Nathan G. Gordon, a Navy pilot who received the Medal of Honor for rescuing aviators in World War II, and who later became Arkansas’ longest-serving lieutenant governor, died Sept. 8, 2008 at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences hospital in Little Rock. He was 92 and had pneumonia and other ailments.
Mr. Gordon was a small-town lawyer in Arkansas when he enlisted in the naval air corps in 1941. He flew a Consolidated PBY Catalina, a so-called flying boat that could land on water and had twin engines mounted on a wing above the fuselage.
Mr. Gordon, then a lieutenant junior grade, flew in the Caribbean early in the war, protecting convoys and searching for submarines. He was transferred to Midway Island in the Pacific in 1943 and later to a base in Australia.
He was part of the Black Cat squadron, so called because the airplanes were painted black and showed a cat’s jaws clamping down on a ship, and because the squadron often flew its patrol missions at night, sometimes dropping 1,000-pound bombs on Japanese ships from mast level.
On Feb. 15, 1944, Mr. Gordon and his crew received word that several B-25 bombers had been shot down while attacking Japanese positions near Kavieng harbor on the island of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea.
Piloting his aircraft, the Arkansas Traveler, in a driving rainstorm and under constant enemy fire, Mr. Gordon made three separate landings in rough seas to rescue nine crew members from rubber life rafts. He set his plane down with such force that rivets popped and welded seams began to come loose. He had to shut off both engines to keep the plane steady amid the 18-foot swells, as crew members pulled the fallen airmen out of the sea with ropes.
After the third rescue, Mr. Gordon had flown about 20 miles toward his base when the radio crackled with word that another B-25 crew had been downed. He turned the Arkansas Traveler back to Kavieng harbor to attempt his most difficult rescue of the day.
Because the crewmen were only 600 yards from shore, Mr. Gordon had to approach from overland, flying directly above entrenched Japanese positions at a mere 300 feet, braving artillery and small-arms fire all the way.
He set his plane down once more in the churning water, the swells shielding his bobbing plane from enemy guns. Six more U.S. aviators clambered aboard as Mr. Gordon restarted the engines. By then, his plane was badly waterlogged and dangerously overloaded, with 24 men, including the nine-man crew.
“The breakers could throw you 35 or 40 feet in the air,” Mr. Gordon told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2002. “You had to keep the nose up till you reached takeoff speed of 55 knots, or the aircraft would flip and everybody likely would be killed.”
With crewmen bailing water with buckets, Mr. Gordon got the plane airborne and flew to the safety of a U.S. base.
His Medal of Honor citation praised Mr. Gordon’s final rescue, as he “again risked his life to set his plane down under direct fire of the heaviest defenses of Kavieng and take aboard 6 more survivors, coolly making his fourth dexterous takeoff with 15 rescued officers and men.”
Nathan Green Gordon was born Sept. 4, 1916, in Morrilton, Ark., where his father was a lawyer. He attended a military school in Tennessee and Arkansas Tech University before graduating from the University of Arkansas law school in 1939.
Returning to Arkansas as a war hero in 1946, Mr. Gordon was elected lieutenant governor and was re-elected to nine more two-year terms as a Democrat. His political career had little turmoil, except during the racial confrontations surrounding the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957.
He retired from public office in 1967 and returned to his hometown to practice law. His wife of 49 years died in 1995. He had no children or other immediate survivors.
We honor you, Nathan Gordon.