Editor's Note: Kingsburg resident and local history buff Michael Dunn is writing a series of articles about the experiences of military veterans from the Kingsburg and Selma area. The series will continue through the week of Veterans Day.
Scotty was raised in Kingsburg during the 1920s and 1930s by his widowed mother, Anna Scott, who lost her husband two months before Gordon was born. On his 18th birthday, Gordon enlisted in the U.S. Navy where he served for six years, advancing in rank from Seaman to Chief Petty Officer.
Scotty describes an idyllic life growing up in Kingsburg. He and his friends played street hockey using a tin-can and played baseball in a vacant lot. All of the boys learned to work hard at an early age. During the Great Depression, Scotty worked the peach orchards and shined shoes for 10 cents outside the Club Cigar store and Mr. Bertsch’s barbershop.
In the summer of 1940, right after his graduation from Kingsburg High School, Scotty was visiting relatives in San Francisco when a Navy recruiter assured him his best opportunity for becoming a pilot would be to enlist in the U.S. Navy. Scotty enlisted, on July 24, 1940, he was just 18-years-old, with a promise that there would be “no problem” getting into a pilot training program. Just like that, Scotty was on his way to the Naval Training Center in San Diego, where the adventure began. The unfortunate reality, not conveyed by the recruiter, was that it was rare that anyone was able to transfer from the fleet to flight school. As a member of the V-1 Division, Scotty’s primary duty was to operate and maintain the arresting gear that secured planes when they landed on the carrier’s deck; a critical role aboard an Aircraft Carrier that undoubtedly impacted the lives of thousands of pilots over the course of his naval career.
One might say, Gordon Scott, is a Swede with the luck of the Irish. By November 1940 Gordon had completed basic and advanced training in San Diego and was assigned to the USS Arizona… the same ship that now sits on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. After sailing on the Arizona for about a month, he was transferred to the USS Lexington and homeported in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During the next nine months, Scotty would experience, first hand, the inherent risks of life aboard an aircraft carrier. Landing on a carrier is often referred to as “a controlled crash landing”. On two occasions before the war started, Scotty found himself the unintended target of out-of-control aircraft.
In 1941, while home on leave, a friend asked him to play mixed-doubles tennis with two attractive girls. What sailor ever turned down an opportunity to spend time with a beautiful girl? Naturally, Scotty accepted the invitation. He remembered Dorothy Jean Danielson as a high school freshman when he was a senior. He had even played on the same football team with her brother, Darrell. Dorothy and Scotty hit it off and began to write one another after he left for Pearl Harbor. Soon their affection grew stronger as it became clear this was the girl Scotty wanted to marry. Dorothy’s father, Fred Danielson, was not as impressed with Scotty as was his daughter. Fred Danielson was a successful businessman and leader in the community with a daughter who had plans to attend UC Santa Barbara. On the other hand, Scotty was a sailor who would be at sea for at least a year, with no prospects beyond the navy.
On December 6, 1941, the Lexington was tasked with delivering Marine aircraft to reinforce Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As Scotty and the crew departed Pearl Harbor, the USS Utah took the vacated berth opposite the USS Arizona at Ford Island. Had the Lexington been in port on December 7th, 1941, Scotty’s naval career, like that of over 1,200 men aboard the Utah and Arizona, would have ended tragically.
When they were notified by radio of the surprise attack, the crew prepared for war. They immediately launched search planes to hunt for the Japanese fleet, and at mid-morning headed south to conduct a search southwest of Oahu until returning to Pearl Harbor. As Scotty later acknowledged, “it was very fortunate that we didn’t find the enemy fleet since we would have been severely outnumbered and surely would have been sunk”. Once again the luck of the Irish smiled on the feisty Swede from Kingsburg.
While most of us can recall seeing black and white photos of the carnage of that day, Scotty saw its aftermath in living color as they returned to port on December 11, 1941. “It was unbelievable to see the destruction! We just couldn’t believe it. I was almost sick with despair, followed by anger. Oil on the water, sunken and listing ships all over. We refueled, re-provisioned and spent the next 90+ days or more looking for the Japanese fleet.”
On February 16, 1942, the Lexington was attacked by two waves of enemy aircraft, nine planes to a wave. The carrier's own combat air patrol and anti-aircraft fire shot down 17 of the attackers. From his vantage point on the flight deck, Scotty could watch the approaching enemy planes drop their bombs and torpedoes. “The crew would erupt in cheers each time one of the Japanese planes were hit by the ship’s anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the sea.”, Scotty recalled. One of the attackers managed to drop a torpedo headed directly for the Lexington. Scotty recalled, “The Captain turned the ship in the direction of the oncoming torpedo. As a result, the torpedo thudded along the side but did no damage to the ship. We were deep into enemy territory and it’s a little scary when you see twin-engine bombers approaching. So we turned around and high-tailed it out of there.” This would not be the last time Scotty would stand face-to-face with death and wonder how he managed to survive. Before the war was over, he would narrowly miss certain death or catastrophic injury on at least five more occasions.
