This is Gordon Eugene Thompson.
He’s twenty-one years old in this picture. Just about a year ago, he was a student at Montana State College in Bozeman; a leading scholar and member of Phi Kappa Phi. Not bad for a kid from Moccasin, a tiny community five avenues wide and two roads deep.
At Montana State as a fraternity brother, graduate, and (at center) manager of the football team.
“Ready and willing to do anything to help…. A lad who was constantly putting forth everything for the betterment of the team.”
He’s smiling extra wide today, probably because those wings are a new addition to his forest green uniform. They were earned in rigorous training at Pensacola, Florida; Second Lieutenant Thompson is a fully qualified fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps. The picture was likely taken in San Diego in May or June of 1942, while he awaited assignment to a squadron.
Life moved very fast for Gordon Thompson. On 5 July 1942, he became a “Bengal” – a member of the brand-new VMF-224 in Barber’s Point, Hawaii. He spent the following month learning the peculiarities of the F4F Wildcat as his squadron ferried planes throughout the Territory of Hawaii. In August, the Bengals packed their bags and shipped out to the Pacific. Their destination was Guadalcanal: an island rapidly growing famous for all the wrong reasons. These brand new pilots would bolster the “Cactus Air Force” as they fought against some of the toughest fliers produced by Imperial Japan.
Gordon Thompson arrived at Henderson Field on 30 August, just in time to duck the flying shrapnel sent up by the daily “Tojo Time” raid. He had less than twenty-four hours to acclimatize himself to his new surroundings. The heat was debilitating, the planes were decrepit, but the pilots who flew with the Cactus Air Force were anything but dispirited. Thompson probably bedded down that night filled with equal parts excitement and fear. The next day, he was slated to fly his first combat mission.
Gordon Thompson vanished on his very first mission.
He was with the squadron for so little time that he is all but forgotten by the historians of Guadalcanal. His name appears in few publications; he is actually misidentified in a photograph appearing in a well-known source.
It is believed that he succumbed to a routine maintenance problem – a faulty oxygen system. Amerine and Bryans had them, too. Amerine blacked out in midair but recovered in time to bail out; Bryans was jumped by Zeros and shot down. Thompson simply “failed to return.” He vanished into the jungle or into the sea, as completely as if he had never been born, with no known eyewitnesses to see him fall.
To this day, no trace of Gordon Eugene Thompson or his plane, F4F-4 02104, have been found.
And on this day, 74 years after he vanished, we remember him.
Photograph courtesy of Lt. Thompson’s nephew, Gordon Thompson.