Jim Smith was born in November of 1948 in the small town of Rayville, Louisiana. He grew up with one sister, surrounded by nature’s beauty, and developed a love for hunting at an early age. Smith grew up in town, where his father worked at a local paper mill. When Smith was a teen, he worked at the ice plant in town every summer. However, as far back as he could remember, Smith wanted to become a barber, stating, “I always wanted to cut hair, and I did it for 50 years and six months.”
As Smith graduated high school in 1967, the Vietnam War loomed, and he knew he would soon be drafted. In the tight-knit community where everyone seemed to know each other, Smith had an encounter with Miss Booth, who served as the coordinator for the registration board and happened to have his draft papers on her desk. She informed him that he could use his skills and passion in the Navy as a barber. So he decided to enlist in the Navy on a 90-day delay program after completing barber school. Smith entered the Navy as an enlisted E3 after he graduated as a barber, two grades higher than the average enlisted soldier.
In February of 1969, Smith was sent to boot camp at Naval Training Center (NTC) Main Base in Orlando, FL. Assigned to Company 62 at the brand-new base, Smith and his fellow sailors focused on precision marching and earned numerous flags for their impressive displays during competitions. But he admitted the food there was terrible, stating, “I almost starved to death because they didn’t have any cooks.” Smith explained how they randomly picked young sailors to cook for the base and that the food was so awful he would only have fresh fruit and milk, causing him to lose 42 pounds and long for his mother’s home cooking. “I weighed 222 when I went in. I’m a big fella at 6’2″, and when I got out, I weighed 180.” He ended up walking right past his mother without her recognizing him when he got off the airplane to visit and confessed, “They kept you busy in boot camp, walkin’ and marchin’, but I couldn’t wait to get home and get momma’s cookin’.”
After completing boot camp, his first duty station, for the first year and a half, was New Port, Rhode Island. Smith stated, “It was just as far away as they could get me from Louisiana.” He was stationed on the USS Gearing and did two Mediterranean cruises aboard it, one for eight months and the other for nine months. Smith laughed, “I never got so tired of trying to speak broken English in my life.” Smith described how the USS Gearing was a destroyer commissioned in 1945 with no air conditioning, making traveling all over the Mediterranean rough. Smith talked about their time in Cuba when the ship’s deck would get so hot that it would melt the soles of their shoes and burn their feet. To combat this, they had to lay down carpeting. Nighttime on the ship was just as miserable. The sailors resorted to pulling their mattresses up on deck to sleep during the sweltering nights. As they sailed from port to port Smith recalled, “The most interesting thing I ever saw on that first cruise was the Russian cruiser, the Moscow or the Moskovich. We followed them with a bunch of communications technicians spying on a Russian fleet. I can tell tales about that all day long.”
Next, the Navy stationed him at the sub-base in New London, Connecticut. The southern boy from Louisiana remembered leaving a can of Coke on a locker one night, woke up to it frozen solid, and laughed, “You know it’s too cold if your can of Coke freezes while you sleep.”
Smith’s journey in the Navy wasn’t without its share of peril. While aboard the USS Gerring during the return from Gibraltar, the ship encountered the wrath of Hurricane Camille. Enormous 60-foot waves battered the vessel, causing it to sway so violently that Smith and his shipmates had to crawl everywhere they went.
His final transfer was to Jacksonville, FL, a move he welcomed as he had a cousin that lived nearby. Smith soon found himself aboard the USS Albany, which was considered a heavy missile cruiser commissioned after WWII. He spent almost two years on the USS Albany. He described what it was like seeing the firing of the Talos missile during a chilling time, stating, “About the closest I ever come was when they shoot them missiles off that Albany, wooo, that was something to see. They had Talos missiles with pinpoint accuracy for like 3000 miles, and it was something to see that thing go off at night. It would light up the whole world.”