The most horrific event occurred in the Coral Sea on May 7 and 8, 1942 when the American and Japanese fleets spotted one another. The Lexington's air group sunk one Japanese carrier and damaged a second. It was a victory for the United States, but at a high cost. Scotty gave this first-hand account, “The enemy planes swarmed into sight, and immediately our anti-aircraft batteries went into action. There must have been 60 or 70 of them; mostly dive bombers and torpedo planes. Our gunners shot down lots of them as they flew around the Lexington. I saw one plane, all ablaze, fly right past our ship and crash into the water. It exploded, as most of them did, upon hitting the water. It was interesting to watch the bombs drop. They came from different heights, but you could easily see them dropping. They all looked as if they were falling on me, but they didn’t. Most of them fell into the sea. We were hit a couple of times. Once on the stack near where I was standing. The second bomb went through the flight deck and exploded on the main deck below. We were hit by a couple of torpedoes too. When the torpedoes hit, they gave the ship sort of a twist, but when the bombs hit they made everything vibrate.”
In spite of raging fires on the flight deck and the aft gun battery on fire, Scotty stayed busy receiving the first wave of returning planes. By 1 p.m. the damage control parties had brought the fires under control then suddenly the Lexington was shaken by a tremendous explosion, caused by the ignition of gasoline vapors as planes refueled. This time the Lexington could not be saved. Finally, at 5:07 p.m., Captain Sherman gave the order to abandon ship.
Scotty checked to ensure his life vest was secure as he walked to the edge of the flight deck, peering down 40 feet to the water, he took a deep breath and calmly stepped off. Three things were paramount in his calculation; make sure he kept his chin tucked tight into his chest to avoid serious neck injury upon impact, remain perpendicular to the water, and immediately swim away from the ship to avoid getting sucked into the screws. He was successful in doing all three. “We all hated to leave the Lexington. She had been my home for two years”, Scotty lamented. The casualty list for the Lexington included 137 killed and 47 seriously injured. Once again, by the grace of God, Scotty would somehow survive.
Scotty and five former shipmates from the Lexington were assigned to the USS Suwanee and sent to assist with the invasion of North Africa. Less than a month after her commissioning in September 1942, the Suwanee was tasked with assisting with the invasion of North Africa. The Suwannee remained in North African waters until mid-November 1942. On December 6, 1942, one year after sailing out of Pearl Harbor, Scotty was again on his way to the Pacific Theater where he would be involved in 15 major campaigns before the war was over.
Meanwhile, his relationship with Dorothy continued to progress, with only the occasional shore leave and increasingly frequent letters. Unwilling to wait for another opportunity for shore leave, Scotty decided to propose via the mail. On June 18, 1943, while Scotty was on patrol near Saipan, Dorothy formally announced their engagement. About the same time, while anchored between Saipan and Tinian, a Japanese plane launched a torpedo on track for a direct hit on the Suwannee. Scotty said, “The men below heard a solid ‘thud’ as the torpedo hit the side of the ship, but didn’t go off! Another close call for Scotty.
On September 8, 1944, as plans were finalized for the invasion of the Philippine Islands, Chief Petty Officer Scott received orders to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. Scotty’s timely transfer would be the seventh time fate would spare him from injury or death. Less than two months after being transferred, the Japanese navy sent Kamikaze pilots to attack the USS Suwannee killing 227 and wounding 657 former shipmates. When Scotty tells his story and reflects on so many “close calls”, he readily credits God’s grace for keeping him safe, and the many prayers he offered up while at sea.
Scotty had been at sea for almost four years when he petitioned for a stateside transfer. He was tired and ready for shore rotation, but most of all he was ready to spend the rest of his life with Dorothy Jean. They had announced their engagement in June of 1943 but had very little time together. Scotty explained, “At the earliest opportunity, I called Dorothy and said, I’m coming home, let’s get married!” By then, Fred Danielson had warmed up to the idea of having Scotty as a son-in-law. So it was on October 28, 1944, that Scotty and Dorothy became one. They made their home at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi where Scotty remained until he was discharged on his 24th birthday; exactly six years after he walked into that recruiting station in San Francisco to enlist. Scotty would remain in the naval reserves for another 24 years; retiring in 1970 as a Master Chief Petty Officer.
Today, at the age of 95, he continues to drive to Kingsburg several times per week. During my two hour interview, there was a steady stream of people greeting him with a heartfelt, “Hey Scotty, you’re looking good” or “Scotty! Good to see you again.”
Early in the interview, when I asked Scotty who his childhood heroes were, I couldn’t help but ponder the same question for myself. John Wayne and Superman went about saving the world when I was a young boy. Theirs was a pretend adventure. Men like Gordon Eugene Scott actually did it in real life.