April 30, 2001
The Distance a Heart Can Travel ......
Darien's Kathleen Rowland and her Miraculous Journey
into her Father's Past
By Ryan McCarthy
In Memory of PVT Robert A. Gordon
KIA 18 October, 1944 Jeanmenil, France
"Last night I went to bed remembering"
Kathleen Rowland of Darien read the above words for the first time last year. The words themselves
were written by her father on Oct. 17, 1944, less than a day before he would die unceremoniously, like many
of America's similarly young and talented men sent to the European theater of WWI, while he was defending
a foxhole in the Vosges mountains of France.
In the span of the last fateful year, Ms. Rowland has confronted three shoeboxes containing nearly 500 of her
father's yellowed letters to her mother, sojourning into a past that has not only given her knowledge of a
father who died when she was only 8 months old, but has also brought her a half-sister.
"I call this the journey of my heart," Ms. Rowland said tearfully in an interview that took place last week
in her home. She will recount her experiences on May 3 on the television show "It's a Miracle" on the PAX
Soon after beginning to sift through the voluminous wartime correspondence that her father, Robert A. Gordon,
sent her mother, Ms. Rowland found references to a half-sister she was not sure actually existed. The only
evidence Ms. Rowland had of her half-sister was a brief comment that her mother had made many decades before.
In the process of reconstructing her father's all-too-brief 26 years of life, Ms. Rowland, 57, compiled bits
of information about her father and ultimately journeyed with her son Casey Ackerman, 22, to a reunion of the
157th Infantry Association, which took place in Philadelphia last September. Soon after meeting one of her
father's squad members, Ms. Rowland noticed that someone had placed her father's obituary on a nearby
bulletin board. It was in front of this bulletin board that Ms. Rowland was introduced to her half-sister,
Jessica Hickling of Longmeadow, Mass.
"Somehow I always knew I would find her," Ms. Rowland said, commenting that her father provided for Jessica
until he died and that Jessica, now 59, had been given up for adoption by her birth mother.
The letters of Ms. Rowland's father, Robert A. Gordon, who was affectionately known as R.A., are not overtly
patriotic, instead they span the distance of a human life, connecting two daughters to the father that bore
them. They tell of the ordinary human hardships of war, the hard-won glory of the front, and the agonizing
separation of a soldier from his wife and his daughters. There are passages relaying even the most mundane
of details, and they depict a self-educated man, who had learned fencing, horsemanship, and Italian. Mr.
"If the foot balm you sent is as good as the advertisements claim, then it came in the nick of time for we
did quite some walking a few days ago in the pouring rain, which left the tootsies on the sore side."
Ms. Rowland has been accompanied in her march into her father's place in American and world history by members
of organizations such as the American World War II Orphans Network (AWON), a group that serves as a nexus of
information for those seeking information about parents killed in WWII. AWON, founded in 1991 by Anne Mix,
and headquartered in Fredricksburg, Va., estimates that some 183,000 children were left fatherless by WWII.
One of Mr. Gordon's letters tells of a hopeful 157th Infantry excited by the prospects of a retreating German
army. Not long after Mr. Gordon's death, the 157th Infantry would go on to cross the treacherous Vosges
mountains, nearly impassable during Winter, and ultimately liberated the infamous concentration camps at
Dachau. He writes:
"Everyone here is anxious for news of the war and the papers are eagerly looked for. Right now our front
seems to be breaking all records and we all look for like progress hopefully on the other fronts. Things are
beginning to look really grand for us now, sweetheart. Let's keep our fingers crossed in the hope that
personal happy events are not far off. I've had more than my share of living away from you in the last three
years than I care for, darling, and only want to go home to you and angel and I know that order would you
fit you well too."
Such simple and profound yearnings for home and family have given Ms. Rowland a different perspective about
patriotism, and have added meaning to her celebration of Memorial Day. "I never thought about flags on
memorial day," Ms. Rowland said. "But now they are very powerful to me."
Describing an incident in a newly-liberated French town, Mr. Gordon writes about a brief glimpse of the kind
of treatment usually reserved for World Series Champions:
"Maybe I'll never be President, honey, but I sure as hell know what it feels like. Yesterday we came through
a fair size town in jeeps shortly after it had fallen and were really treated like conquering heroes with the
people lining both sides of the streets waving, applauding and throwing flowers. Your old man fitted himself
into the role too, first waving to one side then the other, like an old campaigner. "
The day before his death, Mr. Gordon's final letter to his wife depicts his squad gloriously, all of them
adorned with celebratory neckerchiefs like colorful halos, as if they were being costumed for heaven:
"During the last month it seems as though the infantry is trying to glamorize the air corps in the way of
dress. Just about everyone is wearing some sort of gay neckerchief, the brighter the color the better. R.A.
has himself a rather snappy strap of paisley adding the touch for him. Though I like it, I'm afraid popular
opinion has it conservative."
Ms. Rowland has given her unflinching support to the World War II Memorial, for which ground was broken in
Washington D.C. last November, and nervously awaits her appearance on television, where she will recount her
meeting with Jessica. The filming of the television show was done in part at the Doubletree Inn in Norwalk,
where Ms. Rowland and Ms. Rickling, now close friends, were faced with the task of dramatizing their meeting.
"It was far more emotional than I thought," Ms. Rowland said of the taping, "but, my husband said I did pretty
Ms. Rowland is doing her best to keep the memory her father and the 157th Infantry lives in her life. She
plans to attend upcoming 157th Infantry reunion's and is frequently sent historical information on WWII by
one of her father's squad members.
"I think this was my father's way of reaching out to myself and Jessica, of taking care of us," Ms. Rowland
said. Her father's words written in his final letter, which has miraculously found its way into Ms. Rowland's
life, drawn perhaps by the same force that united the two half-sisters, seems to support the distance a heart
can travel. The letter, like Mr. Gordon's life was left without a final signature, unfinished. Yet for Ms.
Rowland, Mr. Godon's words, concluding as they do, seem to have been mailed rather recently, sent
circuitously to two anxious recipients, eager for news.
"Last night I went to bed remembering. That's the way it is, honey, every night. Some part of your past
comes to the fore to make the night more pleasant and me more lonesome for you, darling. It's no good,
honey, this way and the sooner the better. I don't have more time, hon, so for now and as always."
Check local listings for show times of "It's a Miracle"
To contribute to the WWII memorial, call Kathleen Rowland at 655-8431.
Visit AWON's website is at www.awon.org.