ESCONDIDO — The curtain fell last week on the final act of a long, storied life that included acting in New York City, serving in the U.S. Marines in World War II and Korea, performing in Starlight Opera productions in San Diego, and succeeding in real estate and bookkeeping businesses.
A 20-year Escondido resident, Gordon Henry Pfleeger, who was “bitten by the acting bug” in high school and pursued many interests in his life, died March 15 . He was 86.
“He always, always, always was the sweetest person you’d know,” said Betty Pfleeger, his wife of 23 years.
Born May 11, 1920, in Utica, N.Y., Pfleeger became involved in amateur theater in high school and was able to try out for a radio show in 1935, his wife said.
“In those days, radio was a big deal,” Betty Pfleeger said. “It was like being on TV.”
After graduating high school, Pfleeger found some success acting in New York City, but enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1940. He graduated boot camp on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Betty Pfleeger said.
With some musical experience, he served as drum major for a military band, then became a bugler, responsible for the calls that served as a way to communicate to troops. He also tried out for and was accepted to work in USO shows that occurred throughout the South Pacific, Betty Pfleeger said.
“After about a year, he decided that’s not why he joined the Marines,” Betty Pfleeger said.
Gordon Pfleeger volunteered for and was accepted into the Marine Raiders — a precursor to modern-day special forces — who were trained in guerrilla warfare, Betty Pfleeger said.
The Marine Raiders were created in 1942 and disbanded in 1944. They were among the first to engage in combat in the South Pacific and operated deep in enemy territory, collecting intelligence and surveying beaches ahead of larger ground forces. They seized key hills and beaches in guerrilla-style strikes against Japanese forces.
Stricken with dengue fever that put him in the hospital for a month and nearly took his life, Gordon Pfleeger was sent home to Utica, N.Y., where he married his first wife and went to business school, Betty Pfleeger said.
In 1950, he was recalled into military service and spent two years of hard military time in Korea, where he was “right up in the demilitarized zone,” Betty Pfleeger said.
“He did volunteer at an orphanage there because he said that was the only thing that kept him sane,” Betty Pfleeger said.
With his youngest son only 1 year old at home, Gordon Pfleeger would have his wife send toys to him in Korea, and he would tell stories to the children at the orphanage, Betty Pfleeger said. “He was a great storyteller,” she said.
When he got off the ship in San Diego after serving in Korea, he “kneeled down and kissed the ground and said he was staying here,” Betty Pfleeger said.
Gordon Pfleeger moved his family to San Diego, where he retired from the military as a gunnery sergeant in 1966. He appeared in several Starlight Opera productions before beginning a successful real estate career with an office in La Jolla, Betty Pfleeger said.
He eventually divorced his first wife, and three years later met the woman who would become his second wife when they lived next door to each other in Encinitas. They married three years after that, Betty Pfleeger said.
Around 1980 or 1981, Gordon Pfleeger gave up his real estate office and began a bookkeeping business that he ran until health problems forced him to retire. He also was active with Toastmasters and served as a deacon at Hidden Valley Christian church in Escondido, Betty Pfleeger said. He was a member of the Marine Corps Raider Association and American Legion Post 149.
Though he suffered from various ailments, including Alzheimer’s, he was “lucid up until the day before he died,” Betty Pfleeger said.
Survivors include his wife, Betty Pfleeger; sons, James Pfleeger of Montreal, Tom Pfleeger of Lake Beach, Ill., and Rick Stockwell of New York City; brother, John Pfleeger of Del Mar; sisters, Mary Ellen Pfleeger of Rancho Bernardo and Virginia Whaitley of Colorado Springs, Colo.; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Services: 2 p.m. Saturday, with military honors, Hidden Valley Christian Church, 1300 S. Juniper St., Escondido.
Arrangements: California Funeral Alternatives.