Finding Don Gordoni
by Vicki Ekmark
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COURTESY OF SNETTERTON FALCONS
Mission #21 July 28, 1943: Oschersleben, Germany
"Tail gunner Al Neff watched Liberty Bell’s struggle from his window position in Lt. Jim Sanders’ Rum Boogie. Neff’s best friend, Don Gordoni, was aboard the stricken fort. A Chicago lad, Gordoni had been the radio voice of Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy during the early days of the program. When Gordoni’s voice changed, he lost that job but developed a great singing voice."
(To hear Don sing while you read about his life, click on the songs to the right. The recordings are courtesy of Duke Richards who still had the records Don gave his mother in 1943.)
“He’d sing everybody in the hut to sleep on many nights or after missions,” Neff remembers. “Liberty Bell, having fallen out of the lead, was on our left and a little behind so I had a terrifying view of the whole scene . . . the right engine was on fire and those who bailed out pulled their rip cords too fast . . . most chutes burned as they opened.” After the war, Neff visited Don Gordoni’s mother. “Watching your buddy die is an unforgettable experience,” Al Neff wrote 46 years later. “I am close to tears even today when I think about Don and the way he died.” (Snetterton Falcons)
Al Neff was my father. His parents, Henry and Emma Neff, immigrated from Germany to North Dakota where he was born on March 12, 1920. When Dad turned 14, his father decided to take him out of school to work on the family farm. That wasn’t a future he wanted, so he rode the rails to Boise, Idaho where he lived for most of his life. On November 17, 1943, he married Mary Green, an Idaho native, and they had four kids: my brother, my two sisters, and me.
Dad never talked much about the war he fought as a tail gunner on a B-17, bombing the bejesus out of Germany and other parts of Europe during WW2. His silence was understandable. War is a brutal thing to witness under any circumstances; add to that he was bombing Germany, his parents’ home country. Also, my father was extremely claustrophobic: in the small tail compartment where he sat, there was barely room for one person.
In the late 80’s, I was putting the finishing touches on a Bachelor’s Degree in English. I decided to try to write a short story about a tail gunner during WW2 for a Creative Writing class I was taking. Since I didn’t know anything about the topic, I asked my dad to help me with a subject I knew he was an expert in. I also encouraged him to write his own story about his war experiences, and he did, entitling it Raid on Paris [on this website-
under the page for tailgunneralvinneff].
While all this was going on, and unbeknownst to me, material for the book Snetterton Falcons was being compiled (it is the complete story of the 96th Bomb Group during WW2). Anyone in the 96th could send in stories for the book. Apparently, my father submitted the opening story about Don Gordoni, and it was accepted and included. The book was published in 1989, but in the early 90’s, Dad moved to South Dakota. He died from leukemia in 1992, so I don’t know if he ever got to see a copy of the finished book.
In 2010, I started building a website dedicated to my father’s B-17 crew on the Rum Boogie. Since I didn’t know anything about B-17’s or WW2, my brother Steve bought me a copy of Snetterton Falcons. As I was reading the book, I came across the story my Dad had submitted about Don Gordoni. This was total news to me, and my brother confirmed that Dad had never talked to him about it either. If not for the publication of Dad’s story about Don, no one in our family would have ever known about it.
As I continued to work on my website about Dad’s crew, beneath it all there was intrigue about Don - a need to know more about him and to tell his story - to not let that watery grave define him. What follows is everything I have discovered about Don and his family, and in the vein of always trying to make your parents proud of you, even when they are no longer around, this is for you, Dad.
GOLDSTEIN/ABRAMSON/GORDONI FAMILY HISTORY
Provided by Sheryl Cozad, Family Historian
Nathan Goldstein was born to a Jewish family in Minsk, Russia on October 6, 1888, immigrating to the United States early in the 20th century. At that time, the regime of Czar Nicholas II favored persecuting Jews who were thought to favor the Bolshevik revolutionaries. As a result, Russian Cossacks killed many Jews and destroyed Jewish villages in pogroms. (The musical Fiddler on the Roof describes this time beautifully.) Because of the violence and with a desire to make a better life for himself and his family, Nathan came to the United States. Once in the U.S., he settled in Wilmington, Delaware. As the oldest of around a dozen siblings, he eventually brought all of them over, one by one, to escape the Russian Czarist persecution.
Lillian Ethel Abramson was born in St. Clair, Pennsylvania on May 19, 1895. Both of her parents were Jews born in Russia who also immigrated to the U.S. Around 1912, Nathan and Lillian (or Lilla as she preferred to be called) began dating and then married.
The marriage produced three children: Gordon Maurice (Don) born on June 8, 1918; Earle Standford (Stan) born on July 27, 1922; and Kenneth Charles (Ken) born on February 17, 1924. Nathan became a successful clothier, while Lilla practiced her talents as a vocalist. Unfortunately, her developing career aspirations placed a great deal of strain on their marriage.
In October of 1927, Nathan filed a petition to dissolve his marriage to Lilla, and in 1929, he lost all his investments and savings during the stock market crash. As a result, he raised his sons in poverty, often living with his sister Rose. Sometimes he sold shoes door to door in order to make ends meet. In the summers, the boys stayed with a loving family on a farm in the country to earn their living and enjoy a more wholesome environment.
Lilla left her boys in Delaware in Nathan’s care around 1931 and moved to New York and later Chicago to try for a singing career. Unfortunately, this was a time of considerable anti-Semitism in the U.S. As a Jew, she could perform only in Jewish clubs in areas such as the Adirondacks. To avoid prejudice and widen her audience so that she could perform in gentile clubs, she altered her last name, first to a French-sounding Gordone and then later Gordoni, which sounded Italian (both names were based upon her oldest son Gordon's name). As her boys entered their late teens, she persuaded them to legally change their last names to Gordoni so that they, too, could escape anti-Semitic prejudice.
