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OBITUARIES : Nathan Green Gordon, 1916 - 2008

Medal of Honor recipient and Arkansas lieutenant governor

September 10, 2008|From the Associated Press

Nathan Green Gordon, a Navy pilot who received the Medal of Honor for rescuing 15 downed airmen under enemy fire in the Pacific during World War II, has died. He was 92.

Gordon, who went on to become lieutenant governor of Arkansas, died Monday night at a hospital in Little Rock, Ark., while being treated for pneumonia and other ailments, his nephew Allen Gordon said.

Born in 1916 in Morrilton, Ark., Gordon graduated from the University of Arkansas law school in 1939 and began practicing law in his hometown. He learned to fly after enlisting in the Navy in 1941.

During the war, Gordon flew a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat, a large plane no faster than a high-powered automobile. On Feb. 15, 1944, he received orders to search for downed pilots after a raid on the Japanese position in Kavieng along the Bismarck Sea near Papua New Guinea.

Under fire in rough seas, Gordon piloted the unwieldy aircraft to make three landings to pick up nine men. On the way back, he saw a life raft 600 yards from the enemy shoreline. Gordon landed yet again, pulling six more airmen aboard while taking on heavy fire.

"His plane was seriously overweight by the time he finished," said Stephan McAteer, executive director of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock. "He just did not want to leave anyone there because if they had been captured, they would have faced almost certain death."

Gordon flew his aircraft to Finschhafen, a port in northern New Guinea.

"I hadn't thought about what I was doing," Gordon told the Kansas City Star in 2005. "I did what I had to do. And I was lucky to get out of it."

In nominating him for the nation's highest military honor, his superiors cited Gordon for "exceptional daring, personal valor and incomparable airmanship under most perilous conditions."

Gordon also received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service in the Pacific.

Family members said Gordon didn't speak much about his military service. However, until his final days, he would tell anyone who asked about the rescue mission in the Bismarck Sea that brought him national acclaim, his nephew said.

"He would always tear up," Allen Gordon said.

On his return to Arkansas, friends persuaded him to run for lieutenant governor. The Democrat entered office in 1947 and held the position for 20 years, serving under Gov. Orval Faubus during the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis.

"He pretty well kept his head down and didn't take part in it to any great extent," said Roy Reed, a former Arkansas Gazette reporter who covered the crisis and later wrote a book on Faubus.

Gordon left office in 1967, the same year as Faubus, and returned to practicing law.

He retired in 1992, and three years later his wife of 50 years died. They had no children.

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