Walter Gordon “Gordy” Allen served in three major wars, graduating from West Point during World War II and rising to the rank of colonel, but the Millville resident is always more interested in talking about his grandfather, a Delaware legend.
At age 89, Allen has a long memory and a long history to match, beginning with his grandfather, Major General Walter Henry Gordon, who was born in Mississippi in 1864 and raised in Louisiana. Born a southerner at the end of the Civil War, Gordon was fortunate to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1886, alongside other illustrious students like Gen. John Pershing, who was commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces in World War I.
After graduation, Gordon would serve on the frontier, fighting Indians until 1893 before teaching military science and Tactics at University of Delaware.
At UD, students were paying attention to current events. The Spanish American War heated up in 1898, and students wanted to form a regiment, anticipating fighting. Gordon was only a first lieutenant infantryman, but he requested permission from Grover Cleveland to form a volunteer regiment of students. Gordon became a brevet (temporary) colonel, leading the First Volunteer Delaware Regiment to Tampa, Fla., for training.
“Imagine 5,000 of Delaware’s finest young men ready to embark to Cuba and join in combat to win the Spanish American War,” Allen said.
However, the war ended with Spain’s surrender, and the soldiers soon went home. However, it proved their dedication.
“It’s quite a connection I think. It would be the great-grandfathers for many people around here,” said Allen, who suggested that the union didn’t entirely trust Delaware sympathies after the Civil War. “When this came around I think they [Delaware] … wanted to go to war and prove themselves as Americans. I think it tied Delaware to the U.S.,” said Allen.
Gordon loved UD, but he left Delaware to enlist in World War I and become Commanding General of Fort Benning, Ga., in 1921, eventually passing away in 1924.
Allen’s mother, Ellen Gordon Allen, was a famed Japanese flower arranger, born in 1898 in Delaware and memorialized with a plaque at the National Arboretum.
Allen’s father, Frank Allen was born in 1896. While he did not attend West Point, he served in the cavalry and served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s public relations chief.
Allen himself was born in 1923 at Fort Benning. Despite the family’s service, Allen said his own enrollment at West Point was unintended. But in 1942, everyone was affected by World War II, and his attitude changed when Allen’s father secured admission for him.
“I just had a military heritage … I didn’t really want to go,” Allen said honestly. “I got an appointment. The war was on. I felt I should do that.”
He cast aside plans to study medicine at Princeton, although he still wonders what life would be like as a doctor.
“I love people. I like healing people,” he said. “I’m not a warrior.”
Allen graduated at the end of World War II, so he spent three enjoyable years in Germany. He learned the language through immersion, dating local ladies and meeting German citizens.
“There are always people to meet Germany,” said Allen, who encourages talking with the natives. “My class would be a date.”
Already established in the army, Allen continued this path so he could continue supporting his family. He married Martha “Marty” in 1950 in Washington, D.C. She was no stranger to the government world, having studied law at George Washington University and worked as secretary for the head of the Federal Communications commission (FCC). Thanks to Allen’s work, they lived in many places, especially enjoying Europe.
“We got used to moving. I was often sent to camp or farm [as a child,] so I was on my own a lot,” said Allen. “It’s easy to make friends. I like meeting new people.”
From boarding school in Pennsylvania to flight school in Texas, Allen has lived all over the country. As a boy in the dry state of Kansas, Allen remembers Missouri bootleggers knocking on the door each Sunday to sell prohibited alcohol.
In third grade, Allen lived near New York City, where he occasionally found bodies washed up on Governor’s Island, victims of mafia or gang murders along the East River. Around this time, Allen was a soda jerk who often served thirsty soldiers.
“Soldiers were just so nice. They had no families, and they liked kids,” Allen said. “I grew up just loving soldiers. That’s why I joined.”
History showed attitudes toward the military changing with each conflict, even in Allen’s eyes.
“I think World War II [showed] terrific patriotism,” said Allen, compared to the “senselessness” of Vietnam. “I think the Vietnam War was so heartbreaking. We lost so many young men, and for what?”
Allen was in combat in Korea, but the officer avoided the “blood and guts” during two tours of Vietnam. Afterward, he sponsored 14 Vietnamese to become U.S. citizens.
Compared to the draft of earlier wars, Allen appreciates today’s highly trained service members who are paid volunteers: “I personally think the military has done a wonderful job, but I’m sad we had as many wars as we’ve had. I’m very much a peace-loving person.”
Between tours of duty, Allen was “overeducated,” as he jokes. As a boy, he attended the prestigious Hill School boarding school in Pottstown, Pa. He studied accounting at community college and became a Certified Public Accountant. He also earned an MBA at Vanderbilt University.
Allen’s ancestors weren’t all American patriots. He said in 1930 his family came to Plymouth, Mass., descending to his grandmother, Laura Doane Gordon.
“A lot of my family didn’t join George Washington,” Allen said. “They were deserters and went to Canada.”
Allen once met many of the distant British loyalists at a meeting of the Doane descendents in Canada.
Allen may have continued the family’s Army legacy by accident, but he has no regrets. He learned to fly a helicopter and parachute from a plane. During training, his ‘chute didn’t open, but Allen grabbed onto another guy and landed with him.
“I’ve been so fortunate. Everything worked out so well,” said Allen, who lives comfortably now with Marty and their dog, Daisy, back in Delaware where his grandfather made history so long ago.