During the late 1930’s, Lilla opened Lillian Gordoni Radio Productions on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and set out to train her sons as performers. All the boys were very musically talented, and her production company gave them the opportunities they needed by offering recording studios, producing records, and transmitting radio broadcasts. The highly successful enterprise represented at least one hundred different children and adults as singers and actors.
In addition to her radio business, Lilla also performed at The Ambassador Club as the Singing Mistress of Ceremonies. Certainly, during this time, she would have been a woman trying to break into a man’s world, and the success she had was proof she was up to the task.
DON MAURICE GORDONI
In 1933, when he was sixteen years old, Gordon Goldstein went to live with his mother in New York and became known as Don Gordoni. Over the next five years, and as a part of her production company, he was the original radio voice of Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy on CBS, but when his voice started to change, he lost that job. However, he played romantic juvenile leads and developed a beautiful singing voice. As a result, in 1941, he became the featured soloist and Master of Ceremonies for Phil Levant’s Orchestra and developed friendships with many people who later became famous such as actor Van Johnson. Stay tuned at the end of this story to hear Don sing "If I Had My Way."
In his home town of Wilmington, Delaware, on November 14, 1941, Don Gordoni enlisted in the Army Air Corps. From Wilmington, he went to Fort Dix, New Jersey and then Biloxi, Mississippi. He arrived at Keesler Field in Mississippi during January of 1942. Next, he travelled to Scott Field, twenty-five miles east of St. Louis, where he trained to be a B-17 radio operator. It seems like radio operator would be a good job for a radio star, but there is no evidence to prove whether that was a consideration. In May of that same year, he was sent to Harlingen, Texas, and, one month later, Salt Lake City, Utah. In July, he moved straight west to Wendover Field, also in Utah.
Don joined the newly formed 337th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group at Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho in September of 1942. [Author’s Note: I have lived in Boise most of my life and currently reside less than ten minutes from Gowen.] According to Snetterton Falcons, the training here involved “checking out pilots and co-pilots and individual crew members training in the skills required for the performance of their respective jobs . . . a process of molding them into units which could be considered teams rather than collections of individuals.” In Boise, my father would have met Don and gotten to know him pretty well since they were in the same squadron.
The entire group left Boise around August 31st and moved to Walla Walla, Washington where they stayed until September 30th. Next stop was Rapid City, South Dakota until October 28th and then to Pocatello, Idaho, where they spent November and December 1942.
At Pocatello, the weather was brutally cold, dropping to 30 below. Blizzards brought snow which would not melt. It was here, in Pocatello, that Don’s life changed dramatically. (Pictured to the
right is Christmas dinner at the Pocatello mess hall.)
EARLE STANDFORD GORDONI
Stan, the middle boy of the three Gordoni brothers, was also very musically talented. When he was only fifteen years old, he was selected to play Eddie Cantor.
Stan enlisted in the Army Air Corps on December 17, 1941 and served on a B-29 crew at Walker Air Base in Kansas. He achieved the rank of staff sergeant and was a navigator as well as a radio operator like his older brother. Stan often spoke about taking baloney sandwiches on the plane and having the mayonnaise freeze as they climbed into the atmosphere.
After Kansas, Stan was sent to the Caribbean, and he eventually spent much of the war in Jamaica and British Guiana. He enjoyed the environment there and later in life told wonderful stories about the people he met. One story he often told was about accompanying a pair of his drunken buddies into the jungle of British Guiana during the night; the three soldiers encountered primitive tribesmen who lived away from civilization.
Much of Stan’s air time was spent bombing German submarines. Once, their airplane’s tail was shot off by a machine gunner on a submarine deck. At that time, German submarines were traveling to South America, Paraguay, and Argentina in particular, to stash Nazi loot and personnel.
KENNETH CHARLES GORDONI
Ken, the youngest brother, was a graduate of Pierre S. Dupont High School in Wilmington, Delaware where he was active in drama. In addition to that, he was also a golden gloves boxer and was offered a wrestling scholarship to Penn State University. He is pictured to the right with his mother and grandmother.
Ken’s older brother, Stan, wrote him a letter begging him to wait to join the military until he could enlist as an officer. Ken ignored his brother’s request and his own many talents and enlisted in the Air Corps in Philadelphia on November 7, 1942, at the age of 19. He became part of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group serving as a Staff Sergeant and Radio Operator on a B-24 Liberator. He wrote letters to both of his brothers about his many girlfriends.
KRISTOF DE GEYTER
I got an email from a man named Kristof de Geyter on July 22, 2013. Kristof wrote to me because he had seen my reference to Don Gordoni on my website, rumboogiecrew.com. Kristof lives in Belgium and has adopted Don’s name on the Walls of the Missing in Margraten American Cemetery in The Netherlands. Kristof adopted Don’s gravesite because his grandfather used to tell him stories about the war, and, like many Belgian people, he appreciates the sacrifices that were made during WW2 to keep his country free. Since that initial email, Kristof and I have become good friends and converse often.
In October of 2017, three years after he had requested it under the Freedom of Information Act, Kristof received and forwarded to me Don’s Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) or Casualty File as it is sometimes called. An IDPF is created by the military to document the death of a military member as well as the related actions associated with the disposition of the remains.
As I browsed through the IDPF, I noticed one tantalizing detail that I had never known about Don before: when he was stationed in Pocatello, Idaho in 1942, he had gotten married.
After discovering Don’s marriage, I caught some breaks finding information about his wife, Adele Peacock. Family Search, a free genealogy website which I had used before, is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. The Church puts an emphasis on genealogy because one of their core beliefs is that familial bonds last forever.
I knew that southeastern Idaho, where Pocatello is located, had a large population of Mormons, so I took a chance that Adele’s family was Mormon. I got on Family Search, typed in her name, and a few clicks later, I was looking at a group picture of the Peacock parents and their children. The picture included name captions, so I easily identified Adele (she is third from the left in the middle row). I was thrilled to see what she looked like - she was very pretty. Along with the picture, I noted there were some individuals doing updates on the Peacock family history. I emailed anyone who was working on anything related to that picture for information about Adele.
