Monday, November 4, 2013

The Godfather, John M.T. Godfrey -- Military Monday (November 4, 2013)



John Malcolm Trevor Godfrey was born in Montreal on March 28, 1922.  His parents were British. John was the youngest of four brothers (Reggie, Sidney, Lawrence "Lonny", and John).  When John was about a year old the family moved from Canada to the United States.  Once in America, the Godfreys made their home in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a mill town on the Blackstone River in northern Rhode Island against the Massachusetts border.

My father and his family also lived in Woonsocket and in time he and "Johnny" became best of friends.  Their friendship lasted beyond my father's move to Cranston, Rhode Island for his senior year of high school and into their post-war young adulthood when both were married and had children.

Johnny Godfrey (L) and my father in their Woonsocket High School band uniforms
circa 1936

Johnny was an outgoing young man who was elected president of his high school graduating class.  [This foreshadowed his later political career in Rhode Island.]  Although Johnny's parents expected him to go on to college from high school, the start of World War II intervened.  Johnny was so set on becoming a part of the unfolding events that he actually tried to enlist in the Canadian Army during his senior year of high school by going into Providence one day seeking to join up.  His plan failed, but he did not give up.  It was only after two more attempts (each involving his mother calling the FBI to track down her missing son) that his parents finally gave in and allowed him to join the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) with their permission -- but on the condition that if he failed to make the cut and become a pilot, he would return to Rhode Island and enter college.  Johnny became a pilot and never did go to college.  My father went to the United States Merchant Marine Academy -- "King's Point" -- and after graduation served on ships providing war materiel to the theaters of war.

Johnny entered basic training in New Brunswick, Canada, but just after he started his training in October 1941, he was given the awful news by the base commander that his older brother Reggie had been killed when his ship was torpedoed off Greenland.  Every man on board was lost.  [Reggie was part of a group of American civilians headed to England to assist with the radar network there.]  The loss of his older brother steeled Johnny's resolve and in October 1942 he graduated and was sent to Europe as a member of the RCAF.  When the United States entered the war, Johnny was able to transfer to the United States Army Air Force where he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.  He was assigned to the Fourth Fighter Group and was wingman to Capt. Don Gentile.

By November 1943, Johnny had proved himself such a capable and successful fighter pilot that he was given his own aircraft -- a P-47D Thunderbolt that he dubbed "Reggie's Reply."

Johnny Godfrey with his P-47D Thunderbolt, Reggie's Reply

On December 1, 1943, Johnny Godfrey shot down his first German aircraft.  By May 1944 Johnny was promoted to Captain and was sent to meet up again with Don Gentile -- who by this time had surpassed Eddie Rickenbacker's total enemy aircraft kills of 26.  Johnny was assigned as Gentile's wingman.  Ultimately, after Gentile was sent back to the U.S., Johnny Godfrey's total of enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and on the ground exceeded Don Gentile's total.  Both achieved the rank of "Ace."

John Godfrey (L) with Don Gentile standing in front of
Gentile's "Shangri-La." (Debden, Essex, England --April 1944) 

In August 1944, Johnny was shot down after destroying four German JU-52 transport aircraft on the ground.  He landed in a field and was able to evade capture for a day before he was found and sent to Stalag Luft III.  He made two unsuccessful escape attempts before succeeding on his third try.  He made it to American lines just before the war ended.  Johnny Godfrey's fighter pilot days were over and his total enemy aircraft destruction record stood at 30 -- 13.67 in strafing ground attacks and 16.33 in aerial combat!

When Johnny returned to Rhode Island he was a hero.  He became a successful businessman in the lace industry and, in an echo of his election as his high school class president, he served as a Rhode Island State Senator beginning in 1952.  He was considered as a potential candidate for Governor by the Republican party, but decided in the summer of 1954 to move with his wife and two young sons to Freeport, Maine where he opened his own lace mill.  He was 32 years old.

In September 1956, Johnny finally realized his goal of landing a big tuna after seven years of dedicated fishing.  Johnny was six feet one inch tall, weighed 210 lbs. and, well muscled, he landed his 410 lb. prize tuna in thirty-two minutes.  A week after landing his tuna, however, Johnny found that he had a general weakness in his body.  He was hardly able to hold a pencil and when he tried to run his legs would not obey and he stumbled.  After consulting his family physician and other specialists it was finally determined on October 4, 1956 that he was suffering from the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or as it is more commonly known "Lou Gehrig disease."  Johnny and his wife Joan were met with the awful news that there was no known cure and that his "life expectancy may be six months, one year, or maybe two."

After a brave fight for his life involving treatments in the U.S. and Europe, John Malcolm Trevor Godfrey, flying Ace and war hero, politician, successful businessman, and family man, died on June 12, 1958 -- a fighter to the end.

I only met my father's friend Johnny Godfrey a few times in my life.  I am told I met his wife Joan and his sons, but I have no memory of any of them.  I was way too young . . .  just an infant.  But I do have a photograph of me with Johnny Godfrey.  I am in the arms of my mother's sister and she is sitting with my father's brother and Johnny on a couch.  The occasion was my baptism and Johnny Godfrey is my godfather!

Me on my aunt's lap, my father's brother to her right and my godfather, John M.T. Godfrey, to her left.     

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Cover image of The Look of Eagles from the paperback edition in the collection of the author.

Photograph of Johnny Godfrey and Arnold Tew in their Woonsocket High School band uniforms from the personal collection of the author.

Photograph of Johnny Godfrey sitting on Reggie's Reply by Bruce Zigler from
http://www.4thfightergroupassociation.org/uploads/8/2/0/3/8203817/ee_jtg_art_1.pdf

Photograph of John Godfrey and Don Gentile from the National Archives (Photo A49657).

Photograph of Johnny Godfrey with me, my aunt, and my uncle from my personal collection.

For more information about John Godfrey and his life, I highly recommend his well-written, poignant autobiography The Look of Eagles, (New York, New York, Ballantine Books, Inc., 1958)  Paperback edition published by arrangement with Random House, Inc December 1973. Also see, The Official Site of the 4th Fighter Group - World War II at http://www.4thfightergroupassociation.org and the biographical article by Tim McCann from the October 2010 magazine, The Eagle Eye (copyright Tim McCann 2005) http://www.4thfightergroupassociation.org/uploads/8/2/0/3/8203817/ee_jtg_art_1.pdf
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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1 comment:

  1. A great story (I like all the photos) and a wonderful way to memorialize a man who obviously died too young. Thanks for sharing.

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