updated 9/9/2008 7:05:45 PM ET 2008-09-09T23:05:45

Nathan Green Gordon, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing 15 fellow airmen during World War II and later served 20 years as lieutenant governor, has died, a relative said Tuesday. He was 92.

Gordon died Monday night after suffering from pneumonia, said Allen Gordon, a nephew.

Gordon was piloting a Navy Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat in February 1944 when he was ordered to search for downed pilots after a raid on a Japanese position along the Bismarck Sea near Papua New Guinea.

Under fire, Gordon piloted the aircraft to three separate water landings in rough seas, picking up nine men. On the way back, he learned of a life raft in the water and landed the already overloaded plane yet again, pulling six more airmen aboard while again under heavy enemy fire.

"He just did not want to leave anyone there because if they had been captured, they would have faced almost certain death," said Stephan McAteer, executive director of the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History in Little Rock.

In a 2002 interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Gordon said some of the survivors needed medical treatment, "but I think everybody got over it all right. When I went back during the flight to check, our crew was feeding them. They said it was the best food they'd had in a long time."

Gordon never thought he'd be nominated for the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor. His superiors cited his "exceptional daring, personal valor and incomparable airmanship under most perilous conditions."

From military to politics
On his return to Arkansas, friends persuaded him to run for office and he wound up serving as lieutenant governor from 1947 to 1967, under four governors.

Roy Reed, a former Arkansas Gazette reporter, said Gordon was well liked, largely sticking to his role of gaveling the state Senate into session and filling in when the governor was out of state.

Reed said Gordon "pretty well kept his head down" during the 1957 desegregation crisis, when President Eisenhower called in federal troops to force Arkansas officials to allow black students to attend Little Rock's Central High School.

Born in Morrilton, Gordon graduated from the University of Arkansas law school in 1939 and began his practice in his home town before joining the Navy. He returned to practicing law after leaving the lieutenant governor's post.

According to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society's Web site, there were just 101 living recipients as of Aug. 23, including 27 from World War II.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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