Max Gordon of Northeast Philadelphia, who served in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and was, in February 2019, awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Service, died on Dec. 9. He was 95.
Raised in South Philadelphia, Gordon enlisted in the Marines in 1943. The next year, he was assigned to OSS, the wartime foreign intelligence agency and forerunner to the CIA.
Gordon underwent training at a classified facility on Catalina Island. As Gordon’s wife Hilda remembers, that week wasn’t easy.
“They had a week where they had to survive on practically nothing,” she said. “They didn’t give them much food rations or water. He was the only one to survive that course. Everyone else dropped out.”
Perseverance would prove a recurring common theme.
“He was very determined, and he wasn’t afraid of anything,” she said. “He was always that way.”
After OSS training, Gordon was dispatched to Burma, strategically important because the Japanese envisioned it as a base from which to invade India and, eventually, dominate all of Southeast Asia.
That plan did not come to fruition, thanks in part to OSS detachments like those in which Max Gordon served.
Hilda Gordon, now 94, recalls her husband as much less forthcoming with battlefield specifics than with stories that illustrated the lighter side of military life. But over 73 years of marriage, she learned a few things.
“He settled in Burma, worked behind Japanese lines. Mostly he told me the funny things and didn’t go into detail about a lot of things. He was actually sworn to secrecy,” she recalled. “(The OSS) became the CIA, you know.”
“Except he did tell me, in Burma, about a group of warriors there,” she continued. “They called them Gurkhas, and they took orders from him, and they would do anything he asked them to do.”
The Gurkhas, ethnic Nepalis, are considered among the most well-trained, fearless soldiers on Earth. Effectively mercenaries, they’ve reinforced British military efforts for the past 200 years. In World War II, they fought the Japanese alongside the Allies in Burmese jungles. And Gordon commanded them.
By June 1945, Burma was liberated; the tide in the Pacific had decisively turned. By June 1946, Gordon was honorably discharged and married.
He began courting his wife months prior, while still enlisted. He succeeded in much the same way as he succeeded in his OSS training: He just didn’t quit.
Having grown up in South Philadelphia, Max Gordon and Hilda Dunn had met years before but only reconnected when they ran into each other shopping on Seventh Street in South Philadelphia in early 1946. They spent some time talking that afternoon; later, Gordon walked Dunn home.
“The next morning he was back,” Hilda Gordon said, laughing at recalling her husband’s dogged pursuit. “And the next day he was back again — he was back every day. He just kept coming back, and four months later we were married.”
In the early ’50s, the Gordons bought a house in Oxford Circle. They’d stay there for the next 60 years. The man who trained in guerrilla warfare and espionage was, said his wife, “a homebody.”
Gordon worked in the warehousing of women’s clothing and played tennis for fun, playing into his 80s.
But the transition wasn’t always easy.
The Gordons raised two children, a son Kenneth and a daughter Lynne; both died as adults from cancer.
They got through tragedy by being together.
“We took rides together, we went on vacation together, we went shopping together. We were together a lot,” Hilda Gordon said.
Is togetherness the key to living beyond 90?
“With me, it was my genes,” she said. “And for Max … it was me.”