I was in a huge hurry because I noticed from Family Search that Adele had a son during her first marriage (Don Gordoni was marriage number two). I calculated this child would be in his mid-80’s. It appeared that almost all the other people who had been connected to Adele were dead, so I needed to find this son; I prayed to God he was still alive.
A few days later, I heard back from one of the Family Search people I had contacted, Trudi Kaufman. In her email, Trudi told me that Adele was her grandmother’s cousin – too far off her own family tree. Trudi suggested I call her mother, Joan Calderwood, explaining that Joan and Adele had known each other when they were young. I called Joan right away. She had no information about Adele beyond her childhood, but she gave me a phone number for Jeff Hastings, another relative. I talked to Jeff twice, but he told me I was still on the wrong side of the family tree.
Behind the scenes, though, Jeff somehow worked some magic. One day, not too long after my initial phone calls, in the middle of teaching my seventh-grade reading class, I got a call from Duke Richards, Adele’s first child. My prayers had been answered.
A few months after finding Duke, I also located Adele’s niece, Saundra Hastings Duke (Jeff Hastings’ sister). I was able to find her on People Finder: she had the right maiden name, was the right age, and lived in Wyoming (not too far from Eastern Idaho and close to where I knew Duke Richards spent his summers). I sent her a letter and she responded. I interviewed her over the phone after visiting Duke. As it turned out, both Duke and Saundra agreed about Adele’s life.
ADELE PEACOCK RICHARDS
Adele Peacock was born on April 9, 1917 in Clawson, Idaho. Her parents, Joseph and Erma Peacock, had ten children, including six girls who everyone agreed were all very pretty. As Saundra Duke put it, “they dressed well and had class.”
On September 16, 1932, when Adele was only fifteen years old, she married Wayne Richards, who was twenty-one years old. In 1933, her son Duke was born.
There are a couple of theories about why Adele might have married Wayne. Duke thinks that one of Adele’s sisters picked on her a lot. Adele did not like this sister, so marriage would have been one way to get away from her. Adele’s niece Saundra said that all the girls left home when they were very young because their father worked them to death on the farm.
A few months after I talked to Duke on the phone, I sat down with him to talk about his mother. I appreciate his willingness to share the details of his childhood.
After a short marriage to Wayne Richards, Adele left him and deposited Duke with her parents. Not long after that, Duke went to live with his Great Uncle George and Great Aunt Doris. Winters in eastern Idaho were cold and snowy, and his great aunt and uncle lived two miles from the main road. Many times, Duke did not go to school because of the weather, or if he did, he rode a horse to the highway and then caught a bus. Duke’s great aunt and uncle wanted to adopt him when he was fourteen years old, but Adele wouldn’t allow it.
DON MAURICE GORDONI AND
ADELE PEACOCK RICHARDS GORDONI
Duke confirmed that Adele was a waitress at “some big hotel in Pocatello” when she met Don. Most likely it was the Yellowstone Hotel, which is still open today. According to Joe Hudson’s book, Elite Cannon Fodder, “we had a lot of time to spend in town, mostly at the Ace of Clubs, or the Yellowstone Hotel. The Ace of Clubs had an orchestra whose leader resembled ‘Fats’ Waller. After every other dance number, he would announce a fifteen-minute intermission. With the intermission came a lot of drinking.” It’s not hard to imagine Don meeting Adele when he dined at the Yellowstone and then going to the Ace of Clubs to sing with the orchestra.
Don spent only two months in Pocatello, but during that time, the handsome radio star with a terrific singing voice from the big city of Chicago met and fell in love with the small-town beauty who was Adele Peacock. And, right out of the movies, on December 14, 1942, he married her. Two weeks later, the bomb group moved on, and she was left behind. It was the last time Adele would ever see Don.
Duke told me his mother was very much in love with Don, but Duke himself never met Don even though he was only sixty miles from where Duke was living at the time.
DON MAURICE GORDONI
At the end of December, the 96th Bomb Group moved from Pocatello to Peyote, Texas, a place as hot as Pocatello had been cold. They stayed there until mid-March when they were then sent to Walker, Kansas. At Walker, they received new B-17’s to fly into the theater of operations.
Don wrote to Adele almost every day from the time he left Pocatello, and Duke still has a box full of his letters. From Salina, Kansas, there was a quick post card from the Lamer Hotel as well as a longer letter from Smoky Hill Army Air Field. In the letter, he fondly recalled her “pink dress and when we went to the Green Triangle . . . and the night I proposed.” (The Green Triangle, pictured to the right, was just recently torn down. Apparently, it was where the pool sharks hung out, and the place changed hands several times over a pool game.)
Most of Don’s letters were about wanting pictures of Adele or trying unsuccessfully to quit smoking since it affected his singing voice, or getting a “job on a radio station, singing, acting, and maybe writing” after the war. Another of his favorite subjects was their future life together where he visualized “a house with a swimming pool out back of our garden . . . [and] adjoining our room another room with rocking horse wallpaper and a crib.”
A letter Don wrote on April 20, 1943, about ten days before he left for England, contained information probably never known before. It described artwork being painted on his B-17, Liberty Bell: “Your name will be on the ship this afternoon. I just got the stencils cut out. I'll paint it on soon as I
get some paint out here – Don M. on one side of the ship and Adele on the other.” And in a follow-up note written soon after, “I just finished painting yours
and my name on the top side of the ship.
A painter is putting a guitar under the
radio room window.”
ADELE PEACOCK RICHARDS GORDONI
By April of 1943, Adele was living in Chicago with Don’s mother, Lilla. According to Duke, Lilla made Adele live with her so that she wouldn’t cheat on Don. Duke said Lilla was very harsh with Adele. That may have been true, but Adele’s V-mail to Don dated June 11, 1943 was upbeat and positive: “I’ve missed you more today than any time since you’ve left . . . I know my prayers are being answered and you are being watched over.” Also, Adele had gotten a job in the War Bonds Department and told Don, “[I] put Clark Gable’s [application] through yesterday.” It was interesting to note, though, that on Adele’s Civil Service Commission form, her Aunt Doris in Driggs was listed as her beneficiary.
