Tuesdays with Vaughn

Three years ago, new Seneca Drive resident John Baldridge was curious about his neighbor, Vaughn Gordy. He would often see Gordy standing out in his yard, smoking a pipe, but he never responded to Baldridge’s attempts at conversation. Aloof? Maybe he just valued his privacy?

A short while later, Baldridge was at a party, and he started a conversation with someone standard stuff: What do you do (marketing and communications); where do you live (Mt. Lebanon). No kidding? I grew up there. What street? Seneca? Me too! Where on Seneca? I grew up next door!

Baldridge was talking with Gordy’s son, Steve, who informed him that Vaughn was a great guy but a little hard of hearing, so he most likely never even heard Baldridge. So he trooped over, knocked on Gordy’s door and got to know him well.

“I’m glad I persisted on meeting Vaughn. He’s become an invaluable part of my family. He even taught my son how to throw a baseball,” says Baldridge. He began a long series of conversations, every Tuesday for at least 45 minutes or an hour with the 95-year-old, who said he had been meaning to write his memoirs, but “never learned how to type.”

Baldridge set Gordy up with StoryCorps, an oral history project. Baldridge says  he was, “excited by the opportunity to help Vaughn share his experiences with the next generation.” Over the past year and a half, Gordy, who has since moved to the Southwestern Veterans’ Center on Highland Drive in Pittsburgh, has related to Baldridge several chapters of his fascinating personal history, mostly concerning his service as a B-24 navigator with the 459th Bomber Group in Italy in World War II.

Gordy flew 50 bombing missions. On his 45th, his plane was riddled with bullets in the gas tank and quickly lost fuel, forcing the crew to ditch the plane in the Adriatic Sea.

“I was knocked out temporarily, and when I came to I found myself with water up to my neck and the plane was sinking fast,” he says.

All of the crew except Gordy and a tail gunner escaped the plane safely and were in rubber rafts. The tail gunner had been killed.

“I didn’t know if I was going to make it out. The only thing I could see to do, there was an astrodome above my head (used for nighttime celestial navigation) that I tried to punch out, but couldn’t. I thought, ‘Is this it? Is this the end?’ I couldn’t move, I was desperate. As the water continued to rise,  and I was faced with drowning, the astrodome popped open.

“It turned out that the engineer of the craft came back, because he knew where I would possibly be, and he got on top of the ship that was sinking fast, and I saw daylight, and struggled to get out.” By the time Gordy got into the rubber raft, the plane had disappeared.

“That was my moment of truth.”

After the crew was rescued, Gordy had the opportunity to go home, but he decided to stick with his crew and finish out the 50 missions.

After he completed his tour, Gordy was sent to an air base near Houston, where he ran into a couple of familiar faces: Duncan Brown, Ed Ryan and Joe Hardy, all Mt. Lebanon grads who were also Air Corps navigators.

When Gordy returned to Mt. Lebanon, Ryan custom-built a “Ryan home” for him and his wife, June, who died in 2010, and they raised Steve and his brother, Vaughn, there and became active members of the community. Gordy met his wife while he was stationed in Sacramento, all because the guy she was supposed to be out with that night got himself restricted to base and stood her up. But that’s another story. You can hear more of Gordy’s stories at www.storycorps.me/interviews/e-vaughn-gordy-jr/.