Gordon P. Smith was born in his family’s home in Winnetka in 1924. He attended Sacred Heart School and graduated from New Trier High School in 1942. In March 1943 at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Navy. Smith completed boot camp and gunner’s mate school at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He received additional training in electric hydraulics in San Diego, California, where he learned to repair and operate the large guns aboard Navy destroyers.
In July 1944, Smith was assigned to the destroyer USS Little. Smith and the USS Little shipped out to the Pacific, where they escorted convoys of supply ships and provided support for ground forces in the island hopping campaigns. The USS Little took part in several important invasions and battles. During the Battle of Iwo Jima in February 1945, the USS Little was positioned off the coast of the island, firing on enemy positions as Marine forces scrambled ashore. After several days of fighting, Smith saw the first flag raising on Mt.Suribachi as well as the second flag raising, which became the subject of one of the most famous photos of the war.
Next, the USS Little and other destroyers served as a decoy invasion force in the Battle of Okinawa, positioning themselves around the island to draw enemy fire away from the actual invasion site. On May 3, 1945, the USS Little was patrolling off Okinawa when a nearby ship detected enemy aircraft on its radar. Four hours later, those planes attacked. At 6:43 pm, a Japanese kamikaze fighter crashed into the USS Little while the crew shot down another fighter. Over the next two minutes, three more planes hit the USS Little. At 6:51 pm, less than 10 minutes after the first attack, Captain Madison Hall gave the order to abandon ship. Smith “stepped off” the deck of the ship and watched as the USS Little broke in half and sank. As Smith and the other survivors floated in their life jackets, they saw Marine F4U Corsair fighters overhead, chasing down the Japanese attackers. After nearly five hours in the water, ships arrived to rescue the surviving crew. Of the 325 men on board the USS Little at the time of the attack, 31 were lost with the ship and 49 were wounded.
After the war, Smith returned to Winnetka and, after a few interim jobs, worked for the Winnetka Public Works Department for close to 20 years. Survivors of the USS Little have held a reunion every year since 1981.