GORDON'S STORY: THE WAR AND PEACE LEGACY
We arrive at the New Millennium prosperous and free, however, not without the personal sacrifices and legacy of those who paid the price. Each generation of our military defends our way of life and liberty; they pass the torch of freedom forward to the present. The World War II Generation contributed an important legacy; many paid the ultimate price for freedom. This is the story of the bomber crew Dogbreath, one man's survival, and his selfless service to family, community and nation.
SELFLESS SERVICE IN WAR
It was the end of winter and despair; it was the beginning of spring
and hope. It was TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH, not the movie; it was 1944 over war
torn Europe. Anti-aircraft fire (flak) and swarms of Luftwaffe fighters
brought the stark reality of war to the aircrew of “ DogBreath” of the
452nd Bombardment Group. German fighter pilots attacked Eighth
Air Force bomber formations, the fighting building to a crescendo in the
blue skies. The mission: attack a Messerschhmitt factory in Posen, Poland.
German defenses threw up a heavy barrage of eighty-eight millimeter flak
and German fighters! S/Sgt. Gordon A. Piland; flying in a B-17G bomber,
better known as the “Flying Fortress” was in the middle of this air war
with the crew members of “DogBreath.” Bomber crews flying through a “zone
of death” and wall of steel, were now confronted by a hornet's nest of
cannon firing Focke Wulf 190s and Bf 109s forming up to attack their bomber
Just as the formation was nearing its objective, about 125 to 150
enemy aircraft hit the formation blazing away with their machineguns and
20-mm cannon fire. A German fighter plane came so
close to “DogBreath” that Sergeant Piland could see the facial features
of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 pilot. The enemy was less than 100 yards
distant! Gordon manned “DogBreath's” top turret with its twin fifty-caliber
machineguns, sighted on the German fighter, and clobbered the “bandit.”
Gordon kept on firing, until pieces of metal started flying off the wing
of the enemy fighter and smoke poured from the engine. The “peppered” enemy
plane, was raked nose to tail, forcing the pilot to bail out as the ship
went into a tailspin (at the post-mission interrogation, S/Sgt. Piland
was elated to have intelligence determine he shot down the group leader).
German forces were determined to stop the Eighth Air Force at all costs.
German fighter planes attacked the formation, throwing everything at them,
including the kitchen sink. They really wanted to defeat this attack on
their industrial base at all costs. Sergeant Piland's B-17G was “tooling-up”
a position, and just as the German made his 'pass' and Gordon chalked-up his victory, another
fighter fell out of the sky towards them. This Bf 109 attacked like a raven on prey and
swooped down on “DogBreath.” The German fighter was flying only ten
feet over Piland's top gunner position; the port machineguns shredded the plane.
Flying pieces of metal from the enemy aircraft came close to acting as
a fallen guillotine, almost taking the sergeant's head off on that eventful
day in the sky.
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers on their way to pound German targets. Flying at altitudes well over 25,000 feet, the hot engine exhaust exiting the turbosuperchargers created the starkly visible contrails, which made it especially easy for the Luftwaffe fighters to not only spot the formations, but to quickly identify the various combat boxes.
On the return flight in the B-17 Flying Fortress, at high altitudes
and freezing temperatures, German defensive fire threw up a heavy barrage
of jagged metal. One large piece pierced the glass dome underneath
the B-17 and cut the wiring connections of S/Sgt. Ronald B. Clark's electrically
heated suit, rendering it inoperative and life threatening.
The pilot ordered the sergeant to come up from his gun position to repair the damage but return if enemy fighters were sighted. S/Sgt Clark followed his orders, removed his heated suit and shoes and started to make his maintenance checks. During the course of the operation, his right foot started to feel numb. “Fighters attacking from the nose,” yelled the pilot over the interphone system. S/Sgt Clark in his stocking feet, climbed back into the ball turret, forgetting about the numb foot.
An hour later, when the attack ended S/Sgt. Clark pulled himself out of the gunner position, with extreme pain in his frostbitten foot. S/Sgt. Piland knew just what to do. He removed all of his outer clothing from the waist up, had Sgt. Clark lie down on the floor and placed the gunner's swollen foot under his armpit. Flying at reduced altitude for three hours until the pilot landed at home base; they were stretched out on the floor of the radio compartment. This was one of the most important moments of the mission; however, the flight physician said that S/Sgt Piland's quick thinking and decisive action saved Clark's frostbitten foot from certain amputation. The two men remained friends for life.
For his heroic efforts, Gordon was awarded the Distinguished Flying
Cross and Air Medal and combat service medals with four Oak Leaf Clusters
for participation in bomber combat operations over enemy territory in Europe.
Gordon was mobilized during the Korean War and qualified for the National
Defense Medal. Finally, Gordon was awarded his eighth medal in 1981.
TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH was not just a film and a heroic tale about a war; this was a chapter in Gordon's life. It took thirty years to pull the whole story out of him.
His generation did not like to talk about the war. He stood like a sentry over his war experiences; only a privileged few heard of his brushes with death. Gordon did not love war and just did his duty.
