updated 11/15/2006 9:09:09 PM ET 2006-11-16T02:09:09

Lee "Shorty" Gordon, the first American prisoner of war to escape from a German camp during World War II, has died. He was 84.

Gordon, who made two failed escape attempts from Stalag VIIA — including one on a bicycle, yelling "Heil, Hitler," the only German he knew — succeeded on Oct. 13, 1943, according to historian Robert C. Doyle.

"Shorty was a committed natural escaper," Doyle said. "There was nothing that was going to keep that man in that camp."

Gordon died Tuesday of complications from recent stomach and kidney surgery at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Menlo Park, according to his daughter, Cherie Gordon.

The Southern California native was serving as a ball turret gunner with the Army Air Corps' 305th Bomb Group when his B-17 was shot down over Wilhelmshaven, Germany, on Feb. 26, 1943. He survived the parachute landing but was quickly captured by German troops, his daughter said.

After two failed escape attempts, Gordon tried again, trading identification tags with an Australian POW to gain access to the outdoor work area of the Moosburg camp where he bribed guards with coffee and cigarettes and hid in a bathroom stall until dark. He then hopped a fence when a guard's back was turned and walked out of the camp, according to Doyle.

"He was just very determined to get out," Cherie Gordon said. "He said he didn't like the 'cooties' — the bugs and fleas in the camp."

Gordon rode freight trains to France, where he made contact with a Resistance group that helped him reunite with the Allied forces.

‘I’m an American’
He told the story of walking into a French cafe in "Escape From a Living Hell," a 2000 History Channel documentary: "The waitress walked up to me. I looked at her and I said, 'I'm an American.' She about crapped her pants. ... So she said, 'Restez. Stay here.'"

Gordon said he waited in the kitchen until armed men — members of the French Resistance — arrived.

"'You're an American? You better prove it, or else we're gonna shoot you in the head right now,'" Gordon recalled. The men called the information in to British military intelligence officers, who confirmed Gordon's identity.

More than a year later, on Feb. 27, 1944, Gordon arrived safely in England and became the first American prisoner to successfully escape, according to Doyle, who met Gordon in the late 1990s and wrote about escapees, including Gordon, in his book "A Prisoner's Duty." Doyle now teaches history at Franciscan University in Ohio.

French civilians' sacrifices
Gordon, a short, but cocky and brash man, appreciated the risks French civilians took to help him, even more than 50 years later when he told the story to Terrence Russell who met Gordon at a POW reunion in 1997.

"He was describing meeting this French woman. ... She took him home and was going to give him something to eat. She opened her cupboard and, literally, gave him the last piece of bread, the last jam that she had," Russell said.

"She had a young child. It was very clear in Shorty's mind that he was taking the last morsel of food out of that child's mouth," Russell said. "He grabbed his chest and became very emotional and cried, years after the fact."

When Gordon returned to the U.S., he became a minor celebrity, awarded the Silver Star medal and sent around the country on a lecture circuit to boost morale and sell war bonds, his daughter said.

Gordon eventually returned to Southern California, where he owned a car dealership for several years before rejoining the military. He went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam wars as a flight engineer, and retired from service in 1969.

Gordon and his wife, Betty, then moved to Australia, where he became a millionaire in stocks and land development, Cherie Gordon said. After his wife died in 1991, he moved back to the United States and had been living at the VA hospital for the past five years, she said.

Gordon is survived by three children, Van Gordon, 62, of Sacramento; Cherie Gordon, 60, of Clements; and Cris Gordon, 58, of Santa Cruz. Funeral arrangements were pending.

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