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RIP: James A. Goodson 1921-2014

May 1, 2014 in Aviation

If Jimmy Goodson hadn’t made me his friend 30 years ago and encouraged my writing about Second World War aviation, it’s very likely you wouldn’t know my name.

From the Washington Post obituary:

James Goodson wanted to see the world in the summer of 1939, so he boarded a ship and made his way across the Atlantic to Europe by working as a pantry boy.

A few months after Mr. Goodson arrived, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., the U.S. ambassador to England, urged all American expatriates to return home because of the looming threat of war.

Mr. Goodson, who died May 1 at 93, booked passage on one of the last ships to leave England before Europe convulsed into world war. The vessel was the ill-fated liner Athenia, which on Sept. 3, 1939, was torpedoed and shelled by a German U-boat off the Scottish coast.

More than 100 of the roughly 1,300 passengers and crew members perished before rescue boats arrived. Mr. Goodson and other survivors were taken to port in Galway, Ireland, where children from the ship wept for their missing parents and many adults were inconsolable. One woman said she saw two children fall from a lifeboat as it was lowered into the chilly water. They were never seen again.

Mr. Goodson was on the Athenia’s deck when the torpedo struck, and he recalled assisting with rescue efforts as the ship listed and its lights went dark.

“I went to see if there were people trapped in the main section, and I saw dead bodies swooshing around in the water,” he later wrote. “I was plunged into the whole war thing, if you like, in a matter of minutes. I suppose Americans looked at the European war as something that didn’t much concern them.”

The sinking of the Athenia — an early victim in the Battle of the Atlantic — helped turn world opinion against Germany. For Mr. Goodson, it was the moment when he decided to do his “bit to stamp out Nazism.” He went on to become a leading Army Air Forces ace in the European theater, with 15 aerial kills and another 15 strafing kills of enemy aircraft on the ground.

His success brought him the nickname “King of the Strafers,” said Roy Heidicker, an Air Force historian.

After the war, the newly formed Air Force counted only air-to-air victories in tallying aces. Francis S. Gabreski, with 31 kills (including three on the ground), was the leading Army Air Forces ace in Europe during the war; Richard Bong, an Army Air Forces pilot in the Pacific, was the highest flying ace overall, with 40 hits.

Mr. Goodson, who was American-born and was raised in Toronto by British parents, had been among the first U.S. volunteers to enlist in Britain’s Royal Air Force. He initially flew in one of three “Eagle” squadrons, RAF units made up of American pilots. By the summer of 1942 — many months after the United States entered the war — the Eagle squadrons were incorporated into the 4th Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Mr. Goodson recorded two kills as an Eagle squadron member, but he had his best-known exploits with the 4th Fighter Group under the hard-driving, taciturn commander, Donald Blakeslee.

During Blakeslee’s tenure, the 4th Fighter Group racked up one of the most remarkable records of the war, destroying a total of 1,016 enemy aircraft on the air and on the ground, Heidicker said.

By the fall of 1942, the 4th Fighter Group represented the only operational American fighting units in Europe. Mr. Goodson conducted one of the first American-led, low-level strafing sorties over France and Belgium, a two-man, two-plane mission.

He and his partner considered the results to have been modest. But military publicists, looking for scraps of good news, trumpeted the affair as “the first U.S. fighter raid over the Continent” and “daring low-level attacks on rail, road and water transport in Northern France and Belgium, leaving behind them a trail of destruction.”

He received the Distinguished Service Cross — the military’s highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor — for his actions as a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot on March 16, 1944, while escorting U.S. bombers in a raid over Berlin. In Germany, he encountered an overwhelming number of enemy Messerschmitt Bf 109s trying to pick off the bombers.

According to the award citation, Mr. Goodson dived after the Messerschmitts and knocked out two while weaving in and out of the line of fire.

That June, he was in his P-51 making a strafing run over a German airfield when he was shot down. He fled into a birch forest before collapsing from injuries. He eventually was caught by the Germans and threatened with execution.

He recalled that one captor asked him if he wanted a drink or another indulgence before being shot. Mr. Goodson spied a box of Havana cigars, asked for a stogie and began to blow smoke rings, which he said shocked the German and led to a conversation about their mutual interest in cigars.

“The guy had never seen anything like that,” Mr. Goodson once said in an interview, “and I started teaching him how to blow smoke rings.” Instead of being shot, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

“People say smoking costs lives,” he said. “It saved my life.”

James Alexander Goodson, known as “Goody,” was born March 21, 1921, in New York City. In Toronto, he was studying languages when he set out for Europe.

After being held at POW camps in Poland and in Germany, he was repatriated in April 1945. His honors included the Silver Star, nine awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and 21 awards of the Air Medal. He retired from the Air Force Reserve with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Following his wartime discharge, Mr. Goodson became an executive with Goodyear, Hoover and the conglomerate ITT. He wrote a memoir, “Tumult in the Clouds,” published in 1983.