Not only did he work as the barber during his time served but had multiple jobs on board the ship. As part of the firefighting crew, he would have training during a “shake-down” cruise outside of Guantanamo Bay and said, “It’s fun when you are in Cuba in that asbestos suit, and you get done with training and pull that suit off, and you didn’t have a dry thread on you, you was soakin’ wet with sweat.” He continued to explain, “I was on the firefighting crew at one time and on the gun mount at one time. Everybody in the Navy has got two jobs.”
Throughout his four years in the Navy, Jim embarked on three Mediterranean tours, gaining a wealth of experiences at every port along the way. Smith loved visiting and experiencing all the different areas, especially Rome, Naples, Athens, and Piraeus. He experienced crystal clear water off the coast of Egypt that allowed your eye to follow the twinkle of a flipped coin for almost five minutes before losing sight of it. “I had three years, eight months, and five days overseas at sea duty,” Smith stated. Not only did he cut the hair of each of his fellow shipmates, but also the Captain of each ship and even cut David Eisenhower’s hair several times while serving. Smith was the only barber on board the vessel but, luckily, had someone that knew how to cut his hair.
By the end of his four years in 1972, Smith declined a promotion to Chief Petty Officer. They wanted him to stay in and serve on a Patrol Boat, Riverine or (PBR), but he was ready to go home. After serving honorably in the Navy, Smith was discharged as an E5. His exemplary service and commitment were recognized by receiving the Navy Good Conduct Medal. Following his discharge, he pursued his dream and opened his barber shop. He married his first wife in 1974 and, five years later, welcomed his beloved daughter, Kelly.
Smith’s love of traveling continued into his civilian life. Every year he would close his shop in May and September to set out in his 38-foot motorhome to head west with his family. Smith also set a goal for himself: to achieve financial freedom and be debt-free by age 50, and he proudly accomplished that.
Over the years, Smith’s barber shop became a hub for Veterans, who flocked to his chair for a haircut and to share their experiences from the war. Smith recalled some of the Veterans he had the honor of getting to know through his work, detailing, “I have actually had the privilege of cutting a guy’s hair that was on the landing of Normandy, and I had a guy that was in Pearl Harbor when the [Japanesse] hit him when he was coming back from breakfast. He said he saw that big orange ball of fire and knew they were under attack.” He continued, “I had a prisoner of war and a recon marine that could tell you some stories that just left your mouth open.” Smith spent his days as a barber and a confidant, lending an empathetic ear to those who needed someone to talk to but explained the real reason was their brotherhood of military service, “Thats the reason they talked to me because I was a Veteran too.”
Smith joked about being from a small town and explained how his common last name was on both sides of his family. But the Smith family had a deep-rooted history in America. Smith’s current wife has traced his lineage back to John Smith, one of the founders of Jamestown, and Thomas Smith, who faced bankruptcy while financing the town’s development.
Smith’s daughter Kelly married and had twin girls, now 12 years old, who quickly became the loves of his life. Four years ago, Smith finally retired from his barber shop. He recalled having an epiphany one day, saying, “What am I workin’ for? I never spend what I got, and I won’t.” Now he spends his days embracing the simple pleasures of life. He enjoys rocking on his front porch with his dogs, reminiscing about his adventures, and relishing the tranquility of retirement. When he’s not sitting in his rocker, Smith can often be found hunting right out his back door as he proudly stated, “I still love huntin’, and I can hunt right here in my backyard; I got some of the biggest deer right here in my backyard.” Smith cherishes precious moments with his wife, daughter, grandchildren, and the twin girls who stole his heart.
Smith’s story is one of dedication, service, and a profound connection with the people and Veterans he encountered throughout his life. Smith humbly stated, “There ain’t nothin’ special about me; I cut hair.” Yet, from the Navy barber shop to the civilian barber shop, he left an indelible mark on those he touched—a man who not only shaped hairstyles but also touched hearts and offered comfort to those in need.
Veterans Care Coordination is proud to recognize Jim Smith for his service to our country. We are privileged to have the opportunity to share the stories of our nation’s heroes. Thank you for your service, Jim, and welcome home.