Gordon Charles Cornell was born 30 March 1934 in Penn Yan, New York. Located at the northern tip of the east fork of Lake Keuka in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, this area was a major influence in Cornell’s decision to become a naval aviator. Lake Keuka played a major role in early aviation development. It was at Hammondsport, located on the southern tip of the lake, where Glenn Curtis built and flew his famous flying boats. In fact, on one of his military records, Cornell states that spending his boyhood on the lake played a major influence in his decision to become a naval aviator; wanting to become a pilot since World War II. Cornell enrolled in the New York State Institution of Applied Arts and Science in Binghamton, New York where he took courses in Mechanical Physics, Mathematics, Geometry, Trigonometry, Analytical Geometry, and Calculus. He also participated in sports such as volley ball, basketball, and varsity baseball.

In his senior year he enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve on 9 May 1953 as an aviation cadet, requesting that he not be ordered to active duty until after graduation. After graduation he reported for duty; completing basic training 9 September 1954, then was sent to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas for advanced training. By March 1955 Cornell was appointed to the rank of Ensign, and in April 1957 he applied for transfer into the regular Navy.

Cornell’s naval career was exemplary. According the latest awards documents dated 13 April 1973, he received the following medals and commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, 17 Air Medals (S/F), 2 Navy Commendation Medals, Purple Heart, and 8 Air Medals (S/M). It further shows he earned the following but was not yet approved as of the date of this document: Bronze Star, 2 Navy Commendation Medals, 2 Air Medals, and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Lt. Commander Cornell earned his Purple Heart while flying a mission over North Vietnam on 28 September 1966. Assigned to Fighter Squadron 161 (VF-161) operating from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Constellation (CVA-64), LCDR Cornell’s F-4 Phantom II was hit by enemy anti-aircraft fire while attacking the Yen Xa railroad bridge in North Vietnam. The damage to the aircraft and the wound suffered by Cornell were not serious enough to prevent him from returning to his ship.

Cornell’s citations testify to his dedication and bravery. He continually went in low to take out designated targets or, when flying flak suppression for the strike package, many times rendered the enemy’s anti-aircraft batteries around the target ineffective.

As a naval aviator, Cornell flew a variety of aircraft starting with the Grumman F-9F Cougar, F-3H Demon, A-4E Skyhawk, F-8B Crusader, and finally, the McDonald-Douglas F-4 Phantom II.

Cornell attained the rank of Executive Officer and then Commanding Officer of VF-143 and also served as the Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Coral Sea (CVA-43).

Perhaps one of the saddest moments in his career was as Commanding Officer of VF-143 based on the U.S.S. Enterprise (CVAN-65). On 27 January 1973, the last day of the United States’ military involvement in the Vietnam War, Commander Harley Hall took off from the Enterprise on a late afternoon mission to bomb targets in South Vietnam about 15 miles northwest of Quang Tri. On Hall’s third bombing run on an enemy supply convoy, Hall’s F-4 was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He and his RIO ejected from their damaged aircraft safely over water, but the wind blew them back over land. The RIO, Al Kientzler, was captured and eventually released after hostilities ceased. Hall was never seen again making him the last Navy pilot, and possibly the last American, lost in the Vietnam War.

Gordon Charles Cornell passed away 6 February 1996 and is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego, California.

Recent Submissions

  • Guide to the Gordon C. Cornell Papers 

    Oelkrug, Paul A. (2015-11-19)
    Cornell enlisted in the U. S. Naval Reserve on 9 May 1953, completed basic training 9 September 1954, and was sent to NAS Corpus Christi for advanced training. His career as a naval aviator was exemplary. He earned many ...