June 30, 1919 (Ilion, New York) – December 7, 1941; 22 years old
Engaged to 2dLt Ada Margaret “Peggy” Olsson (1916-1999), U.S. Army nurse
Last local address: 56 Argyle Avenue, West Hartford
Enlisted on September 7, 1940
Service number O-411852
15TH PURSUIT GROUP, 46TH PURSUIT SQUADRON, WHEELER FIELD
Received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart Medal. Gordon H. Sterling VFW Post 3840 was at Wheeler Field for a time but has since disbanded.
At some point he went by “James Gordon Sterling” but took on his father’s name “Gordon Herbert Sterling Jr.”
William H. Hall High School Class of ’37 Yearbook; provided by Terri O’Donnell, Hall High School Library
From findagrave.com: Although not a rated pilot, Lt Sterling was a flight engineer and had received some flight training and took off from Wheeler Field with others to face attacking Japanese aircraft on December 7. He was shot down and his body has never been found. He remains MIA.
Also from findagrave.com: Lt Sterling was born in Ilion, New York. In 1927 he and his family moved to Syracuse NY. He attended John T. Roberts Elementary School and Roosevelt Junior High School before enrolling in Onondaga Valley Academy. After a move to West Hartford, CT, he attended Hall High School there. He attended Trinity College in Hartford, CT from 1937-1939. He entered the military service from Connecticut. He attended and graduated from the Advanced Flying School, Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama in May 1941.
He Didn’t Expect To Make It Home
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Gordon Sterling knew what he had to do.
The young Army Air Corps lieutenant was stationed at Wheeler Field on the island of Oahu on that calm December morning in 1941, when the first wave of Japanese planes launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. During a brief lull, Sterling watched as other American pilots rushed into action.
Quietly watching the drama unfold on 7 December 1941 was Second Lieutenant Gordon H. Sterling Jr., the 46th PS assistant flight engineer. Gordon had passed his flight tests but had not progressed as rapidly as the other pilots had in formation and gunnery. He saw that other P-36s were beginning to taxi out and that the P-36 Norris intended to fly was going to be left behind. The immediate need for a complete formation spurred Sterling to action.
He climbed into the idling plane, determined to fight to the finish. He gave his watch to the crew chief, Staff Sergeant Turner, and said, “Give this to my mother! I’m not coming back!”
Sterling had scheduled an afternoon date with his fiancée, 2nd Lieutenant Ada M. “Peggy” Olsson, a nurse at nearby Schofield Barracks Station Hospital. The Japanese attack canceled it.
When Sanders broke away from Fujita after the initial attack, he gained 2,000 feet of altitude, turned back toward the combat and saw Sterling behind Okamoto, firing. Sanders immediately knew that Sterling was in serious trouble because Fujita was now on Sterling’s tail and closing fast. With Fujita firing at him, Sterling forgot about Okamoto’s Zero and increased the dive angle. Sanders had his throttle to the stop and latched onto Fujita’s tail, but he was too far away and too late. Fujita got hits all over Sterling’s airplane, and it began to smoke. Fire was streaming from the aircraft as it dived through the cloudbank straight into the bay. Sanders began to register hits on Fujita’s airplane, which was badly damaged. Their race for the cloudbank saved both Okamoto and Fujita and ended the action.
Sanders recalled, “Just as I closed in, he [Fujita] got a burst at Sterling, whose plane burst into flames. Four of us then went into a dive: the Japanese in front [Okamoto]; then Sterling, firing at him; then another Japanese [Fujita], and then me. We plunged into the overcast that way. I was some distance behind, and when I came out, there was no sign of the other planes. The way they had been going, they couldn’t have pulled out, so it was obvious that all three went into the sea.” Later, Japanese records would show that only Sterling crashed. Not knowing that, Sanders gave Sterling a victory credit over Okamoto.
NOTE: A further records investigation by the USAAF reported on March 7, 1949, “In view of the negative results of efforts to correlate this case with unknowns recovered from the pertinent area, it appears that Lt. Sterling was lost at sea, off the Oahu coast, as a result of enemy action, and under such circumstances as to preclude the possibility of recovery of his remains.”
Memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery, Section MI, Site 159.