THE AIR WAR
According to Snetterton Falcons, “all Fortresses got to England by April 30 with all personnel accounted for.” The 96th Bomb Group’s first official mission was flown from Grafton Underwood to Courtrai Airfield in France on May 14, 1943. A brutal schedule ensued with missions on the 15th, 17th, 19th, and 29th of May. In June, the group went out on the 11th, 13th, 22nd, 26th, 28th (a nine-hour trip to St. Nazaire, France) and on the following day, another mission to France.
During July, they flew to Paris on the 10th and again on the 14th, followed by three more missions on the 24th, 25th, and 26th. Any way you look at it, it was an exhausting schedule.
Using my father’s mission list, I calculated that the group flew over 105 hours in the first two and a half months that the 96th Bomb Group was in England. The missions ranged in length from three hours to over nine hours, with an average length of six plus hours, and they were always interrupted by attacks from German fighters. Besides the missions themselves, there were also many other duties and briefings. At some point, however, Don had at least one break, as evidenced by his post card to Adele from London.
MISSION TO OSCHERSLEBEN, GERMANY ON JULY 28, 1943
This explanation of Oschersleben is recounted by Joe Hudson in his book, Elite Cannon Fodder, which he wrote in 1987. Joe was the Navigator on the B-17 Dallas Rebel. On this mission, Joe’s plane was shot down, and he was captured by the Germans. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp.
We were to fly parallel to the East Frisian Islands, turn left to the northwest for about thirty minutes, then turn to an east-southeast course that would take us over Oschersleben. The total time for the mission was about seven hours. This plan was intended to draw up the German fighters early so that bombing could be done while the fighters were on the ground refueling. About all this maneuvering did was give the Germans time to shift their fighters from France and South Germany to the attack area.
The bomber formation proceeded on the first leg of the mission on course and well formed. The cloud tops in the front along the Frisians proved to be at 21,000 feet instead of 19,000. The low groups in front of us were forced to climb without warning – several of the groups were flying on the same course and altitude. I could see the group in front of us and on our level struggle to maintain formation despite prop wash from the group ahead. The tight formations could not be maintained. We were on strict radio silence. There was no coordinated command to correct the situation. Simultaneously, the German fighter squadrons were spotted in force and at extreme altitude. Our ships flew into a cloud top, which made a perfect silhouette for the German fighters. They came in high from the tail. Emerson’s ship [the plane Don was on] was shot down and Benders had to leave formation. We went in a cloud, and when we came out, not a 96th group plane was in sight. Several B-17’s collided. The groups had turned on the diversion leg of the mission. The sky was full of German fighters, FW-190’s, ME-110’s, ME-210’s, JU-88’s, and ME-109’s. We turned and attempted to join another group; however, we were under heavy attack. Every gun on the ship was in action. I could hear bullets rip through the plane. The intercom was out. A fighter got on our tail and sent a long burst through the left wing. A fire started in our left-wing tank. Nance and Gorse [pilot and co-pilot] faced a decision – to try to gain the protection of a B-17 group, or head for the deck.
We dived at speeds in excess of the red line. German fighters stayed on our tail. The fire continued to eat away the left wing. McGinniss kicked out the escape hatch; I put on my parachute pack and went to the escape hatch, intending to jump. I took the chute off and put it back on a hook. Bob and I went to the radio room to prepare for ditching. Maxwell was still firing upper turret and Youngers was still firing the tail guns. Bennett, Paysinger, Wulfekuhle, and Kralik had bailed out. Nance and Gorse leveled the ship out into the wind. The ship hit the water like a ton of bricks. Everything loose flew forward; then quickly the plane skipped to a stop and briefly remained afloat. I pulled the life raft release, and the big, yellow, self-inflating raft came out of its compartment on the fuselage.
This view of the mission is recounted from Snetterton Falcons.
The dark, leadened skies which shrouded Snetterton Heath at dawn were to portend tragedy. The group dispatched twenty-one forts as early as 0545. The weather cursed climb-and-form-up procedures throughout the Wing. Everyone’s timing was off . . . groups were late. Rendezvous points were missed. Emerging at last into the wild blue, the 96th found the Wing to be stretched to Kingdom Come.
The disaster really started about 0900 when the force approached the German coast. The 337th lead ship, Liberty Bell [Don’s plane] came under attack. Flying with the pilot, Captain M.C. “Steamboat” Fulton, was his squadron commander, Major Virgil Emerson. Critically hit, the plane was abandoned over the North Sea, but near the German coast. Frank Cardaman witnessed the incident from Tarfu’s ball turret: “Major Emerson was on our left wing when the Germans hit us. Emerson leaned out the co-pilot’s window and saluted just before the plane went into a dive.”
Actually, only Bombardier Lawrence Wolford survived of the Fulton-Emerson crew. After liberation from prison camp, Wolford provided this testimony for squadron leader Virgil Emerson’s mother: “We were flying at 19,000 feet near Heligoland when first attacked. Because we were the lead crew, we had Major Emerson as co-pilot and two [lead] Navigators, Dean Howell and Dave Humke. Lt. Bob Anderson, our usual co-pilot, was flying as tail gunner. German planes attacked before we were aware of their presence. Bob Anderson fired a few bursts and then we were hit. This first attack by enemy planes killed Lt. Anderson and destroyed about half the plane’s tail surface.”
Wolford went on to explain his belief that this same burst further destroyed every gunner and gun behind the Bomb Bay. Fulton and Emerson dove to 7,000 feet hoping to lose the Germans, but Luftwaffe fighters hung on tenaciously. “Never have I seen such piloting as Major Emerson and Captain Fulton did with that crippled bomber,” Wolford wrote. “But it soon became apparent that we must abandon ship.”
