the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. That’s when I realized the interest in modeling was really more of an expression of interest in the history of the ships, so I was glad to turn to something that involved a little more research and writing than model building.
AS A PUBLISHED AUTHOR, WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU
LEARNED IN THE PROCESS OF WRITING A BOOK? WHAT WAS THE MOST ENJOYABLE
PART OF THE EXPERIENCE?
I really enjoy the research and the getting down on paper an accurate account of the different aspects of the ship’s design and history. I also enjoy the graphic and design part of the process —providing the sort of illustrated account of the ship that I wish I’d had when I was first reading about them. It’s not unlike modeling—your research allows you to get down in tangible form something about these ships, and that’s very rewarding, whether it’s a model or a book.
OUT OF ALL THE INNOVATIVE BATTLEFIELD HARDWARE THAT EMERGED
DURING THE WORLD WARS, WHAT IN PARTICULAR FASCINATES YOU ABOUT AIRCRAFT
CARRIERS AND PLANES?
I think the innovative nature of the air war at sea is what drew me to it. These ships had the very dramatic ability to strike far over the horizon and exert force far beyond what any other ship could do. But it required an extraordinary effort not just in terms of the design and construction of the ships and planes, but in the development of doctrine and procedures by the men that fought these ships and planes, to say nothing about their skill and bravery. It’s just a very dramatic part of the conflict.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FLEET COLLECTION. HOW MUCH TIME AND DETAIL
GOES INTO BUILDING A MODEL CARRIER THAT YOU STUDY AT 1/700
It depends on whether I’m building a model out of the box (rare), modifying a kit (less rare), or heavily kit-bashing a kit to create a model that no one’s made before, which is what I do most often. I tend to stop and start and work on other models depending on my mood, but usually it takes several months. But one took 27 years to actually finish, and a 10-inch-long scratch-built battleship I’m working on now is over 30 years old, and I still haven’t finished it. But I’m getting there. Really.
Models of the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) as it appeared in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1968 (front, on top shelf), and off the coast of Japan in July 1945 (back, top shelf).Photos courtesy of Michael C. Smith.
DID YOU EVER CONSIDER A FULL-TIME CAREER IN MILITARY HISTORY?
WHAT ULTIMATELY INFLUENCED YOU TO PURSUE LAW?
I did major in history, but I had a history teacher in fifth grade who was a Cistercian monk from Budapest who fled to Texas after the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1956. He inscribed a book he gave me with the words, “We make or suffer history.” My love of history became an interest in public policy and the making of history in graduate school. And the law has always seemed to me the best preparation to influence events, whether in the practice of law, in lawmaking, or in one’s community.
NOW YOU ARE PURSUING YOUR THIRD MASTER’S DEGREE—AN EXECUTIVE
LL.M. IN LITIGATION MANAGEMENT AT BAYLOR. WHAT DRIVES YOU TO CONTINUE
YOUR EDUCATION SO FAR INTO YOUR CAREER?
My master’s degree in World War II studies—which I thought was just due to interest in the subject matter—seems to have kindled an interest in learning on a broader scale. The more I learn, the more gaps in my knowledge I see that I want to fill, and I now know that I find the experience of learning at the graduate level exhilarating. I just really enjoy learning. As long as it’s not math, of course.
IN YOUR VIEW, WHAT IS THE CONNECTION BETWEEN YOUR DEGREES IN
HISTORY, LAW, AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS? HOW DO YOU TIE THOSE TOPICS TOGETHER
AS AN ATTORNEY?
I find that history and public policy provide an invaluable background for a practicing lawyer. You understand where things come from and why they are the way they are, and—especially—how precious our democracy and our system of justice is in a way that someone without the background perhaps doesn’t. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it exists as a result of hundreds of years of human effort. So it provides a breadth and depth to my work as a lawyer—and is a constant source of ideas. TBJ