I once had the honor to talk to Mr. Ellis “Pete” Gordon about his life before he became “Mr. Pete.”
There was a project going on in my neighborhood that consisted of three brothers and a cousin re-screening their mama’s back porch. The Gordon brothers, Lewis (who we all call Sambo), Gary and Donald, and their cousin, Richard, spent a Saturday replacing some rotten two by fours and a rusty screen when the Dogs were playing Georgia Tech for bragging rights. I stopped by to point out everything they were doing wrong and to offer my expertise on screening.
Mr. Pete was in another part of the yard raking up acorns and oak leaves. He was the only one in the vicinity who looked like he knew exactly what he was doing. I walked over and said hello. “Have you ever seen so many acorns in your life?” he asked me. “I’m 88 years old and I don’t ever remember seeing this many.” I knew that if he’d never seen that many, I surely hadn’t. After a few conversational exchanges, I asked Mr. Pete, “What do you think about all these wars we’re fooling with around the world?” He turned to me and said, “Huh?”
“Were you ever in the military?” I asked. He looked at me and with a forlorn look in his eyes started to talk. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my iPhone and turned on the recorder because I didn’t want to miss any part of what he was about to say. For the next hour, Mr. Pete’s story simply washed me away. Here’s what he shared with me:
“Me and my brother, Elton, joined the Army at the same time. I was 16 years old. We had to do something because when you’re a teenage boy from Ludowici and it’s 1940, the job market in Long County was pretty scarce. You got to do something if you want to eat. We were stationed at Camp Stewart so we got to go home pretty regular as long as it didn’t interfere with duty, because we were only 20 miles from the house. My mama could cook better than the mess sergeant, so we went home pretty much when we wanted to — every weekend and several times during the week. This was a good deal I had signed up for as far as I could tell.”
Mr. Pete furrowed his brow and I could feel him drifting back to a time I can’t even imagine.
“I had already been in the Army for a year when we got the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and Camp Stewart had been shut down. All the boys who were outside the gates were let back in and all the boys who were inside the gate were forbidden to go back out. ... In less than a week, me and my brother and the rest of my Army buddies were on a train headed to Philadelphia. After three days on the train, we stopped in Fort Dix, N.J. ...
“There was 13 sets of brothers on the train. One set was the Deloach boys, Harold, Barney and Tootsie. When we came back, Harold married my sister. We were all on that train headed for who knows where and who knows why. When you’re a 16-year-old boy from Ludowici, Fort Dix, N.J. may as well be Jupiter or Mars.”
I stood there hypnotized, hanging on every word Mr. Pete said.
“We were put aboard the Normandy in New York Harbor for transport along with all of our equipment. A massive fire broke out on the ship, and all of our big guns were destroyed. We had been trained on 40 millimeter guns that shoot a projectile about that big around.” He made a circle with his forefinger and his thumb that was about the size of a tennis ball. “That didn’t slow the process down. We were reassigned to the Queen Mary and shipped out. We trained on the 50-caliber machine gun all the while on our destination to only God knew where. Forty days and 40 nights later, we wound up in Australia — clean on the other side of this earth. ... We stayed there for three weeks and then we were shipped out to New Guinea. ...When we came up to the beach there was so many dead Japanese floating in the surf that we had to disperse a group of men to push them out of the way so we could get our landing craft in to unload the troops. I had just turned 17 years old, and this was something that I just couldn’t fathom. I had never seen nothing like this in Ludowici. About the time we hit the beach, the first wave of Japanese zeroes came at us. We were loaded up under intense machine-gun fire and dispatched to the air drone where we temporarily stopped them from landing by rolling 55 gallon drums of gas onto the landing strip. We were of a mind that if they try to land here, they are going to be in for a surprise they hadn’t counted on.”
I couldn’t help but ask, “Were you afraid?” I was not prepared for his answer.
“No, I was too ignorant of the situation to be scared,” he said. “I was a 17-year-old boy from Ludowici. I didn’t know what scared meant.”
Mr. Pete took a breath, wiped off his chin with the back of his hand and said, “But I soon found out. ... I didn’t get scared until the bombers started coming.”
“How often did they bomb you?” I asked.
“Every morning that I was there, and I was there for what seemed like an eternity,” Mr. Pete said. “Me and my brother stayed in New Guinea for three years and we never lost a man. ...”
“Boy, you were lucky,” I told him.
“No,” he said. “We were blessed. Our company commander was a man named Col. Frazier and he was a very religious man. Every night he would go up to his tent and, in a little foxhole he had dug, dedicate a portion of his day to prayer.
“I went to him one day and said, ‘Colonel, I just received word that my daddy is sick and one of us, either me or my brother, Elton, needs to go home to Ludowici, even if it’s only for a little while. I’m not trying to get out of duty. I just need to see my daddy while I still can. If there’s any way you can turn one of us loose, I’d sure appreciate it. Me and Elton have been here for three years and in the case of brothers serving in the war, one or the other is usually sent stateside.’
“He told me to go get my gear and my brother, and we were with the next group headed to San Francisco, Calif. I didn’t even know where that was, but I knew it was better than where I was at the time. From San Francisco we took a train to Fort McPherson in Atlanta. As soon as we got to Fort McPherson, Elton was put in the hospital for an abscess tooth. ... I came on back to Ludowici to check on daddy. Elton came on back when the doctors pulled the tooth and got the infection out of his mouth.
“I was back in Camp Stewart and discharged in 1945,” he said. “Oh, and to answer your question, yes, I was in the military, and I did all I could to help out.”
I am honored to have been able to talk with Mr. Pete Gordon. After all, the “greatest generation” is rapidly approaching the finish line.
Mr. Pete did more by the time he was 20 years old than most men do their entire lives.
Before retiring from the department of transportation, Mr. Pete went on to be a primary player in the building of I-95 from the South Carolina line to the Florida line. Along with his beautiful wife, Dot, he raised a wonderful family, Sambo, Gary, Donald and Marsha, who I am proud to call my friends.
Everybody needs a hero. Mr. Pete Gordon is mine.