It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Gordon H. “Gordo” Smith, U.S. Navy (Retired), on 19 February 2021 at age 92. Gordo entered the U.S. Navy in June 1945 as a “Flying Midshipman,” and flew 244 combat missions as a naval aviator. He served in both the Korean War, flying the F4U Corsair off Leyte (CV-32) for 38 combat missions, and the Vietnam War, flying the A-1H “Spad” Skyraider off Oriskany (CVA-34). He survived a cold catapult shot (resulting in him being “keelhauled” by an aircraft carrier). As executive officer and commanding officer of Attack Squadron 152 (VA-152) on two Vietnam deployments, he survived being shot down over North Vietnam and bailing out just offshore; he also survived the tragic fire on Oriskany that killed VA-152’s executive officer and 43 others, mostly squadron and air wing personnel. He was the on-scene commander for 23 rescue combat air patrol (RESCAP) missions over North Vietnam (including the deepest penetration), resulting in 11 successful downed pilot extractions. Described as a “visionary intellect,” in his later tours he made major contributions to the improvement of Navy C4ISR networks and capability, retiring in 1979 as vice commander of the Naval Electronic Systems Command. His awards include the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross (four awards), Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and other combat awards.
My thanks to Rear Admiral Jay “Rabbit” Campbell, U.S. Navy (Retired), for letting me know and for writing the following tribute that I can’t really improve on. Rest in peace, Admiral Smith.
Rear Admiral Gordon H. Smith, U.S. Navy (Retired),
Golden Eagle Emeritus
Gentlemen, it is my sad duty to report that I was notified by daughter Kelly and son Cameron that their father, Golden Eagle Emeritus Rear Admiral Gordon H. “Gordo” Smith, U.S. Navy (Retired), made his Last Take Off on 19 February 2021. Born in Putnam, Connecticut, and raised primarily in East Providence, Rhode Island, Gordon began his service in the Navy in June 1945. He received his Wings of Gold on 20 October 1948 and is pictured as a Flying Midshipman on our association website. After initial training in fleet aircraft, he joined Fighter Squadron 33 (VF-33) as a line division officer in December 1948 and served in the squadron until June 1951, flying both the F8F Bearcat and the F4U Corsair. In August 1950 the squadron deployed to the Western Pacific and conducted combat operations in the Korean War flying from Leyte. Gordo completed 38 combat missions flying the F4U before the deployment ended in January 1951. He remained with VF-33, serving as a communications officer until June 1951. In July 1951 he reported for shore duty as a flight instructor and schedules officer in Advanced Training Unit 200 (ATU-200), based at Naval Air Station (then Naval Auxiliary Air Station) Kingsville, flying the F8F. Gordo served there for two years until he transitioned back to sea duty as the assistant combat information center officer aboard Gilbert Islands in October 1953. After nine months aboard Gilbert Islands, Gordo reported to Ticonderoga for duty as the OI division officer in July 1954, while the carrier was concluding its 27-Charlie modifications. While there, he was responsible for systems used for tracking all surface and air contacts and for the control of the carrier’s defensive weapons. After conducting carrier qualification operations for Carrier Air Group Six (CVG-6) in the Virginia Capes and “shakedown” operations in the Cuban operating area, he completed his tour of duty in June 1955.
His duty assignment history includes a gap of three years from June 1955 to June 1958, during which I believe Gordon continued his education to receive a bachelor of science degree from Brown University. In June 1958 he reported to the Joint Staff, U.S. Forces Korea, in an overseas assignment as the chief of the Special Intelligence Section. After that two-year tour of duty, Gordo was assigned to the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in July 1960 where, after a two-year course of instruction, he received his master of science degree in June 1962. After refresher training flying the A-1H Skyraider, Lieutenant Commander Smith reported to Attack Squadron 215 (VA-215) based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, as operations officer. Deployed to the Western Pacific with Carrier Air Wing 21 (CVW-21) embarked in Hancock in 1963, the squadron supported operations in September in the vicinity of Taiwan due to tensions between the Taiwanese and the People’s Republic of China. In November Hancock and VA-215 moved to the South China Sea off the coast of South Vietnam to provide a stability presence following the coup that overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem. Gordo returned stateside and in September 1964 he transferred back to shore duty as the operations officer and flight instructor for Attack Squadron 122 (VA-122), the A-1H Fleet Readiness Training Squadron based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, where he flew the A-1 Skyraider. During this tour he was selected for aviation command, and in February 1965 he reported as executive officer for Attack Squadron 152 (VA-152). Again, flying the Spad as part of Carrier Air Wing 16 (CVW-16) and embarked in Oriskany, he deployed in April 1965 to the Gulf of Tonkin for combat operations in Vietnam. While the squadron participated in strike operations and armed reconnaissance over North Vietnam, by far the most important role to emerge for the Skyraider in Vietnam was in search and rescue (SAR) operations in missions referred to as rescue combat air patrol (RESCAP). In a dramatic example of his airmanship during a RESCAP mission that spanned over 30 hours on 6 and 7 November, Commander Smith led the first of two divisions responding to a SAR call for help for two downed U.S. Air Force airmen, transiting missile envelopes and known antiaircraft positions deep into North Vietnam. Despite approaching darkness and heavy enemy fire, he remained on station and led a rescue helicopter to the exact position of one airman for a successful rescue, the first completed at night. Low on fuel and flying through severe thunderstorms during his return to Oriskany, he landed with less than five minutes of fuel remaining. Refusing sleep as dawn approached, he led the second division back to the area early the next morning and reestablished contact with another airman. With enemy forces closing in and under intense ground fire, he persisted in guiding a rescue helicopter into the area. However, when the rescue helicopter received severe combat damage by enemy fire, he was forced to direct it to a suitable mountaintop landing site while taking battle damage himself. In all he flew 17.2 hours during this daring RESCAP mission, which concluded with him escorting a battle-damaged wingman back to Danang, where he made a successful wheels-up landing.