Unable to drop life rafts, the men had to jump with faith in their Mae Wests. The two navigators joined Wolford in parachuting from the nose hatch. While still descending, Wolford could see the two navigators parachuting below him and he saw three men, two of whom he believed to be Emerson and Fulton, leave the plane before it struck water. That was the last he saw of any of the crew.
Larry Wolford was in the water for over eight hours before being rescued by a German air-sea plane. His captors treated him for shock he suffered from over-exposure and exhaustion. And they promised to continue the search for his crew. At this point, he lost consciousness until he came to hours later in a Frisian Island hospital. The body of Dave Humke was the only one recovered. It washed ashore on the German-Danish border a week later.
Before Don was killed, his father Nathan had written in his journal that something was going to happen to Don.
Most likely devastated by grief and the fatigue of eighteen missions, my father did not go on the next two missions on July 29th and 30th, instead requesting R & R leave.
Don Gordoni’s nephew and namesake spoke to the only Liberty Bell survivor, Laurence Wolford, some years ago. Wolford said he was aware Don was on his plane; his only comment on the situation was that “he had lost so many friends, he didn’t make new ones.”
Seventy-five years after being shot down, the Liberty Bell still lies on the bottom of the North Sea, fifteen miles southwest of Heligoland with “Don M” painted on one side, "Adele” on the other, and a picture of his guitar still under the radio room window.
Missing Air Crew Report (MACR)
ADELE PEACOCK RICHARDS GORDONI
According to Adele’s son Duke, she got the telegram about Don’s death while she was at her parent’s house in Driggs, Idaho and suffered a nervous breakdown. She also started drinking, which only worsened as her life spiraled out of control. Duke said the alcohol was the breakdown. Adele’s niece, Saundra, commented, “she didn’t let alcohol get the best of her, but it just got worse.”
KENNETH CHARLES GORDONI
The youngest Gordoni brother, Ken was killed on January 4, 1944, on a mission to Kiel, Germany, just five months after Don died. His plane was hit by flak which caused the pilot to lose control, and it crashed two kilometers south of Frensburg, Germany. According to T/Sgt. Thomas Adams, who was on the plane, “it crashed because the control cables had been shot in two by anti-aircraft fire. Of course, the plane went down in a spin, and there was not much time to get out . . . we that were in good condition could not aid those that had been wounded, and they could not help themselves.” (Pictured is Ken on the left and Lilla on the right.)
The German observer who found Ken’s body said that he must have died on impact when his parachute failed to open. He landed with his arms and knees extended towards the earth which caused his joints to separate at the shoulders and hips.
The plane crash occurred approximately 220 miles northwest of Berlin, Germany. After the crash, Ken’s body was buried in Flensburg.
EARLE STANDFORD GORDONI
After Ken’s death, Stan remained the only surviving son in the family, but due to an administrative snafu, he also came up missing. His unit had been transferred, but no one knew where they had moved to except that they were somewhere in the Caribbean. January of 1944 must have been agonizing for Nathan and Lilla as none of their three boys could be accurately accounted for. To their credit, and even though they had been divorced for many years, Nathan and Lilla joined forces and contacted officials in the War Department in Washington to help locate Stan. Once he was found, Stan was not involved in any more wartime actions. He was released from the Army on October 25, 1945.
On July 19, 1947, four years after Don died, Adele married for a third time to Laurence Nelson, who was sixteen years her senior. They did not have any children together and divorced in July of 1950.
Adele married for the fourth time on April 28, 1951. Her new husband’s name was Hosea Ellison. It was at this point that she forced Duke, against his wishes, to come live with her and her new husband in Utah. This lasted from when Duke was in 8th grade until he graduated from high school. Duke ran away many times attempting to return to Idaho but was never successful.
Adele and Hosea had two sons: Craig, who was born on November 19, 1950, and Mark, who was born a few years later. Saundra Duke said of Adele’s son, Craig, “he was the best playmate and a really nice kid.”
Unfortunately, it was a rocky marriage, and by all accounts, Hosea abused both boys terribly. Adele divorced Hosea and next married Richard Smith who she also divorced.
Duke’s childhood memories are not good: the issues of abandonment, adoption, and abuse would be more than difficult for anyone to deal with. In conversations I had with Duke, even today he is still angry at his mother for everything she put him through. Certainly, no one would blame him for that.
On the positive side, I think Duke has made the most of his life. After graduating high school, he joined the Navy and served in the Korean War. He patrolled the sea around Korea in a destroyer and got shot at many times. Duke and his wife Doris have been married over fifty years. They both worked at and retired from Hill Air Force Base and raised their family in Kaysville, Utah. Even though he has had six heart bypass surgeries, he plays golf every day and his mind is strong.
DON GORDONI’S INDIVIDUAL DECEASED PERSONNEL FILE
To view Don’s IDPF, click on his picture to the right (taken
when he was two years old) or go to the following link:
The file is 123 pages long and fascinating reading.
Note that it is in reverse chronological order – most recent on top.
IDPF PART 1 (PAGES 1-52) – MAKING SURE DON DIED
Because Don’s body was never recovered, the IDPF is full of letters back and forth between involved parties, witnesses, and the government trying to establish if he did in fact die. Stranger things have happened when people who were supposed to be deceased show up somewhere else alive. Don’s case was also designated “controlled” as shown by Form 1900. The form, which “must be maintained on top of 293 file at all times until cancelled” stated that no one could “take any action . . . or release information without the concurrence of the Liaison Office.”
A report titled, “Review and Determination of Eight
Air Corps Personnel Who Became Missing in Action
28 July 1943 in the European Area,” conducted by the
Casualty Branch, came out on July 29, 1944, one year
and a day after Don died. The report verified that one
crew member had become a prisoner of war (Wolford)
and the other ten people on board the Liberty Bell
had died (unfortunately there was an extra person on
the plane that day). The finding was based on the
following: a letter from Lt. Wolford written as a POW
in Germany; a confirmation of that letter by a Senior
American Officer in the POW camp; information
from the Germans; the MACR (Missing Air Crew
Report); and Battle Casualty Reports. In his letter, Lt. Wolford (the only survivor) stated that regarding Sgt. Gordoni, “it is believed, by undersigned reporter, that Sgt. Gordoni was killed before ship was abandoned.”
