Allan Gordon

Allan Gordon

Veteran, Joined Navy with "Wooden Ships, Iron Men"

By Rudi Williams - 
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON -- Allan H. Gordon, 82, said he joined the Navy in 1934 when there were "wooden ships and iron men."

Those were also the days that, when the "iron men" went through boot camp in Norfolk, Va., they were greeted with signs on people's lawns that read: "Sailors and Dogs Keep off the Grass," he said. "That's the way it was in the '30s."

With a hearty laugh, Gordon said, "I even shoveled coal in this man's Navy." That was aboard an ex-Spanish gunboat of Spanish-American War-vintage that had been converted into a sea-going tugboat that hauled "whiskey for the officers club, beer for the NCO club, chickens, pigs, passengers -- you name it," he said.

By the time he retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer on March 1, 1957, he had seen sea duty aboard three submarines, a battleship, a destroyer, a sub tender -- and the tug. He's been a resident of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington, D.C., since April 1, 1993.

Gordon talked with pride about his 23-year Navy career and described a scary situation in 1943 he'll never forget. It happened on the submarine USS Puffer when it was rigged to "run silent, run deep" to avoid detection by a Japanese destroyer. Everything was shut off -- air conditioning, refrigeration and fans. "Anything that would make noise and betray us to the enemy was shut off," said the Mount Kisco, N.Y., native. To maintain silence, the crew stood in water a few inches deep from condensation, walked around in stocking feet and ate with their hands.


Midway was the turning point of World War II's Pacific Theater.

At the beginning of May 1942, the Allies were losing the war in the Pacific. The Japanese occupied the Philippines, much of China, all of Southeast Asia and now stood poised to besiege Australia and New Zealand. Japanese planners decided to lure the U.S. Navy from Hawaii and eliminate it as a threat. They chose to invade Midway Island, knowing the United States could not ignore an attack so close to Hawaii.

What the Japanese couldn't know was that Allied intelligence experts had cracked their radio code.

Pacific commander Adm. Chester V. Nimitz had time to secretly position his available aircraft carriers near Midway.

The opening Japanese move was a massive air raid against Midway designed to strip the island defenseless for a quick, easy invasion. It failed, and a second bomb strike was ordered. Then, a scout reported a U.S. carrier, forcing another delay as the second wave re-equipped with torpedoes. In the excitement, deck crews littered the decks and hangars with bombs and fuel hoses.

Three U.S. Navy torpedo bomber squadrons pounced the Japanese, confirming the presence of U.S. carriers, but Japanese anti-aircraft defenses and combat air patrols annihilated them without loss or damage. At 10 a.m. June 4, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy reigned supreme in the Pacific.

The Japanese were beginning to launch their strike against the U.S. carriers when 53 dive bombers from the USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown screamed out of the sky and struck three of the carriers. By 10:30 a.m., the three were on fire and eventually sank. Later that day, U.S. Navy aircraft returned and sank the final Japanese carrier.

The tide of battle in the Pacific turned. Though the war wouldn't end until 1945, the United States was on its way to victory.

"God help the man who dropped a wrench or a folk," Gordon said. "The Japanese destroyer kept us down for 23 hours, which left us with only an hour of power on our batteries. So the captain gathered everybody together and said, 'We’ve got two options, men: We can either go down with the ship, or come up and fight it out with the destroyer.'"

The crew opted to fight. To their surprise and delight, when they surfaced and opened the hatch, they found the destroyer had sailed away.

"That was the scariest and most nerve-wracking experience I've ever had," Gordon said. "We got the hell out of there in a hurry."

After boot camp in 1934, Gordon was assigned to the deck crew aboard the battleship USS Colorado at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard. A year later, he volunteered duty near China on board the destroyer USS John D. Edwards and landed in Manila in the Philippines on Christmas Eve 1936. He participated in the evacuation of British and American citizens from China during the war between China and Japan.

Gordon was aboard the USS Edwards during the search for aviator Amelia Earhart in 1937 near Howland Island in the South Pacific.

He was in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in November 1941 when the Navy asked for volunteers for flight training and submarine duty. Gordon wanted flight training, but failed the visual depth perception test, so he opted for submarine duty and joined the crew of the newly commissioned USS Growler.

"We were on the outer defense ring during the Battle of Midway in case some Japanese escaped the bombers, but nobody came our way," Gordon noted. The strategic June 1942 U.S. victory at Midway ended Japan’s chances of winning the Pacific War.

As part of their Midway battle plan, the Japanese had sent a diversionary force against Alaska and bombed Dutch Harbor there. The Growler headed north in July on its first wartime patrol and took on three destroyers single-handedly.

"We sank two and heavily damaged the third in six and a half minutes near the Aleutian Islands," Gordon recalled. "It was mighty cold up there north of Alaska.

"We were the first American forces to strike a retaliating blow for the bombing of Dutch Harbor. The Army was living in caves and dugouts on the side of the hill. They came down with a brass band and cases of beer and showed us a royal time." That was a happy time. Gordon counts himself lucky for leaving the Growler before it disappeared while attacking a Japanese convoy in 1944, apparently sunk with all hands aboard.

Later in 1942, Gordon was assigned to the submarine USS Stingray and went to a repair outfit in Australia. "Along came the Puffer. I liked her, so I joined the crew and went on four patrols all over the South Pacific," he said.

"On one patrol, we caught up with a Japanese convoy in what I call the 'Battle of Bunker Hill,' because the captain waited until he could see the white uniforms on the Japanese ship before he fired a torpedo. Just like Bunker Hill -- 'don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.' We hit her right in the nose and blew them out of the water."

"I've been in harm's way, but I survived," said Gordon, recipient of the Bronze Star with valor device, three Presidential Unit Citations and four Navy Unit


When he retired, Gordon stacked his sea legs and roamed the wilds of Montana for a year hunting and fishing, mainly in the Butte area. He worked as a walking security guard around the mines.

As to his current hobbies, Gordon said he hasn't hunted or fished in years, but he does work a few hours five days a week in the White House mail room.

"Once in a while, I walk to work and back, or go to our world-class gym," he said. "We also have a bowling alley, golf course, hobby shops, movie theater and beautiful grounds to walk around."

"This is an old folks' home," Gordon said. "We get excellent medical care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Naval Medical Center in Bethesda (Md.) or the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.