Iron Range WWII vet getting red carpet treatment at movie premiere

Author:
Updated:
Original:

It was a big deal when Pecky Smilanich and his teammates won a state basketball championship for Buhl High back in 1942.

But the U.S. premiere of a Hollywood blockbuster might be a new level of fanfare for the 92-year-old who now goes by George Smilanich.

There aren't many people who can describe first-hand what it's like to drive a Sherman tank behind enemy lines during World War II. Smilanich, now living in Hibbing, did that this summer when he served as a consultant to the producers of the new Brad Pitt movie "Fury."

Smilanich told the Hibbing Daily Tribune about his expense-paid trip to Hollywood to meet with Pitt and the other stars of the movie, which focuses on a tank crew stranded in enemy territory during the waning days of World War II.

During three years as a tank driver, Smilanich saw action at Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge. He told the Tribune this summer he was in three tanks that were destroyed by enemy fire during the war. In one incident he pulled his wounded commander from the flames of the burning tank and was later awarded the Bronze Star for heroism.

These days Smilanich is clearly no movie buff, telling the Tribune and KARE 11 he didn't know who Brad Pitt was until he was approached about consulting on "Fury."

When he was discharged from Patton's army, Smilanich returned to the Iron Range and became a high school social studies teacher. An article about his new Hollywood connection that appeared in Hometown News last week was penned by one of his former students.

Smilanich told Hometown News the details of his three-day Hollywood trip are somewhat of a blur, adding "The whole thing was like a fairy tale."

But he told of sitting around a table with a few other veterans answering questions from the "Fury" cast and producers about the particulars of life on a tank crew.

The following day he sat down in front of a camera for a one-on-one interview about his experiences. Smilanich told the Hibbing Tribune:

“A gal came and powdered my face and combed my hair… I had to sit like they were taking a portrait of me. I kind of felt like I was in the hot seat, but they made me feel comfortable."

Smilanich says once he got talking about his days in a tank the memories flowed easily and his two hour interview turned into three.

Hell on Wheels unit

Smilanich served with the 67th Armored Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division, a unit that was known as Hell on Wheels.

It was the editor of the Hell on Wheels Bulletin, Jack Slattery, who recommended Smilanich to the makers of "Fury" and the publication covered the Hollywood trip this summer.

Memories and photos of the 2nd Armored Division are also featured on their Facebook page.

Another page, called Lest We Forget 1944, is maintained in France and is dedicated to the Hell on Wheels soldiers who fought at Normandy.

There's more on the unit's role among World War II tanks in the video below.

"Fury" had its world premiere in England, where it was filmed. Wednesday evening George Smilanich, his wife Mary, and their daughter Susan will be among those attending the U.S. premiere at the Newseum theater in Washington, D.C.

And, yes, back when he was known as Pecky Smilanich he really did lead Buhl High School to an undefeated season and a second straight state basketball championship.

Next Up

coronavirus, covid-19

Mayo Clinic study provides 'best guess' about pandemic's future in MN

Minnesota could be seeing decreasing numbers into the summer if the study is correct.

daunte wright funeral - siblings

Mourners remember Daunte Wright, plead for justice

Wright was killed by a now-former Brooklyn Center police officer on April 11.

covid

HealthPartners: COVID hospitalizations driven by unvaccinated, middle aged adults

The health provider says the average age of its hospitalized patients is trending downwards.

Andrew Thomas booking photo

Man suspected of shooting at National Guard in Minneapolis faces more charges

He has now been charged in Hennepin County District Court with more serious crimes.

wetlands

Investigation finds EPA mishandled oversight for PolyMet mine permits

A new report found the EPA didn't follow its own procedures when it submitted comments on the proposed project.

baseball

MDH's new COVID guidance urges weekly testing for those involved in sports

Those not involved in school sports are still advised to get tested every two weeks.

Trey Lance

With loaded QB draft class, now is the time for Vikings to act

With a strong class, this year might be the time to select Kirk Cousins' successor.

Kellen Mond

Coller: Is a 'developmental' quarterback worth it?

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.

highland bridge

St. Paul announces names of parks at Highland Bridge development

Construction on the parks will begin later this year.

State Capitol

MN House passes omnibus public safety bill with police reform measures

The Senate previously passed its omnibus public safety bill without police accountability legislation.

Related