Less than two weeks after the Review Report, on August 10, 1944, a letter was sent from Major General Witsell to Lilla, Don’s mother. The letter talked about the “uncertainty surrounding [Don’s] absence,” but was mainly written to let Lilla know that since twelve months had expired without any evidence that Don was alive, a presumptive finding of death for the termination of pay and allowances had been established as July 29, 1944 (the date represents the expiration of twelve months’ absence plus one day). Setting this date allowed the Army to “terminate pay and allowances, settlement of accounts and payment of death gratuities.” The letter closed, “I hope you may find sustaining comfort in the thought that the uncertainty with which war has surrounded the absence of your son has also enhanced the honor of his service to his country and of his sacrifice.”
Two years later, on August 3, 1946, Lilla wrote a letter to Witsell which apparently requested more information about Don. (The file did not contain a copy of her letter but referenced it in a return letter from Witsell to Lilla on December 10, 1946.) Witsell again relayed to her the statement made by Lieutenant Wolford, the only survivor: “It is believed . . . that Sergeant Gordoni was killed before the ship was abandoned. Upon the basis of this information, it has been officially established that Sergeant Gordoni was killed in action on 28 July 1943 over the North Sea.” Between the date of Lilla’s letter in August and Witsell’s response in December, an American Search and Recovery unit identified and processed remains for five of the other men on Don’s plane and moved them to military cemeteries.
One last effort was made to find Don and three other members of the crew in November of 1950. The Memorial Division sent a letter to Wolford asking him for any additional information he might have about what happened to the crew. They also sent a letter to the Commanding Officer of the Graves Registration Detachment and included Don’s physical description and dental records. No new information was discovered.
Over seven years after Don’s plane was hit, on November 6, 1950, the Pentagon issued its final report, written by Colonel George Herbert:
“Lt. Wolford [who survived] was told by German authorities fifteen days
later that no other survivors were found. Wolford had also received
information from the mother of Lt. Howell that her son’s body had been
washed ashore near the German-Danish border. Lt. Anderson was
reported to have been killed instantly, and his death witnessed by a pilot
of a wing ship. Sgt. Gordoni was reported believed killed before the ship
was abandoned. Since only six parachutes were observed, it is reasonable
to believe that five members aboard went down and sank with the plane.
Three of the six men who parachuted have been identified as Lieutenants
Wolford, Howell and Humke. It is presumed that Sgt. Guest, whose
remains were recovered from the sea, was one of the unidentified
parachutists and that the two other unidentified parachutists drowned
and their remains still are retained by the sea.”
A Board of Review met on January 19, 1951, to “review and determine, from evidence presented, the non-recoverability of the remains of the deceased in question.” Don’s name was one of those on the list. Again, Lt. Wolford supplied a letter in which he stated, “either five or six men parachuted to the water,” but he could not identify which men they were.
The Army issued a Non-Recoverable Remains Reexamination of Records on September 7, 1951. The final checked box in the Don Gordoni case read, “The remains of the decedent could have been recovered. However, after review of the following it has been determined that evidence does not exist to contradict a finding of non-recoverability.”
By September 13, 1951, Adele and both of Don’s parents were given final notification about him from the Department of the Army: “It is with deep regret that your Government finds it necessary to inform you that further search and investigation have failed to reveal the whereabouts of your husband/son’s remains. Since all efforts to recover and/or identify his remains have failed, it has been necessary to declare that his remains are not recoverable. . . . it is regretted that there is no grave at which to pay homage . . . may the knowledge of [his] honorable service to his country be a source of sustaining comfort to you.” Included in the IDPF was a copy of the envelope used to mail this notification to Adele in Chicago. The envelope was stamped “Unknown,” “Return to Sender,” and “not here.” By that time, Adele was back in Idaho married to Hosea Ellison.
IDPF PART 2 (PAGES 53 - 99) - BROTHERS
The deaths of Don and his brother Ken occurred less than six months apart. Back in the United States, their father Nathan was trying to find out any information he could.
August 1945: Nathan wrote a letter to the Adjutant General about the remains of his two sons. (Keep in mind that July 29, 1944 was not the actual date of Don’s death. He died on July 28, 1943 but was not declared dead until July 29, 1944 when they stopped paying him.) Later in August, Nathan received a letter back that there was no further information about the deaths of either of his sons.
September 24, 1945: Nathan was notified that Ken had been interred at Flensburg, Germany, although he was also told the burial information had not been verified.
March 28, 1946: Nathan wrote another letter asking if his two sons’ remains had been recovered and, if so, where they had been interred. It’s possible he never received the September 1945 letter from the government, or perhaps his mind had been overtaken by his broken heart. In May of 1946, he was informed there was no new information on the burial of his two sons. A form labeled “BROTHERS” requested a gravesite next to Ken in case Don’s remains were ever recovered. The form also stated that the request be “kept on top of papers at all times.”
Since Nathan was Jewish, there were many Jewish traditions, customs and rituals that should have been followed in the caring and preparation of his sons’ bodies, the burial and service at the cemetery, as well as the weeklong mourning period that would have followed. For Nathan, these delays were not only gut wrenching, they were also in violation of his faith.
January 1947: Notification of the M.A.C.R. (Missing Air Crew Report) was received by the Quartermaster’s Office, but since Don’s body had not been recovered, this was of little help. One year later, Nathan wrote again about the remains of his son Don. One month later, the Memorial Division responded they still had no information. An interesting correction is requested on the February 5, 1948 letter from the Army’s Major Coombs to Nathan informing Nathan that they still had no information on Don’s remains. Coombs requested the typist omit the words “the late” (referring to Don) on line 1. Those two words would have indicated that Don was dead, and over three years after he had been killed, the Army still had no proof of that.
