By David S. Kerr
I must have been six, or maybe just a little older, but I was with my Mom, Dad, and Grandmother, and we were visiting some dear friends of hers, the Whitakers. This was Goldsboro, North Carolina and “visiting” on Sunday afternoons after church was an important part of the culture.
However, Mr. and Mrs. Whitaker were special. They were long time family friends. They were charming, gracious, and cheerful. But as I found out that day, they bore a special kind of sadness for a loss that occurred over twenty years before in a place halfway around the world.
During the visit, I remember being a little bored, as little boys are apt to be when the adults are talking, and taking notice of one of the pictures on the mantel. I found myself studying it closely. It was a photo of a young man, dashingly handsome, in his World War II flight suit. There was an unmistakable good nature to his smile. I didn’t know who he was, but right away, I liked him. It’s rare that a single photo can capture so much of a man’s personality, but in this case, it did. I learned many years later that while he was at Atlantic Christian College in North Carolina, he was a regular steady of a fellow student named Ava Gardner.
With all the tact a six year old can muster, I asked my father, who was sitting next to me, who the man in the picture was. My dad was a little nervous in answering. Not just because I was talking when I should have been quiet, even though the topic of conversation was a mind deadening back and forth on various approaches to planting rose bushes, but because it was a sensitive topic.
The young man in the photo was the Whitakers’ only child and he had been killed in World War II. My father, hoping not to draw attention to our father and son exchange, said it was very sad, but like a lot of young men in the war, Gordon didn’t come home. Though only six, I readily understood what that sanitized phrase meant.
Mr. Whitaker, having caught a hint of our conversation, began to explain to me who this young man was. I think my parents were surprised by Mr. Whitakers’ willingness to talk about his lost son. He told me his son’s name was Gordon. Just like his Dad. They called him Gordon Junior and that he was their only child and that they had sent him off to war back in 1942. Mr. Whitaker said that Gordon Junior was their great joy in life and they had never stopped missing him.
I may have been little, but for the first time in my life, I had a sudden, though gently offered, lesson in the cost of war. Gordon, was just about ready to graduate from college when he asked his Dad if he could take flying lessons. He wanted to get a leg up in qualifying for the Army Air Corps’ Aviation Officer Cadet Program. With war seeming more and more likely, he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. His father agreed and paid for the lessons.
Gordon was accepted into the cadet program, commissioned in the Air Corps and sent to the Pacific. He was an outstanding aviator, flying in the closing weeks of the battle for Guadalcanal and later assigned to fly top-cover for the mission that killed the Japanese top strategist, Admiral Yamamoto. He survived that mission, but was shot down two weeks later while escorting a photo reconnaissance plane over Bougainville.
Gordon’s parents have long since passed on. But to this day, I have trouble imagining how they found the tenacity and the resolve to carry on after such a terrible loss. Even as a six year old, I could tell that this was a wound that had never healed.
Gordon never had the chance to marry, have kids, or ground his son for keeping the car out late. He never had the chance to grow old and reflect on times past. Seventy five years after Gordon’s death, I live a comfortable life. I make my living as I choose, think as I please, associate with whom I please, and worship as I please. I complain about my government and my elected officials whenever I feel like it. That’s all a part of being an American. And, I owe that privilege to Gordon Whitaker, a kindly, decent, and gifted young man, who, like thousands of others in his war, and other’s wars, didn’t come home.