After the wedding of Gordon's daughter during a brief reception a
rugged middle-aged man with gray side burns pulled the groom aside and
stated, “You don't know me from Adam, but I drove here from Michigan
to be here for your wedding. I am here because Gordon and I served
together during World War II and he saved my life! I owe my
life to Gordon. No man should be that indebted to another; I could
never pay him back. My name is Roland B. Clark. Gordon and
I have been friends for many years.” The new son-in-law responded, “I have
known him for a year and had no idea that he served in the military.”
After ten years of marriage to his daughter, Gordon began to provide
brief insights into his experiences and feelings about the war. Upon returning
from an active duty tour, his son-in-law walked into his living room, wearing
an Army Reserve uniform. Gordon paused for moment, as if in a different
place and time. A silence fell over him; Gordon looked through the window
at the blue sky, and started talking about a great captain he knew during
the war. Gordon said, “The Captain was killed by enemy anti-aircraft
fire during a pre-invasion blow against Cherbourg, France. We feared the
eighty-eight steel shrapnel more than the fighter planes.”
The conversation continued, “ We were bombing the German war machine from above and my brother was part of the ground invasion on the beaches of Normandy. My brother, Haslette, is still serving as a Captain in the National Guard… Gordon said softly, we were both lucky to come back alive; many were not so fortunate.”
Gordon then jumped to his feet and went to the back bedroom. He pulled
a clothing garment bag from a small closet. He modestly retrieved an aviator
leather jacket. His name “Piland” and the name of the plane, “DogBreath”
was painted on the jacket. The liberty bell, eagle and the American flag
on one side, on the other side an Iron Cross indicating the fighter plane
he shot down, and twenty-five bombing missions. On the back of the jacket
was a hand painted beautiful young woman with long red hair. This was a
special moment for Gordon and his son-in-law; this was a very private part
of his life.
Years went by and once again, he would take his son-in-law for a journey into his past. In a small box, he kept seven military ribbons and medals from the war. The box also held an old whistle that he wore on his fight jacket. Sergeant Piland's whistle would be necessary in case his B-17 “flying coffin” crashed and he survived. He could signal others where he could be located.
Moving cautiously through the tattered photographs of Gordon and
his crewmembers, the son-in-law scrutinized all of the old photographs.
These were not middle-aged men, but boys in their prime. The torn orders
revealed that Gordon had volunteered for additional bombing missions. The
casualty rate was extremely high for twenty-five missions, but few survived
thirty; he was one of the few to make it home. “DogBreath's” battle damage
was extremely high, according to Eighth Air Force records. At the end of his
tour of duty in 1944, Eighth Air Force issued him a Lucky Bastard Club
SELFLESS COMMUNITY SERVICE
1st/Lt. Authur Miller, Navigator.
Gordon was a fighter all of his life. He kept his spirits high and always had a smile on his face in the midst of adversity. Living through the Great Depression and World War II prepared him for the tough times. Gordon would face adversity many times in his life. He suffered a major heart attack in his early fifties, faced three open-heart surgeries, three minor procedures and a heart pace maker implantation over the next twenty-five years. Gordon's church and community service continued to play a significant role in his life in spite of repeated hospitalizations.
At the age of seventy-six after all he had endured, Gordon completed
a community college program with honors. He volunteered to help others
in the Academic Support Center and was one of the most popular students
on campus. Gordon finally made graduation; it was a happy day for Gordon
and family. He beamed and smiled all day; his lifetime goal realized.
S/Sgt. Fred B. Hern, Right Waist Gunner (borrowed Clark's jacket for the photograph).
Gordon's granddaughter flew in from Wisconsin to attend the church
service, with her new son, Gordon's great grandson. Shane was just four
weeks old. Three years earlier, Gordon drove from Richmond to Pennsylvania
for the birth of his first great- grandson, Scott. There had been a snowstorm;
the trip was very dangerous, but he was not about to miss that experience.
Gordon's heart attack was the only thing that prevented him from being
there for the second birth.
PRESERVING THE LEGACY
The memorial service started in the morning and the church was filled
to capacity with people from Gordon's life. The highest point of the service
was when his granddaughter walked up to the lectern. The sun shined through
the widows that lined the sanctuary and formed an aura around her. The
mixture of sun light and her golden hair gave her an angel like quality.
She stood alone, yet not frightened before the large congregation. Her voice was soft and determined to speak for grandfather. She said, “My Papa was there for me at every stage of my life; he was there every day for me. When he could not be there, he called me on the telephone; I am going to miss him and never forget him!” Gordon is still with us, forever in our hearts and lives on through the legacy of his daughter, granddaughter and great-grandsons.
The legacy continues through the contributions he made to his family, church, community and nation. There are many veterans like Gordon across the United States of America, each veteran with his or her own story and unique legacy. They defended the Nation and after the war, sustained the legacy. There must be a special place of honor in heaven for those who served so well.
THOMAS E. BAKER
Lt. Col. MP USAR (Ret.)
University of Scranton