June 1948: The government received a copy of Don’s dental records; the dental chart was dated July 22, 1943, six days before he died.
August 1948: An Intraoffice Reference Sheet noted there was no Report of Burial for Don or any unknown which may have been associated with Don. Also, he was not on the list of burials in Heligoland Civilian Cemetery (not far from where his plane went down) although three of those buried there were listed as unknowns. It would be easy to be critical of the effort made to find Don, but the sheer number of soldiers lost on all sides during WW2 made the job of identification and burial extremely difficult.
October 1948: Nathan received a letter from the Memorial Division. The letter stated that when a family has suffered the loss of two or more sons, the Department of the Army tries to coordinate the return of both remains to a final resting place in the United States. It continued that this would not be possible yet since Don’s remains had not been found. Nathan was asked to complete a “Request for Disposition of Remains” form for Ken so they would at least have that information if needed. The letter also offered to return Ken to the U.S. for interment in a national cemetery, noting it would be possible to reserve the adjoining grave site for Don.
January 1949: Five and a half years after Don’s
death and five years after Ken’s death, Nathan
received a letter confirming his phone
conversation wherein he agreed that Ken would
be laid to rest in the Ardennes American War
Cemetery (Neuville-en-Condroz) Plot B Row 44,
Grave 56, in Neupre Belgium, where Ken’s
remains are today. The adjoining grave site
was originally reserved for Don in case he would eventually be found, but that
site was forfeited when Don’s remains were pronounced unrecoverable.
IDPF PART 3 (PAGES 100-123) – DIVISION OF DON’S PROPERTY
Not quite a month after Don’s death, on August 23, 1943, a memo was sent from Captain Justin Smith, Executive Officer for the 337th Bomb Squadron to the Effects Quartermaster. The memo stated that Don’s personal effects were being “forwarded under separate cover.” It listed Lilla Gordoni c/o The Crillon Hotel in Chicago as the “nearest relative” and the “person to be notified in emergency.”
A letter labeled “78297M” was sent to Adele’s address on Leavitt Street in Chicago on June 27, 1944, when Don’s status was still MIA. The correspondence was written to try to find a close relative to keep Don’s property until he either returned or there was additional information about where he might be. The letter also asked about close relatives he may have, who he would want to store his property, if Adele would be willing to store his property, and would she return the property to him, his personal representative or the Army Effects office if need be. A copy of the envelope used to mail the letter was also in the file. The envelope revealed that on July 3, 1944, at 6:30 p.m., it had been stamped “Return to Writer Unclaimed – Moved Left No Address” by a Chicago Post Office. That’s because at that point in time, almost a year after Don died, Adele was back in Driggs, Idaho with her parents.
One month later, on July 29, 1944, a letter with the same reference number, “78297M,” was also sent to Lilla, Don’s mother. There is also a mostly blank page with the same date and reference number, but it only contains the words “his father.” The Army most likely sent all three letters trying to find a relative who could take possession of Don’s property.
The next correspondence in the file is from Lilla, dated July 31, 1944, only two days after “78297M” was sent to her. In her letter, she wrote, “I am very sure that my son would want his belongings stored with me and I have the storage space to keep them safely.” She also answered Captain Greenstein’s other questions. She told him that Don was married and “his wife has been ill and has been staying with her mother as they have no home of their own since they were married only three months before he left overseas.” But Lilla cautioned the Captain, “please don’t write her [Adele] at this time as it would only distress her, since her illness was a nervous breakdown.” However, she did give him Adele’s address and mother’s name in Idaho. Lilla optimistically noted that she “hopes his guitar has been kept safe for him. It was his most prized possession . . . I know that he will return to play his guitar and sing his songs for us, after this is over.”
In the end, Lilla agreed to store Don’s property as a “gratuitous bailee” which is a type of bailment in which the bailee receives no compensation. Lilla also agreed to return the property “to him, his personal representative, or the Army Effects Bureau upon request;” there is no specific mention of returning it to Adele. It is worth noting that Lilla signed the Receipt for Personal Property on September 9, 1944 as a “Bailee,” but on the Closing Statement from the Effects Quartermaster, dated May 26, 1944, three months earlier, she had already been labeled Beneficiary.
On September 2, 1944, the Quartermaster reminded Lilla that the forwarding of the property did not vest legal title to her. She was only to care for the items until the return of the owner, and if later the owner was “reported as a casualty . . . it will be necessary that the property be turned over to the person legally entitled to receive the same.” Lilla signed the receipt for the property one week later.
Exactly one month after Don’s property was sent to Lilla, Adele sent a letter to the Effects Quartermaster from Ogden, Utah. She explained that she had just received an official death notice for Don. She wrote, “please advise to whom and to what address the personal effects of the deceased were mailed” and “please advise if anyone other than I is designated on your records to receive his personal effects.”
On November 6, 1944, Captain Eckhardt wrote back to Adele that Don’s property had been “transmitted to his mother . . . inasmuch as he [Don] had previously designated her [his mother] officially as the bailee to receive his property for safe keeping.” Captain Eckhardt ended his letter to Adele, “the property was accepted by Mrs. Gordoni [Lilla] with the understanding that in the event her son was later reported a casualty the property would be turned over to the person legally entitled to receive it.” He suggested that Adele “contact your husband’s mother, and no doubt an arrangement can be made for an equitable distribution of your husband’s property.”
There was no form in the file in which Lilla was “designated officially” by Don to receive his property upon his death. In fact, the Battle Casualty Report listed Adele as the person to be notified (and who was notified) in case of emergency. Because Don and Adele were legally married, his property should have gone to her; the problem was, they couldn’t find Adele, and Lilla was ready and available to take his things.
