Gazette Article by: Joan Evanich
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring/Summer 2002
World War II will not be forgotten if Stephanie Welter’s eighth grade students have anything to say about it. The staff of the Winnetka Historical Society joined with Washburne School teachers and students on an exciting history project. Incorporating history, math, science and English, the students brought WWII to life through a history magazine. The students were divided into eight teams, each responsible for a department of the modern format magazine, including fiction and poetry, advice, a puzzle page and interviews with Winnetkans who had lived through the conflict. Sadly, the WWII generation is passing on and this project prompted the Winnetka Historical Society to do some first-hand investigation of its own. The stories of two Winnetka boys are especially poignant.
Gordon Smith was born in Winnetka and is related to the Schmidt family associated with the Schmidt-Burnham log house. His father, Peter, passed away when Gordon was a young boy. Mrs. Smith raised her children alone, supporting them by providing catering and laundering services. Gordon attended Sacred Heart School and then New Trier, graduating in 1942. By this time, the war was full throttle and Gordon was drafted shortly after graduation. He enlisted in the Navy and began his training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station on March 30, 1943. Gunner’s Mate Smith continued his war training in San Diego, Treasure Island, Pearl Harbor and then joined the war in the South Pacific. After a short stop in Eniwetok, Gordon and the crew assisted in bombardment for the ground troops at Iwo Jima, and then in March 1945, moved on with his crew to Okinawa. As a radar picket destroyer, the USS Little was one of the ships that surrounded Okinawa to intercept enemy air raids. The ship was under almost constant attack by Japanese pilots.
“May 3, 1945 is a day I will never forget,” remembered Mr. Smith in a recent interview, “it’s the day that the USS Little went down.” The Little was patrolling Radar Picket Station 10, along with the Aaron Ward and four smaller landing crafts, “… called ‘Pall Bearers’ because they were used to pick up survivors.” Shortly after 1800 hours, four kamikaze pilots began their attack. “They would fly into the sun so you could not see them,” Smith explained. “The enemy was similar to the suicide bombers of today.” After a valiant effort, the Little was overcome, and by 18:45 hours, she was dead in the water. A call came to abandon ship. “Once the ship started to go down, the idea was to swim away as fast as you could,” Smith explained. The survivors spent over six hours in the water as the battle raged around them. Eventually a destroyer and three “pall bearers” picked up the survivors. “We even managed to save the ship’s dog, Dee Dee.”
After leave, Gordon was shipped out again, this time to Guam where on August 15, 1945, he heard the whistles blow announcing the unofficial surrender of Japan. “We were all so happy, it felt great, but the trouble was, how were we to get home?” Gunner’s Mate Third, Gordon Smith was discharged in January, 1946. He returned home, married his sweetheart Mary Lou, and the two of them raised a family in Northfield.
Another Winnetka boy did not fare as well. Jack Kirschbraun grew up on Oakley Avenue and attended Hubbard Woods Grade School and The Skokie School. By age 16, he moved with his family just over the border of Hubbard Woods and graduated from New Trier in 1940. During those days, Jack was a daily fixture at the Winnetka Community House, often spending his leisure time at the bowling alleys with his many friends. After graduation, Jack attended Iowa State College, until the war broke out.
Jack and his best friend, Ralph Bendel, who also grew up in Winnetka, left college and registered for the service at Chicago’s Civic Opera House. Jack went to gunnery school and was assigned to the 8th Air Force, 327th bomb squadron of the Army Air Corps. Stationed in England, Jack sent many letters to his family, relating what life was like at the front and his reminiscences of home. Mostly describing food and English girls, the letters are light-hearted and show Jack’s great sense of humor. At the age of 21, Sgt. Jack Kirschbraun died on March 23, 1944, as a result of wounds received in action over Germany. In a letter written to his parents a month earlier Jack wrote, “of all the English towns and cities, I prefer the town of Cambridge.” Sargent Jack Kirschbraun is coincidentally buried in the American cemetery in Cambridge, England.