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Sunday morning

Bruce Gordon
An eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the former KGV schoolboy and
fighter pilot tells Paul Letters how he may have thwarted a Soviet strike on China.
unloaded or strafing in support of ground
troops. We also hit targets over the
border, in Cambodia.

MY LIFE

N

O SAFE HAVEN I was born in
1934 in the Philippines, where
my father worked for the Kodak
photography company. In 1939, as war
began in Europe and Japanese aggression
swept through China, my parents sought
a safe haven: we relocated to Hawaii. One
Sunday morning, as a seven-year-old, I
was on the beach near Honolulu with my
brother, shooting crabs with our BB guns,
when we were called home: the Japanese
were attacking Pearl Harbor. Smoke
billowed up from the naval base and I
watched in fascination as the US Army
dug in a machine gun nest at the treeline
rimming our beach. Dad filled bags with
sand and fashioned a shelter for us kids
under the laundry sink. On Christmas
Day, 1941, we packed up and left Hawaii
on the first convoy out of Pearl Harbor
after the attack. We voyaged in a convoy,
zigzagging a course in the hope of avoiding Japanese submarines. Our ship was
overcrowded; bunk beds filled the swimming pool. I only had a light Aloha shirt
and short pants, no coat. I was shivering
with cold on New Year’s Eve, as we sailed
under the Golden Gate Bridge into San
Francisco. But we had made it unscathed.
After we reached mainland America
I was twice hospitalised, and on both
occasions I overheard nurses say I was
dying – once with pneumonia and then
with liver disease. But, again, I made it.
Dad soon returned to Hawaii for work
and we joined him in April 1944, by which
time victory against the Japanese looked
likely. A couple of years after the war,
Dad was assigned to Kodak China, and
we went to live in Hong Kong.
AN AMERICAN IN KOWLOON From
1947 to 49, I attended King George V
School, in Kowloon. We lived at 48 Ho
Man Tin Hill Road, high on a hill beside
a cemetery. The house had been used as a
Japanese headquarters during the war. As
an American in a British school, I experienced the constant competition between
the British, who saw us as upstart coloni-

May 1, 2016 Post Magazine

als, and the Americans, who thought the
British backward. While walking on the
beach one day, I found a Japanese hand
grenade in the sand, with the pin still in
it. I was afraid to touch it. There were
some British soldiers lounging on the
beach, so I told them about the grenade.
One of them picked it up and hurled it
into the ocean – we held our breath …
and the grenade just sank to the bottom.
JET FEVER Britain’s Royal Air Force
sent a Vampire jet fighter to Hong Kong –
it was the first jet plane that we had ever
seen, and it flew all over the city at low
altitude and high speed. It looked so
beautiful – I knew then that I wanted
to be a jet fighter pilot. Then the US
Navy anchored an aircraft carrier in the
harbour. American citizens were invited
aboard and given tours of the ship. Aged
13, I got to sit in the cockpit of a real
fighter plane on an active aircraft carrier.

Our family left Hong Kong in June 1949,
as the Chinese civil war approached its
end. Perhaps we were encouraged away
by the Communist advance: nobody knew
if their army would stop at the border
with Hong Kong.
THE WILD BLUE YONDER I joined
the US Air Force reserves while studying
geopolitics at Tufts University [in
Massachusetts]. In 1958, I married my
college girlfriend, Midge Canty, and 58
years, three children and six grandchildren later we’re still going strong. In a
20-year career in the USAF, beginning
in 1956, I faced everything from North
Korean MiGs to suspected UFOs – one
was a balloon with a gondola dangling
from it at over 40,000 feet. And I completed 132 combat missions during the
Vietnam war. A mission in Vietnam
could involve dropping napalm on enemy
barges as military supplies were being

A TIME OF MADNESS In 1969, when
the USSR fought a border conflict with
China, I was based in Osan, South Korea.
I was scrambled in my F-106 fighter
against a Russian warplane, but it turned
back toward Vladivostok. Then I looked
down and saw a fleet of seven warships
lying off the coast of North Korea – they
were Russian. I buzzed the ships to see
what was going on. I watched what
appeared to be a fishing boat pulling
away from the Russian ships at high
speed. Fishing boats don’t travel at high
speed, so, it seemed to me, it had to be
a camouflaged North Korean military
vessel. The crew of the largest Soviet
warship lined the rail on the deck, as if
having just honoured a departing guest
from the North Korean boat. Then the
warship turned its main battery of guns
onto me: I left rapidly.
Unknown to me at the time, the Soviet
Union was preparing a strike on Chinese
nuclear facilities. In an incredible coincidence, President Nixon decided to scare
Russia into backing off its supporting of
North Vietnam in the Vietnam war. At
that exact time, he called a nuclear alert –
kept secret from the public but leaked to
the Russians – to tell Moscow that he was
so “mad” about their support for North
Vietnam that he was prepared to use
nuclear weapons. Much later, it became
dubbed the “Madman Nuclear Alert”.
My buzzing of the Russian fleet at that
critical moment may well have been seen
by the Russians as a direct warning from
the president of the United States not to
strike China – while in reality I was acting
on my curiosity, and got thoroughly
chastised for it.
FLYING ON I’m still passionate about
flying. Since retiring to Kentucky, I’ve
published a book, called The Spirit of
Attack, about the experiences of myself
and fellow American fighter pilots. My
curiosity concerning all things military
began when I was a boy in Hawaii and
Hong Kong, and it’s still with me today.

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