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James Goodson WWII fighter pilot, 93

Obituary: How blowing smoke rings saved a PoW’s life Add to ...

James Goodson, who enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force but was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942, wears both his RCAF and USAAF wings here. (Photo courtesy of Melanie Brooks)

A little more than a month after D-Day, the front page of the Globe and Mail on July 13, 1944, was mostly devoted to the progress of the Allies in Normandy. But it also featured a photo of an aviator with a Clark Gable-style mustache. The caption noted that an ace fighter pilot, Major James Goodson, the son of Mrs. Gertrude Goodson of 23 Sultan St., Toronto, had gone missing after a mission over Germany.

The front page also carried an ominous article about Germans executing Allied prisoners of war.

Mr. Goodson, however, would survive this episode, one of his many epic wartime adventures.

From being aboard a ship that was torpedoed by a U-boat to staving off his execution by teaching a Nazi interrogator how to blow smoke rings, Mr. Goodson had several close calls during the Second World War and he survived them all.

Mr. Goodson died on May 1 after being hospitalized at a Plymouth, Mass., hospital for pneumonia. He was 93.

Though he had American citizenship, Mr. Goodson grew up in Ontario and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force while the United States was still neutral.

'Jimmy Goodson was the kind of outsize personality [that] one didn’t have to be looking at the door to know when he entered the room'
Aviation writer Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, author of Fabled Fifteen and Air Combat Annals

Mr. Goodson was nicknamed King of the Strafers, for his skills at machine-gunning ground targets. Half of the 30 enemy planes he is credited with destroying were on the ground.

He also showed his mettle in aerial dogfights. In August, 1943, in excerpts from a letter to his mother published in the Globe, he described German fighter aircraft “plummeting down like bullets” toward American bombers on a raid near Paris.

“I saw another Hun about to attack the bombers. ... I was able to wait until my sights were dead on before opening fire. There was a great flash and he went down in a pall of smoke.”

In another letter in The Globe, in February, 1944, he described covering his commanding officer during “a violent attack on some very belligerent FW-190s with which we had dogfights down to the deck.”

He shot down two of the German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes. “It was lucky … in two respects. In the first place the CO claims I saved his neck and in the second place, that gives me five confirmed [kills] which, in this theatre of operations, makes me officially an ace.”

AN ONTARIO CHILDHOOD

Mr. Goodson with his mother, Gertrude, after he returned to Toronto following the 1939 sinking of the Athenia. (Photo courtsey of Melanie Brooks)

He was born in New York, on March 21, 1921, but after his father’s death, he grew up in Ontario’s Simcoe County, where his mother had family, his son, Jamie, said.

They later moved to Toronto where Ms. Goodson ran a rooming house.

In 1939, Mr. Goodson was an 18-year-old student visiting relatives in Britain when Germany invaded Poland. He booked passage to Canada on the British liner SS Athenia.

Two days after she left port, the Athenia was torpedoed by a German submarine.

“The lights went out and there was an explosion which killed many people. The place was very badly crowded. ... It was a real rat race there,” Mr. Goodson later told reporters.

He helped the crew evacuate the ship then spent the rest of the night in a lifeboat.

“I felt an overwhelming fury that was to sweep over me time and time again during the war,” he wrote of the Athenia’s sinking, in his 1983 memoir Tumult in the Clouds, one of several books he wrote about his wartime experiences. “My fury was against those who used their power with such callous lack of responsibility to heap personal tragedy on the little people who wanted only to live.”

He was rescued by a Norwegian tanker and transported to Glasgow, where he walked to a Royal Air Force recruiting station, but was told he would be better off trying in Canada.

During the war, Mr. Goodson flew Hurricane and Spitfire British fighter planes before switching to long-range P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang American aircraft. (Photo: family handout/Associated Press)

Back in North America, he joined the Canadian Officer Training Corps and took classes at the University of Toronto. However, not wanting to wait for an officer’s commission, he enlisted in the RCAF.

After flight training in Dunville, Ont., he received his pilot’s wings at a parade on Dec. 5, 1941, one of a group of newly minted aviators.

“Some fellows could best serve their country by completing their university course, but not me. My place is in the war,” he told reporters.

Two days later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the U.S. entered the war.

Mr. Goodson shipped out to Britain and was first assigned to the RCAF’s 416 Squadron.

In Joshua Levin’s oral history Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, Mr. Goodson described his confusion during his first combat flight, when all he could do was stay close to his leader’s plane.

“I hadn't known what in the world was going on,” he said. “All I’d seen was the tail of my number one, which I’d glued myself to.”

At the time, the RAF had three “Eagle” fighter squadrons, made up of Americans volunteers. With the U.S. now a belligerent, “the RAF combed the other squadrons for American personnel, and sent them to the Eagle Squadrons whether they wanted to go or not,” said aviation writer Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, author of Fabled Fifteen and Air Combat Annals.

Mr. Goodson thus was dispatched to 133 (Eagle) Squadron – just after it lost 12 aircraft in a disastrous Sept. 26 mission over the French city of Morlaix.

'NONE OF THEM CAME BACK'

He arrived to empty barracks, with girlfriends' photos and someone’s half-written letter to his mother still lying on the desks.

Mr. Goodson recalled asking: “Where are the others?”

