Ken Gordoni Don Gordoni
In 2010, while using the book Snetterton Falcons for research, I discovered the World War 2 connection between my father Al Neff and Don Gordoni (SF is a compilation of the 96th Bomb Group’s participation in that war.) Before then, I had already heard a couple of things from my brother Steve about Don, but when I read the following from SF, it catapulted me into a need-to-know mindset. Here is what I found in the book that day:
"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. He’d sing everybody in the hut to sleep on many nights or after missions,’ Neff remembered. 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,’ he wrote 46 years later. ‘I am close to tears even today when I think about Don and the way he died.’”
Fast forward to 2023. My daughter wants to make a trip to Paris. Sounds good to me so we make our plans. At some point after that, I realize that Don and his brother Ken (who was also killed in WW2) are buried in separate cemeteries in Belgium, a fairly short train ride from France. Their graves are some of the many that are tended to by Kristof Degeyter who lives in Belgium. Kristof is a friend of mine who I have talked to on many occasions about the Gordoni brothers. Almost immediately I decided that come hell or high-water Jessi and I would make the trip to Belgium to see their final resting places and pay our respects.
I arranged the trip with Kristof before we left the states. He is a kind and giving person and agreed to take us to the cemeteries. The day we went was beautiful – sunny and warm. First, we went to Ken’s grave at the Ardennes American War Cemetery (Neuville-en-Condroz) Plot B Row 44, Grave 56, in Neupre Belgium (see picture below). The grave site adjoining Ken was originally reserved for Don in case he would eventually be found, but that was forfeited when Don’s remains were pronounced unrecoverable.
Next, we went to Don’s grave. Since his remains were never recovered, his name is on the Walls of the Missing in Margraten, The Netherlands. In my heart, I wished that Don’s body had been found – that at least there would have been something there that had been tied to him personally, but that was not to be. As I thought it through, I realized it’s not the body that’s important after one dies but what the person has done during his life that matters, and Don had certainly made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us. One interesting addition here was the inclusion of the current living Don Gordoni (a nephew) on the phone from Oklahoma.
For me, this was a very emotional day. It had been one thing to write their stories but ended up being quite another to experience it in real life. In addition to their graves, I also saw the rows upon rows of American soldiers buried in Belgium – only a small part of the many who are buried all across Europe and other spots around the world. To have witnessed all of this in person is something I will never forget – it has changed me in a fundamental way that I could never imagine. A big thank you to Kristof for taking us to these sacred places and for everything he does to help keep the memories of these brave soldiers alive.
Also, I would like to thank the people of Belgium for everything they do to remember and pay tribute to known and unknown World War II soldiers from the U.S. and all parts of the world. I wonder how history might have changed had they not been there to document the truth.