First American WWII POW Escapee Dies
Nov. 16, 2006
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ Lee ``Shorty'' Gordon, believed to be the first American prisoner of war to escape from a German camp during World War II, has died. He was 84.
Gordon died Tuesday of complications from recent stomach and kidney surgery at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Menlo Park, according to his daughter, Cherie Gordon.
Gordon, who made two failed escape attempts from Stalag VIIA _ including one on a bicycle while yelling the only German he knew, ``Heil, Hitler'' _ succeeded on Oct. 13, 1943, according to historian Robert C. Doyle.
``Shorty was a committed natural escaper,'' Doyle said. ``There was nothing that was going to keep that man in that camp.''
The Southern California native was serving as a ball turret gunner with the Army Air Corps' 305th Bomb Group when his B-17 was shot down over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, on Feb. 26, 1943. He survived the parachute landing, but was quickly captured by German troops, his daughter said.
After two failed escape attempts, Gordon tried again, trading identification tags with an Australian POW to gain access to the outdoor work area of the Moosburg camp where he bribed guards with coffee and cigarettes and hid in a bathroom stall until dark. He then hopped a fence when a guard's back was turned and walked out of the camp, Doyle said.
Gordon rode freight trains to France, where he made contact with a Resistance group that helped him reunite with the Allied forces.
He told the story of walking into a French cafe in ``Escape From a Living Hell,'' a 2000 History Channel documentary: ``The waitress walked up to me. I looked at her and I said, 'I'm an American.'''
More than a year later, on Feb. 27, 1944, Gordon arrived safely in England and became the first American prisoner to successfully escape, according to Doyle, who met Gordon in the late 1990s and wrote about him and other escapees in his book, ``A Prisoner's Duty.'' Doyle now teaches history at Franciscan University in Ohio.
Gordon, a short, but cocky and brash man, appreciated the risks French civilians took to help him, even more than 50 years later when he told the story to Terrence Russell, who met Gordon at a POW reunion in 1997.
Russell recalled Gordon describing a French woman giving him the last piece of bread and jam in her cupboard.
``She had a young child. It was very clear in Shorty's mind that he was taking the last morsel of food out of that child's mouth,'' Russell said. ``He grabbed his chest and became very emotional and cried, years after the fact.''
When Gordon returned to the U.S., he became a minor celebrity, awarded the Silver Star medal and sent around the country on a lecture circuit to boost morale and sell war bonds, his daughter said.
He owned a car dealership in Southern California before rejoining the military, where he served as a flight engineer in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Gordon and his wife, Betty, later moved to Australia, where he worked in stocks and land development, Cherie Gordon said. After his wife died in 1991, he moved back to the U.S. and had been living at the VA hospital for the past five years, she said.
Associated Press writer Louise Chu contributed to this report.