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This Day in History: Nathan Gordon & his “brilliant” air-sea rescue

On this day in 1916, a hero is born. Nathan Gordon is known to some as the longest-serving Lt. Governor in Arkansas history. Before that, he was a pilot who made a daring air-sea rescue during World War II.


But for Gordon, fifteen American airmen would have lost their lives in the churning waters of the Bismarck Sea—assuming they weren’t captured by the Japanese first.


Gordon’s heroism came as American forces were attacking a Japanese supply base in New Ireland. Gordon’s job was to circle in his PBY Catalina seaplane, waiting for calls to help downed airmen.


Gordon receives the Medal from Admiral Thomas Kinkaid.

It was a daunting mission. Gordon would need to land his plane in 15-foot swells of water, with Japanese guns only 1,000 yards away. Indeed, the first landing was so rough that rivets popped out of his plane! Unfortunately, that rough landing was for naught. He’d found a raft, but no survivors.


The next landing went better. Sort of.


Gordon landed near six stranded men, but his crew struggled to pull them into the plane. “I finally realized,” Gordon later recounted, “that if we were going to get the men out, I would have to cut my engines. That, of course, entailed some risks, because sometimes the engines, under such conditions, simply wouldn’t restart.”


Bringing the plane to a more complete stop also made him an easier target for Japanese guns.


Nevertheless, stopping the plane did the trick. The downed airmen were pulled aboard. The engines fortunately restarted, and Gordon took off. He wouldn’t stay airborne for long. Three more men needed help.


The rescue sequence would be repeated—except, this time, one of Gordon’s engines wouldn’t restart. The problem persisted for several tense minutes before the engine finally sprang to life. Gordon got the plane back in the air, his citation recounts, despite the “heavy swells and almost total absence of wind.” It was a “brilliant” act of airmanship.


Gordon was in the air with 19 people aboard, headed to safety. Or so he thought.


He was partway back to base when he received a call. Another B-25 had gone down. Would Gordon go? There would have been no shame in declining. Two of Gordon’s escort fighters could not return with him: They didn’t have enough fuel. Gordon’s own plane was already overloaded, and it had taken on water during previous rescues. He’d already had one scare with an engine that wouldn’t restart in the water.

Yet Gordon was undeterred. “I just couldn’t leave ‘em back there. . . . I knew I had to go back and try,” he later explained.


This last rescue was the hardest one of all. The downed crew was floating close to shore, and it complicated Gordon’s landing. He would have to fly over the land (and past enemy guns) to make the proper approach.


“We couldn’t approach from any other direction,” he later recounted, “because, when making landings in heavy swells, you have to land along with the swells.”


For a third time, Gordon made the difficult landing and shut his engines down. Again the plane bobbed in the water, defenseless, as crew members lugged survivors aboard. Fortunately, the engines started and Gordon was again up in the air. Once out of gun range, his crew was faced with an unusual task: They had to bail water out of an airplane! Gordon didn’t have enough fuel to get back to base, so he diverted to a seaplane tender.


Amazingly, they’d made it. Gordon would receive the Medal of Honor. Each of his crew would receive a Silver Star.


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