The military and North Carolina politicians celebrated the 100th birthday of one of the U.S. Navy's original Seabees on Tuesday as Jerry Smith was feted at the governor's mansion with speeches, special flags and other souvenirs.
But it was Smith who stole the show. The Durham resident, who enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and became a member of the First Naval Construction Battalion with the famous nickname, said he had never felt so honored in his life.
"When you get my age, you only have a few words left," Smith said to laughter at the close of the ceremony. But he added: "I have been blessed so much in my life, and I've had a wonderful life."
Smith, a Kinston native, served in the Navy for more than three years, working in the Pacific theater as he and other Navy tradesmen built airfields and a hospital to help the war effort. After returning from the war, he worked for 30 years in the building supply business, then later worked in the funeral business before retiring at 95.
Politicians and officials from the Navy, Marine Corps and North Carolina National Guard lauded Smith's generation for its military service, and Smith himself for his resilience. Born on Aug. 27, 1913, weighing only 1 pound, 8 ounces, Smith survived thanks in part to his grandmother's resolve to care for him, U.S. Sen. Richard Burr told the several dozen in attendance.
"Jerry started this world as a challenge at best," Burr said before presenting him with an American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol. He added: "There's no person of my generation that can thank those of you that fought the Second World War sufficiently for the sacrifices you made, for the opportunities that we have today."
Maj. Gen. Greg Lusk, adjutant general of the North Carolina National Guard, and Rear Admiral Douglas Morton, commander of Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, also presented him with flags. Morton said Smith and others had faith while living on ships during World War II that the new Seabees would make a difference.
"You left a legacy that I can carry on today," said Morton, a North Carolina native.
Gov. Pat McCrory couldn't attend because of his schedule, but Lt. Gov. Dan Forest presented to Smith on his behalf the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award. Smith, who attended the event with wife, Betty, and his daughter, Beverly, has failing eyesight but walked to the lectern by himself to receive it and make remarks.
Earlier in the event, Forest recalled what was going on 100 years ago: Woodrow Wilson was president, Henry Ford began his assembly line process to manufacture cars and World War I hadn't begun.
Forest looked at Smith - walking tall with a full head of hair and sharp wit - and quipped: "Jerry, you don't look a day over 67."
Smith took pleasure in the compliments, telling Forest it's a good sign: "That means I'm going to stay here a long time."