Returning to the United States for a brief training cycle, Commander Smith became commanding officer and VA-152 again deployed on Oriskany, departing San Diego on 29 May 1966. Arriving on Yankee Station on the night of 7 July following an eight-day period on Dixie Station during which the squadron flew 128 sorties against Viet Cong troop concentrations, buildings, and supply caches, the squadron shifted emphasis back to RESCAP missions. On 11 July 1966 Commander Smith led a four-plane special RESCAP mission that picked up a downed pilot from Fighter Squadron 162 (VF-162) near the east-west ridge north of Haiphong. The rescue was deeper into the northeast triangle than any which had preceded it. On 28 August Gordo’s aircraft was struck by a 37-mm antiaircraft site at Hon Nghi Son. With his Spad burning fiercely, he was forced to bail out and hit the vertical stabilizer during the attempt. He managed to get his parachute to open before hitting the water and was successfully recovered by a helicopter from the southern SAR destroyer.
Nonetheless, Gordo continued to lead from the front, participating in two successive line periods striking petroleum and oil facilities and destroying two bridges on route 15 among other armed reconnaissance missions. On the morning of 26 October, however, the deployment took a tragic turn. Oriskany suffered a disastrous fire when magnesium flares ignited in a magazine adjacent to Hangar Bay 1. Forty-four officers and men were killed in the fire, including the VA-152 executive officer, Commander John Nussbaumer. Commander Smith completed his command tour in May 1967 and reported for duty with the staff of Commander Naval Air Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet, as the assistant weapons officer. Serving there until February 1968, he then was assigned as air warfare officer on the staff of U.S. First Fleet, having become a recognized expert in search and rescue tactics and procedures. Promoted to captain, Gordo was assigned to the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon as special assistant and director of Research and Advanced Technology in June 1970. He served in this joint duty tour for four years within the Department of Defense Research and Engineering Directorate until returning to duty in the Navy Department in May 1974.
He joined the Naval Electronics Systems Command (soon to be renamed Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command—SPAWAR) as program manager for the REWSON program (Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare, Special Operations, and Naval Intelligence Processing System program), which was the early precursor to the Navy C4I networks (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence networks). In a billet commensurate with his rank after being promoted to rear admiral, Gordon Smith served as vice commander of the Naval Electronic Systems Command from April 1976 until his retirement from active duty on 30 June 1979.
Entering the civilian sector, Gordo left the East Coast and became president of Lockheed Aircraft Service Company in Ontario, California. He was later named president and chief executive officer of the Sargent-Fletcher Company in October 1990 in El Monte, California. The company was a manufacturer of aerial refueling systems for the defense and commercial aviation industries. Once fully retired, Rear Admiral Smith spent his last years enjoying all the recreational adventures available in southern California, residing in Fullerton. Rear Admiral Gordon Smith was a true aviation combat warrior and superior intellect, whose selfless dedication was epitomized by his participation in 23 rescue attempts as on-scene commander in North Vietnam, 11 of which resulted in successful extractions. During his 20 years in the cockpit, he amassed 6,482 flight hours while fighting in both the Korean and Vietnam wars for a total of 244 combat missions. In an era of emerging jet aircraft, he continued to fly in the most hazardous combat environment in the last of the Navy’s propeller strike aircraft. He achieved 708 carrier arrested landings with over 6,000 of his flight hours in fighter and strike aircraft. His combat awards include the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross (four awards), Navy and Marine Corps Medal, Bronze Star, 23 Air Medals, Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” (two awards), and Purple Heart.
Rear Admiral Gordon H. Smith is survived by his sons Cameron and Gordon “Skip” Jr., daughters Nancy and Kelly, and stepchildren Marta, Todd, Troy, and Mark. He was predeceased by his wife Helen, who passed away in 2006, and laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. Services for Admiral Smith are scheduled for Arlington National Cemetery on Monday, 13 September 2021 at 1300, beginning at the Old Post Chapel and then following the caisson to the gravesite.
He will be missed.
Jay A. Campbell, Pilot
I think the only thing I might add to Jay’s note is that Gordo’s Korea deployment in VF-33 on Leyte was the deployment during which VF-32 pilot Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for deliberately crash-landing his F-4U Corsair in North Korea in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue downed pilot Ensign Jesse Brown (the first African American pilot to complete Navy flight training).