June 30, 1919 (Ilion, New York) – December 7, 1941; 22 years old
Engaged to 2nd Lt 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
Unit: 15th Pursuit Group, 46th Pursuit Squadron, Wheeler Field
His name is “James Gordon Sterling” in some newspaper articles, his high school yearbook (picture below), and the 1930 census.
Born to Gordon Herbert Sterling (1883-1960) and Flossie Chrisler Sterling (1887-1972). One sister, Editha Sterling Osborne (1906-2002). One brother, John (1924-2013).
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.
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 cloud bank straight into the bay. Sanders began to register hits on Fujita’s airplane, which was badly damaged. Their race for the cloud bank 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.”
From The Detroit Free Press December 3, 2016; story by Mark Phelan
On his way to work this Wednesday, Dec. 7, John Michalek, 35, of Plymouth will walk past the classic Buick in his garage and think of 22-year-old 2nd Lt. Gordon H. Sterling Jr., who drove the 1941 Buick Special to work on a Sunday morning 75 years ago, only to die in a dogfight over the waters of Pearl Harbor.
Sterling, who at the time was a recent graduate of flight school in Montgomery, Ala., was one of just a handful of American pilots who got airborne to protect their comrades that day. He engaged the attackers, following a Japanese fighter into a cloud bank, unaware of another hostile plane on his tail.
Michalek’s deep blue Buick has been owned by members of Sterling’s family since he bought it in May 1941. It was his first new car.
Michalek, an engineer with Detroit Diesel, married into Sterling’s family and has become the keeper of the car and a champion of Lt. Sterling’s memory.
As a child in West Hartford, Conn., Sterling had been a Boy Scout and a school athlete. He longed to become a pilot and enlisted in the Army after two years in college. Pearl Harbor was his first post after flight school. Because Sterling was an officer, the Army shipped his car to Hawaii.
Sterling’s grand-niece, Amy Schroeder, 33, grew up in Canton, where her grandfather John Sterling had the Buick.
“He took the car to shows and parades, keeping his brother’s memory alive,” Michalek said. “I heard the story from him.”
Michalek liked cars, restoring and working on a couple of classics. As time went by, he went to car shows with Schroeder’s grandfather, driving the Buick when the older man’s health flagged.
“He was prepping me to carry on,” Michalek said. He and Schroeder married, then bought the car after her grandfather died.
Most of the planes in Sterling’s unit, the 46th Pursuit Squadron, were destroyed on the ground on Dec. 7, 1941. There were just four surviving P36s — an outdated plane that had been parked off to the side away from the best fighters — when Sterling arrived, still wearing his civilian clothes from the evening before. The first plane off the ground was flown by Sterling’s roommate 2nd Lt. Philip M. Rasmussen, who became famous as the “pajama pilot” because he raced from bed to the airfield when the attack began. Rasmussen and three other experienced pilots grabbed the P36s. Sterling had just passed his flight tests, but when one of the others left a plane to get a parachute, Sterling jumped into the cockpit.
He stripped off his wristwatch, handing it to the crew chief with the words, “Give this to my mother. I’m not coming back.”
Sterling joined the other three P36s in the second wave of the attack and died in combat. He was cited for “conspicuous gallantry in the defense of Hawaii” in a letter the chief of the Army Air Forces sent to Sterling’s parents on Dec. 18, 1941.
Sterling received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart. His remains were never recovered, but there are memorials to his service in Honolulu and at Arlington National Cemetery.
Despite the chaos following the attack, the Army handled Sterling’s effects diligently. His parents had his radio and music collection given to Lt. Rasmussen. The rest, including his watch and car, was sent home.
The car was undamaged except for a bullet hole through the windshield. The family replaced the windshield but kept the original in the trunk as part of Sterling’s story.
Michalek took the car to shows after Amy’s grandfather died, but he has spent most of his time recently with he and Schroeder’s 3-year-old son.
“He’s starting to be interested in cars,” Michalek said. “Maybe next year we’ll take the Buick out together.”
Memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery, 1 Memorial Avenue, Arlington, Virginia; Section MI, Site 159. Photo from Arlington National Cemetery’s web page.
Also memorialized at Courts of the Missing, Court 5, Honolulu Memorial, 2177 Puowaina Drive, Honolulu, Hawaii. Picture from findagrave.com.