Naval vet has a passion for models

-A A +A
By Stephen Lega

Bela Smith is 86 years old, a Navy veteran and a model ship builder.

Smith moved to Lebanon about 40 years ago, which is about the same time his interest in model building set sail, so to speak.

Now, he didn't start building models when he moved here; he's just built a lot more of them since he's been a Kentucky resident.

Smith is a veteran of both World War II and Korea. He completed his service with the rank of shipfitter third class.

What is a shipfitter, you ask?

"It's a person who does any job that comes up that other guys can't do or are too busy doing something else," Smith said.

As a result of his position, he also got to know his ship, the USS Dale, pretty well.

The USS Dale was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Smith, however, did not join the ship's crew until five days later.

After the attack, the Farragut-class destroyer set out into the Pacific Ocean as part of the war effort.

"We was fighting all over the place, man," Smith said.

While the Dale received 13 battle stars during its years of service, only one member of the crew died, and that was a result of an accident on board the ship, not from any of the fighting the ship was involved in, according to Smith.

He did recall two times when torpedoes were fired at the Dale, however.

In one instance, a pair of torpedoes passed on each side of the destroyer.

In another incident, a torpedo was headed at the ship at a perpendicular angle. The torpedo didn't hit the ship, however.

Smith explained that most torpedoes travel 20 feet below the surface, and the Dale only floated 15-feet deep in the water.

After surviving his service, Smith moved to Kentucky where he eventually met and married his wife, Sally "Shorty" Smith. His love for ships continued as well, and he turned more of his attention to making models.

"I've seen so many types of ships, it gives me something to do," he said.

He can't recall how many models he's built over the years, but he remembers his first model was a Sloop of War that was four-feet high. That particular model doubled as a radio.

It also almost got him in trouble.

He was living in California at the time. Another man had purchased the model, and Smith set out to deliver it to him. The model wouldn't fit in the car, so Smith put two pillows on the roof and tied the model to the top.

"A highway patrolman stopped me for going too slow," he said.

After he explained the situation, the patrolman provided an escort for his delivery.

Today, Smith has more than 20 models in his model-building room. He made most of them, but a few were given to him.

He has models of the USS Constitution, the USS Alabama (a ship used in the Civil War), the USS Arizona and an aircraft carrier with 15 planes. Each plane is composed of eight pieces. No word on how many pieces made up the entire carrier.

Not all the models are military ships. He also has models of the Titanic (which has 1,500 parts) and a paddleboat dubbed "King of the Mississippi."

Smith's hands remain steady as a surgeon, something he said helps when he's building his models.

And based on the enthusiasm he has for his hobby, it's not something he intends to give up any time soon.