By Tyler Murphy
ALTAMONT — In 1940, Adolf Hitler’s army conquered France and his air force, the Lufftwaffe, led an all-out siege on the Isle of Great Britain from the sky.
An ocean away, the Americans watched, as the war escalated and politicians debated the country’s role in the world.
Still more than a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the nation’s declaration of war, one 19-year-old decided to take action.
Against his parents’ wishes, John Gordon passed on a chance to attend Yale University that year, where other family members had gone.
Instead, Gordon ran off with friends to Canada were he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, the RCAF, England’s ally, so he could help fight against the Axis advanced.
“The Germans were all along the coast over there [Europe] attacking England and we weren’t in it yet,” Gordon recalled.
Gordon visited the Home Front Café in Altamont last week to discuss his World War II experiences and showcase a reprinting of one of his three books, Wings from Burma to the Himalayas.
Gordon was trained by the RCAF to be a navigator-bombardier and served in the British Royal Air Force, the RAF, with the 203rd torpedo bombers squadron. In 1944, he transferred to the United States Air Forces and fought in the 27th Troop Carrier Squadron.
Sitting alongside pilots, he provided logistical support in coordinating supply shipments, directing bombers to their targets, and performing combat patrols.
Asked why he fought before America declared war Gordon said, “We were stupid kids. Ah hell, we wanted adventure is what it really was. We grew up hearing about World War I and we were hearing about the war in
the media and so on. We were like a lot of young men, we wanted to see the world, you know?”
Asked if he fought both the Nazis and Japan during the war, Gordon responded, “The Japs and Germans both tried to drop bombs on me, if that’s what you mean.”
By 1941, the squadron was flying bombing raids, supply runs, and coastal patrols in the Middle East. In 1942, the squadron was sent to fight in southern Asia, aiding allies in India, China, and Burma against invading Japanese forces that had cut off supply lines.
On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, Gordon was flying combat missions to support allies fighting in the jungles along the Burma Road, a mountainous and weaving 700 mile trail that was vital to supplying besieged Chinese nationalists.
When the Japanese invaded and cut off the road, Gordon and the 203rd squadron were sent on an 11-month tour to help free the route and deliver badly needed supplies by air.
In a desperate relief effort never before attempted by crews, the C-47 bombers caught air drafts to fly over the Himalayan Mountains, often crossing remote and unexplored regions, to get supplies to China.
Many pilots had to penetrate the persistent and blinding high elevation clouds. Even after crossing the mountains, the bombers had to avoid Japanese fighter squadrons, which were launched from a remote high-altitude base specifically built to stop the bold Allied air shipments.
When getting lost meant death
As a navigator it was Gordon’s job to chart a path through the terrain with limited amounts of gas he had to steer between peaks reaching so high into the sky that off-course planes sometime crashed into them. In other words, getting lost was death.
During the war, serviceman referred to this trip as crossing the “Hump.”
Before leaving the service in 1945 Gordon flew 375 hours of combat duty.
Talking to listeners at the café last week, Gordon said the war was often a lot less organized than portrayed by history, especially early on in the conflict.
“It was not an organized thing; you know what I mean? Everyone just did the best they could,” he said. “Most pilots then were not trained as military pilots; they were bush pilots taken in by the Army. They were grizzled old men. They’d flown single-engine planes before the war.”
In Gunnery and Bombing School, Gordon recalled a number of trainers and even some peers, who were older men with experience flying civilian aircraft.
“Like I said, they were bush pilots most of them. They were 40-, 50-year-old men, not like us, we were all 19, 20 somethings,” he said.
He also commented on how technology had changed during the war when he went from reading star charts and calculating navigational numbers in his head to simply reading digital gauges that did the math.
“This was way before GPS. I don’t think people understand it anymore really,” he said.
Gordon said he and many other airmen worried about being shot down behind enemy lines. Even more than death, they feared being captured by the Japanese, he said.
In Gordon’s novel, the main character, also a navigator, constantly struggles with similar fears of capture.
Another problem, especially while flying over the Hump, was the squadron was often over very harsh terrain, such as jungles and mountains, where even radio broadcasts had a tough time getting through, let alone rescuers.
“I had a friend who was taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines. He grew up kind of poor — had a harder life growing up, and later, after the war, he told me that it was one of the reasons he survived,” said Gordon. “I’m a little softer, you know, from a middle-class family; I didn’t think I would make it as a Jap prisoner,” said Gordon.
When the Japanese were driven out of Burma in early 1945, Gordon recalled knowledge of their treatment of prisoners was well known among servicemen, and allied forces showed little mercy when attacking the invaders.
“The entire Jap army was killed in Burma. They were just killed. That’s was just the way it was. They were Japs and would kill themselves anyway, so…” shrugged Gordon.
At the Home Front Café, a handful of other servicemen met with Gordon to talk about some of their own experiences.
I’ll never forget
One elderly and frail vet stepped forward with an old black and white photo of his unit during the war. The veteran and Gordon, who is 91 years old himself, peered at the picture together.
“When you remember those guys, you don’t think of them as old men, you remember them like they were,” said Gordon motioning to the old black-and-white photo.
“You remember them when they were like that,” he said.
After making a few remarks to the two dozen people at the café Gordon thanked everyone for their interest and commented on how hard it still is to talk about the war and stay connected with modern life.
“First off, I tell you one thing, the Veteran Administration keeps me alive. Thanks to all they do, else I’d be dead,” he said.
“When you get home, a lot of them [World War II veterans] found it hard to talk about. Now there’s not many of us left to talk about it,” said Gordon, pausing for a few moments.
“They say, ‘Don’t you ever forget it.’ And you never forget it,” he continued, grimacing his face in an attempt to stop tears.
“That’s the way it was with me… I’ll never forget it.”