Colonel James O. Smith was born in Wetumka, Oklahoma, and raised in Okemah, Oklahoma. A 1930 graduate of Okemah High School, he enlisted as a private in 1929 in the Oklahoma National Guard 180th Infantry regiment, which years later he commanded in combat. He was the first sergeant of Company D in the regiment when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1940, at about the same time the 45th Infantry Division was called to active duty for what became World War II.
Because of his outstanding combat leadership ability, he moved upward during the war to become a Battalion Commander and a Lieutenant Colonel by war's end. With the reorganization of the 45th Infantry Division following the war, he was made Commander of the 180th Infantry Regiment, serving in this capacity throughout the Korean War, along with his two sons, both members of his regiment.
Following the Korean War he became a Battle Group Commander and later Assistant Division Commander. Because of his advancing age he could not receive federal recognition as a Brigadier General, although he was serving in a General's position, but he was awarded a state rank of Brigadier General by the Governor of Oklahoma. His numerous military awards include the Legion of Merit, the French Croix de Guerre for valor, and three Bronze Stars. At the state level he received its highest award, the Oklahoma Distinguished Service Medal, presented by the governor.