Ralph Smith served as a Navy rescue swimmer aboard the submarine USS Red Fish during the Korean War. Now, nearly 60 years later, he stays busy rescuing lost visitors in the halls of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Wilmington.
With more than 50,000 volunteer hours, Smith has earned the title "Ambassador" and has received recognition from a variety of VA administrators, government officials and lawmakers.
A spry and vibrant 80-year-old, Smith makes a difference at Wilmington VAMC every day and says meeting the needs of others keeps him young. In fact, he had to demand a discharge from a nursing home, where he recuperated from his second stroke.
"I decided I wanted to live," Smith says. "I did not want to sit on my a-- and do nothing."
Smith was born near Baltimore, where his family grew to include two brothers and two sisters. He can't explain his longevity other than repeating his mantra: "I decided I wanted to live."
When Smith joined the Navy in 1950 at the outset of the Korean War, he did not move far from home for basic training. U.S. Naval Training Center Bainbridge, then located on Chesapeake Bay near Port Deposit, Maryland, was a recruit training site when the U.S. entered the conflict. After boot camp, Smith received search and rescue swimmer training at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Maryland, and was assigned to duty aboard the Red Fish.
Among the last of American diesel-powered attack subs to sail beneath polar ice, the USS Red Fish became a screen star in the 1950s as the submarine used in the Walt Disney production of Jules Verne’s "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." The Red Fish also starred in the September 1957 movie, "Run Silent, Run Deep," with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.
Upon his discharge from the Navy, Smith moved to Florida with his bride, but she missed snowy winters and skiing. Soon, the pair moved to upstate New York, where he spent most of his life. Smith said he sold insurance for a short time before joining a brokerage firm. He eventually opened his own office and had 25 brokers working for him. The couple loved winter sports and spent time in Binghamton, Utica and Buffalo.
The Navy swimmer knows it would have been easy to sit at home and wallow in self-pity when his wife passed away 30 years ago, but he was determined to work through the pain.
A heart attack and two strokes over the past decade have left Smith partially paralyzed and legally blind, but he continues to care for himself in his own home. He said it took several years to convince his family he could care for himself. Today, he represents the local chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America within the hospital. He has no fewer than 35 plaques and trophies commemorating his service and achievements on behalf of his fellow troops.
He is happy to be back in his own home and in his daily routine of volunteer duty in the lobby near the ground-floor elevators at Wilmington VAMC, where he continues to make a difference in Veterans' lives every day.