Retired Navy Capt. James H.B. Smith, 55, a veteran of three wars who retired from active duty in May 1979 after six years as curator of the Naval Historical Center in Washington, died of cancer Monday in the Veterans Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va. He was a resident of Berryville, Va.

Capt. Smith was a native of Columbus, Ohio, and enlisted in the Navy in 1944. He later attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1949. He was a hospital airlift pilot in Korea during the conflict there, and flew antisubmarine warfare patrols while stationed in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. He was awarded the Air Medal for his service in Vietnam.

In addition to Korea and Vietnam, his other foreign posts included Naples, Italy, and Malta. He served on the staff of the Bureau of Naval Personnel from 1959 to 1961 and with the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1967 to 1970.

Survivors include his wife, Kay, of Berryville; two daughters, Deborah Marten of Kent, England, and Kim Kemp of Berryville, and his mother, Idane Smith of Salt Lake City.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to organizations devoted to cancer research.