“Don’t you know?” he was told. “None of them came back.”

Three days later, the remaining American volunteers became members of the newly formed U.S. 4th Fighter Group.

Initially, they flew British Spitfire planes.

“[While flying] I used to smoke a cigar sometimes – against all rules and regulations,” Mr. Goodson said in Mr. Levin’s oral history.

“If I dropped my cigar lighter, instead of groping around on the floor, I’d move the stick a fraction of an inch, the Spit would roll over and I’d catch the cigar lighter as it came down from the floor.”

The Spitfire, however, had a limited fuel range. The squadron eventually switched to American aircraft that could fly further into the continent.

An article from the Feb. 14, 1944, edition of The Globe and Mail where Mr. Goodson describes shooting down two German planes that were threatening his commanding officer.

Mr. Goodson earned the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. military’s second-highest honour, for a March, 1944, raid over Berlin. He was piloting a P-47 Thunderbolt when he shot down two planes.

Later that spring, his squadron was refitted with long-range P-51 Mustang fighter planes. Their new order was that, rather than just escort bombers, they would seek and destroy enemy planes wherever they could find them. Historians say that shift was pivotal in establishing Allied supremacy over the skies of Europe.

“I didn’t go strafing because I enjoyed it. I did it because I thought it was the best way to destroy German planes,” Mr. Goodson said in an interview for the book Great American Fighter Aces, by Dan Bauer.

GOODSON IS SHOT DOWN

On June 20, 1944, during a mission deep into northern Germany, Mr. Goodson was strafing an airfield when his P-51 was struck by anti-aircraft fire.

A photo on the front page of The Globe and Mail’s edition of July 13, 1944, announcing that Mr. Goodson was missing in action.

Despite being wounded in a leg, he managed a belly landing. He hid in the woods for several days, eating field mice, snails and “just about anything that crawled.”

Ultimately he was captured and taken to the Gestapo. Despite his protests that he was an American officer, his interrogator said that they planned to execute him.

However, he was offered a final wish. Seeing a box of cigars, he asked for a last smoke. When Mr. Goodson blew a smoke ring, the German became very curious.

“I started teaching him how to blow smoke rings. And that started a bond between us,” Mr. Goodson recalled.

The mollified interrogator eventually agreed to send Mr. Goodson to a POW camp.

He was taken to Stalag Luft III, in what is now the Polish part of Silesia. Three months earlier, 76 aviators had tunnelled their way out of the camp’s RAF compound, a feat that would be dramatized in the 1963 film The Great Escape. The Gestapo afterward executed 50 of the 73 fliers who were recaptured. For the prisoners who remained, there would be another ordeal.

By early 1945, with the Red Army approaching, the Germans began evacuating the POW and concentration camps of eastern Europe. In the middle of a biting night blizzard, the aviators of Stalag Luft III began a 90-kilometre forced march.

“I saw some chaps fall down in sheer weakness,” Mr. Goodson recalled later in a Toronto Daily Star interview.

They were eventually packed into rail cattle cars and taken to Stalag VIIA, an overcrowded, vermin-infested camp in Bavaria.

At the end of April, the American army overran the area and liberated the camp. Two weeks later, an article in The Globe reported that Mrs. Goodson had been notified that her son was alive and recovering in England.

Mr. Goodson describing how smoking cigars saved his life during a Gestapo interrogation. From a documentary project by the U.K.-based production house Amatis Films Ltd.

HOMECOMING

He returned to Toronto that summer. He had left three years before as an RCAF sergeant. Now he was a U.S. major, uncertain about his professional future, speaking about the “emaciated skeletons” of the concentration inmates and trying to distinguish the good and the bad Germans.

Germany had been defeated but the war continued in the Pacific.

Like other high-profile soldiers, he was dispatched on a tour to help sell war bonds. He was at one fundraising rally, in Akron, Ohio, when came the news that Japan had surrendered.

He was sitting next to Eddie Thomas, president of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, who offered him a job on the spot.

He thus went back to Europe as a Goodyear executive. He reconnected with Gwendoline Rice, an English woman he had met while he was a fighter pilot.

They married in 1951 and lived in different European countries. By 1992, they were in Britain during the 50th anniversary of the arrival there of American pilots.

“I don't remember what I was doing yesterday but the war is vivid for me. It was the high point of my life,” Mr. Goodson said.

He died last than two weeks after his wife passed away on April 19. They are survived by a son, Jamie, and three grandchildren.

“Jimmy Goodson was the kind of outsize personality [that] one didn’t have to be looking at the door to know when he entered the room. He was easy to know and you felt lucky to be a friend,” Mr. Cleaver, the book author, said.

Mr. Cleaver also kept in touch with Mr. Goodson’s wingman, Bob Wehrman, who flew behind him from August, 1943 to June, 1944.

He said Mr. Wehrman confided to him that, after the war, whenever he faced difficult times, he reminded himself, “You stuck with Jimmy Goodson for a year, how hard can anything else be?”

Original copies of Mr. Goodson’s military records, courtesy of Melanie Brooks.

Letter Distinguished Service Cross Silver Star & DFC Page 1
Letter Distinguished Service Cross Silver Star & DFC Page 2
Statement of Military Service USAAF page 1
Statement of Military Service USAAF page 2

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