His wife of 62 years, the former Gwendolyn Rice, died in April. Survivors include a son, James Goodson Jr. of Marshfield, Mass.; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Goodson had pneumonia and died at a hospital in Plymouth, Mass., his son said. Mr. Goodson was a resident of Duxbury, Mass.

He once told the Boston Herald that, as a POW, he was visited by a group of German aces in a display of respect. “It was a different time,” he said. “That’s all gone now.”

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9 responses to RIP: James A. Goodson 1921-2014

  1. Nice photo….I assume that restoration depicts Goodson’s ‘mount’ while flying P-51’s. The article mentioned his wife died last month. It seems that couples who are married to one another for such lengths of time, often “give up” when their spouse passes. Interesting obit….thx.

  2. Thanks Tom.
    I don’t know if I missed a posting of Colonel James H. Kasler’s passing but if it wasn’t posted he passed in April.
    He was a veteran of WWII, Korea & Viet Nam being awarded the Air Force Cross three times.
    He flew a combined 198 combat missions & spent from Aug. 1966 until March 1973 at the Hanoi Hilton.
    I took this information from his obituary.
    Tom if you could add anything I think we all would appreciate it.

  3. There’s a few mistakes in the obit.

    Jimmy had already decided to join the RAF in August 1939, but was told there was a long waiting list and it was suggested he could go to Canada and join the RCAF immediately. That’s why he was on the Athenia, headed for Canada.

    When the survivors arrived in Aberdeen, Scotland, he met a young John F. Kennedy, who was there representing the American embassy to help the American survivors. They formed a lifelong friendship. He told me a great story about being in the Palace of Versailles in 1961 as the President’s guest when JFK and Jackie made that triumphal visit to Paris.

    His wife was the Duchess of Portland – met her as a widow. He stayed in Europe after the war and went into business. As she said to me once, “You know, Jimmy was ten years ahead of his contemporaries in business. He was 26 after the war, and had already run an organization of 1,500 men.”

    He was flying a P-51B when he got the DFC on March 16 – that was the fourth Berlin raid.

    It’s not well-known but in May 1944, he was the guy who led the Tuskeegee Airmen on their first missions as a fighter group. A new FG was supposed to be led their first few missions by an experienced group commander, but none of the white FG commanders in the15th AF would take the assignment. Jimmy hadn’t been raised with all the American b.s. about race and he was planning to take over the 4th FG when Blakeslee finally decided to call it quits, so leading the 322nd “punched his ticket” for higher command. He would likely have succeeded Blakeslee in July when Blakeslee went home on leave, but he spotted that Me-163 over to the side of the field outside Leipzig, and made that fatal left turn that put him broadside to all the flak gunners when he took the bait.

    Jimmy was like what people used to say Gable had been like. Very dashing. My then-girlfriend confided to me in 1984 at the AFAA convention that if he wasn’t there with his wife, she’d have been fine with being there on her own with him. He was the kind of guy you didn’t have to be looking at the door to know when he entered the room.

    • ERRORS
      Dear Tom
      No one I know has ever called him Jimmy!
      That obit has mostly been taken from AP, which itself got some errors and some of it is just wrong. He has most certainly not died from a broken heart a month after his wife as suggested below. His wife was NOT the Duchess of Portland, I have no idea where that came from and I have no idea who you think you met! and he did not decide to join the RAF in August 1939, he was on his way home, as advised by Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, from studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. He was on the Athenia because it was the first ship he could get passage on and people wanted to sail before war was declared. He decided to join after the sinking and getting back to Glasgow then the RAF couldn’t train that many people so he headed back to Canada for training.

  4. Its very sad another Legend gone, theres all to few left.
    R.I.P. James Goodson.
    Thanks Tom you are a lucky guy knowing and calling some of these great people your friends

  5. Nice post, Tom, very informative.

  6. Sad to hear about passing away of these great pilots. J. Goodson will be greatly missed. Thanks for sharing the story.

  7. that is sad…man we grew up in a world full of great people…the men were men and the women were saints…i believe i remember goody from “hunters in the sky”…and you know we were raised by the WW1 generation too…i was born in 52 and by 62 they were just retiring…when Robert Mitchum died i was sad for two days and George Jones…i guess Yeager soon…and we’re next

  8. I served under ” Jim “GOODSON ‘s command when hé was VP of ITT EUROPE .and CEO of the CONSUMERS PRODUCTS GROUP .He was like a Father to me ,being much younger than him ( I was born in 1934 ), and ” coached “m’y young carreer ,as M.D. of the ILLUMINATION PRODUCTS DIVISION .JIM was a very humane and kind man ,with a considérable amount of typically ENGLISH humor :hé had an unique way to count his war exploits with considérable modesty .Hé Certainly had acquièred from his war expérience an expert knowledge to command men ,without ever raising his voice or loosing his temper.Hé had a steel Will.Life within ITT AND IT’s ” boss”, HAROLD S.GENNEEN was nô easy task and “Jim”( That’s how we called him)assumed his responsibilities to the perfection.Jim ,we Will forever regret you ,what a man and what an example to follow!

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