It is not clear if a letter about Don’s property was ever sent to Adele at her parent’s address (the one Lilla gave them) – there isn’t a copy of such a letter in the file. Adele published a notice on June 7, 1945 in the Ogden Standard-Examiner newspaper inviting any of Don’s creditors to present their claims before August 8, 1945. That was the only detail I could find that connected Adele to anything that belonged to Don. The only property of Don’s that Duke had were eight vinyl-over-steel records from the 1940’s featuring Don singing with Phil Levant’s Orchestra.
Stateside Crew Picture
"Guest - Our New Gunner"
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I remember when my father died. As I mentioned before, he was in South Dakota at the time, and a long way from my siblings and me in Idaho. My brother Steve drove his truck back to South Dakota to attend the funeral and bring Dad’s belongings back. When Steve returned home, we all got together to look at what was in the truck. Although it was interesting to see what my dad had saved during his life, and even though I picked out some things to take home with me that day, none of it can ever replace the ache in my heart as well as the wish to see and talk to him one more time.
Lilla Gordoni married Maurice Grossman in the late 1940’s, and they lived in Atlantic City. She ended up divorcing Maurice and moving to Miami, Florida. Eventually, she married an artist named Ken DeBaun, continuing to reside in Miami during the late 50’s and 60’s.
Lilla died of a stroke in Lubbock, Texas on June 5, 1967. She was buried in Resthaven Memorial Park in Lubbock. The picture of her to the right was taken in 1910 at Atlantic City when she was fifteen years old.
EARLE STANDFORD GORDONI
After the war was over, Stan got married and moved to Miami, Florida. He had brain surgeries to remove pituitary tumors in 1952 and 1953. This caused him to develop epilepsy, and he had frequent grand mal seizures. As his condition deteriorated, his wife Beth told him that she could no longer handle taking care of him if he became disabled, so she divorced him in the late 1950’s.
Broken by the loss of his health and his marriage, Stan left his advertising job in Miami. He had been very successful, but it was a demanding position and the fatigue and unpredictable seizures took their toll.
In 1962, Stan moved to Lubbock, Texas to find a job as a radio announcer. Once there, he met a widow, Jo Ann Thompson Orwig. Jo Ann was a Special Education teacher and had three young daughters (one of her daughters is Sheryl Cozad, the Gordoni family historian). Stan married Jo Ann and adopted her children. In 1963, Stan and Jo Ann had one child together, a boy, who they lovingly named Don Gordoni (pictured to the right in the cowboy hat and below as a young adult) as a tribute to Stan’s oldest brother.
Stan was a great father, and his home was a happy place for all who grew up there. In the spirit of a house full of children lovingly being allowed to play, Don’s guitar was irreparably broken. But Stan never allowed a romantic view of war and no one in the family could watch war movies. He worked in television until tumors in his pituitary gland crushed his optic nerve, and he lost his vision. Stan became totally blind after a third craniotomy in 1966. He had another brain tumor and received radiation therapy in 1967. The tumor returned, and he had what would be his final brain surgery.
In the early 1970’s, Stan’s family moved to Ada, Oklahoma. Stan passed away on July 12, 1975 at the Veteran’s Center in Sulphur. Before his death, he hallucinated about two airmen on top of his house who he needed to rescue. As he was dying, Stan sang a song about his two brothers. Stan was buried near his parents in Lubbock, Texas.
Nathan died on March 17, 1964 in Lubbock, Texas at the age of 75. Before he died, Lilla stood over his bed, spoke to him, and held his hand tenderly.
ELLISON/SMITH AND CRAIG AND MARK ELLISON
On September 29, 1984, at age 67, Adel died from throat cancer and was buried at the Cache Clawson Cemetery in Tetonia, Idaho. Her son Craig, who was gay, died in Los Angeles from AIDS on April 28, 1986 at the age of 35. Craig was cremated, and per his request, his ashes were spread on his mother’s grave. Adele’s other son, Mark, married a girl from Thailand and continues to live there. According to more than one relative I talked to, Mark will never return to the U.S.
DON GORDONI AND SHERYL COZAD
I started looking for a living relative of Don Gordoni in 2017, not even knowing if one existed. Since I knew the family was Jewish and that Lillian had lived in Chicago, I had a wild idea of writing to all the Synagogues in Chicago to see if there was a Gordoni relative who was still attending one of them. I found out there are 59 Synagogues in the City of Chicago, so I abandoned that idea.
Next, in a moment of desperation, I made up an email address for a phantom relative. I sent off a message inquiring about Don and his family, but of course, I got no reply.
Finally, in August of 2017, I did what any junior high student would have told me to do in the first place: I Googled “Don Gordoni” and suddenly, there he was on LinkedIn. He looked very young and worked as a media producer (which fit the family profile). I soon discovered that he was on all the same social media sites I was on. I contacted him through LinkedIn.
I spoke with Don Gordoni on the phone for the first time on August 10, 2017, exactly seventy-four years and thirteen days after my father probably talked to his uncle on the morning of that fateful mission. I cried when I heard his voice, but it remains the most cosmic thing that has ever happened to me in my entire life, and I will never forget it.
Don and his sister Sheryl, Stan’s children, currently reside in Oklahoma. I met them there on September 15, 2017. Don has produced weekly Christian television programs for many years. He has fond memories of his grandfather Nathan getting him up in the mornings and reading books all the time. Sheryl supplied the family history as well as many of the photos included. They are the survivors, and I appreciate all their assistance in the truthful telling of their family’s story.
The story of Don and Adele could not have been told without the help of Don Gordoni and Sheryl Cozard, Don’s nephew and niece, and Duke and Doris Richards, Adele’s son and daughter-in-law. I want to thank all of them for gathering up the sometimes-painful memories of their past and allowing them to see the light of day once again.
I also wish to thank everyone who helped me find my way on this long and winding road: Kristof De Geyter, Saundra Duke, Jeff Hastings, Trudi Kaufman, Joan Calderwood, and especially, my son Casey and my daughter Jessi
And finally, to the Gordoni family and the families of over fifty million others killed during WW2, a debt is owed to remember their loved ones and forever honor the sacrifice that was made.