Saturday, June 7, 2008

The last flight of Edwin Gorbet

Once in a very great while, a long-forgotten event from the distant past resurfaces and takes on new life.

This is just such a story.

It's about a tragic death that occured in Panama City over half a century ago, and how a remarkable new development is just now bringing the story full-circle.

Our tale begins in September 1953 in Panama City, then an isolated, slow-paced panhandle town of 25,000 residents.

You could buy a 3-bedroom home in the magnolia-canopied Cove for $7,500. Telephone numbers contained but 5 digits. You could ride the Bay Line train to Atlanta for $10.30--round trip. Angelo's Restaurant was serving a sizzling Kansas City steak, fries, and salad for $1.25. Or, if you were in the mood for seafood and were flush with cash, you could drop into the Seven Seas for a whole broiled Florida lobster and a chef salad for $1.75--and that included a complimentary glass of wine.

At the Panama City Garden Club members were deciding on a design for a planned war memorial that would soon be built on Garden Club grounds--a granite monument to be inscribed with the names of Bay County servicemen who had lost their lives in service to their country.

That third week of September 1953 the big news in town was Panama City's brush with Hurricane Florence, which days before had struck the Panhandle, the beach in particular, with 100mph gusts. But the brunt of the storm veered south, sparing the panhandle. The beach escaped with minor damage. In truth there wasn't a whole lot out there to damage.

Two days later--Monday, Sept. 28--skies had cleared and life in Panama City returned to normal. At Tyndall AFB that morning, a pilot reported for for duty in preparation for a mid-day test-flight of his F86-D Sabre jet.

The pilot was 22-year-old 2nd Lt. Edwin Gorbet, son of a Long Beach, California firefighter. As a youth, Gorbet had been a stand-out high school athlete and a member of his church choir. He had been in the Air Force two years and was on temporary duty at Tyndall AFB to complete flight training.

Even so, while here Edwin became engaged to a local girl he'd met at the Cove Baptist Church, and sang gospel songs on a local radio station.
At 12:07pm on that day, Gorbet climbed alone aboard his F86, pushed back the throttle, kicked in the afterburners, and pointed his jet skyward.

Within seconds he was airborne...but minutes later lights on the control panel began to flash. The air compressor had caught fire and fuel was leaking from the tank
.
Gorbet knew what this meant. To save his life he had to eject. Below, Gorbet could see the campus of Jinks Junior High School and the hundreds of students outside on school grounds, milling about on their lunch break.

Edwin Gorbet's last conscious decision was to not eject at that moment, but to stay with his doomed craft and attempt to steer it south over St. Andrews Bay.

An instant later, when the jet's air-fuel mixture reached critical mass, the F86 exploded in mid-air and a huge fireball rained debris over hundreds of acres and rattled windows for miles.

The F86 missed the campus of Jinks Junior High, just as the young pilot must have prayed it would. Instead, the jet and the last remains of Edwin Gorbet came down on the grounds of the Panama City Garden Club, just paces from the spot of the club's planned memorial.

The grainy photos you see here show the debris field and the gathering crowd in the moments immediately following the crash as hundreds jammed the streets and parents frantically raced to Jinks to search for their children.

The Panama City News Herald, in stories over the next several days, hailed Gorbet's heroism, and a Garden Club member was quoted as saying that the name Edwin Gorbet would most certainly be added to the club's memorial.

And for over half a century, that's where the story ended.

While I was researching this story for Yesterday in Florida magazine, I made a couple of interesting discoveries.

My first discovery occured while visiting the Panama City Garden Club to get a sense of the crash site and to view the memorial, an impressive 10' X 5' granite block engraved along the top with the words:

BE PEACEFUL... BE RESTFUL... AND REMEMBER

Below that are inscribed the names of Bay County's war dead, 65 names from WWII, 11 killed during the Korean War, 58 from Viet Nam, three from the Gulf and Iraq Wars, and three listed "killed while serving their country."

My first discovery was this: among the 140 names, the name Edwin Gorbet was nowhere to be found. However noble the Garden Club's intentions at the time, the last flight of Edwin Gorbet had apparently been forgotten.

I made another interesting discovery: Edwin left behind a twin sister, Edith.

After half a century, I wondered, might she still be alive--and could I locate her? I scoured the internet for Gorbets, jotting down perhaps a dozen phone numbers, and began calling. Dead ends--until finally I reached a Gorbet in California, a relative who said yes, he knew Edith, but no, he wouldn't give out her number to a complete stranger. But, he promised, he would take down my number and ask her if she was interested in calling me.

Within days my phone rang. It was Edith, now 73-years-old, retired from a career in nursing and living in Idaho. I told her I was writing an article for a history magazine about her brother. Naturally she was touched to hear that her brother and his heroic final act had not been forgotten.

Following my conversation with Edith, on one of my weekly trips to the Bay County library's local history room, I mentioned the Gorbet story to librarian Rebecca Saunders, who happens also to be President of the Bay County Historical Society. I told her of my visit to the Garden Club and the missing name on granite memorial.

Sometimes in life we toss a pebble into a pond, figuratively speaking, never knowing where or how far the ripples will travel.

I suppose you could say that my article and the conversations with Rebecca Saunders were my pebble in a pond. The result has been not just a ripple, but a new wave of attention to the Edwin Gorbet story.

This September (2005), 52 years after the accident, the Bay County Historical Society and the Panama City Garden Club will be honoring Gorbet. And not by simply adding his name to the existing monument. Ed will be getting a marker all his own, inscribed thusly:

"In appreciation and dedication to Lt. Edwin Gorbet who sacrificed his life in a plane crash September 28, 1953 saving lives of students at Jinks Junior High School and area residents. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

And so on a Monday in September 2005 a ceremony will be held at the Panama City Garden Club. The Jinks Middle School Band and Choir will perform patriotic songs. The principal at Jinks plans to bring the entire school--800 students plus faculty--to the Garden Club ceremony.
Tyndall AFB will be sending an honor guard; the Historical Society is holding out for a flyover. That may happen yet.

But the person we want most of all at that ceremony in September is Edith. The last time I spoke with her, in May 2005, she told me she wasn't healthy enough to make the trip.

I did receive a letter from her recently in which she sent me an article from a newspaper in Idaho that had picked up the story--another ripple in the pond. Edith closed her letter to me with her thanks, and these words: "Your first phone call," she wrote,"really gave this story life."

In journalism, a story that has the power to sustain itself, to endure over time, is said to have "legs."

As it turned out, the last flight of Edwin Gorbet was a story with wings.

--Ken Brooks,
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18

No comments: