James A. Goodson died May 1, 2014 at the age of 93. He was an Athenia survivor, and it would be a shame not to take a moment in this space to mark his passing, especially so close to Memorial Day. Goodson was a man of action and incredible initiative. He never shied away from a tough job, and his broad smile and ebullient personality won him friends wherever he went. Those closest to him called him “Goody,” a nickname that seemed particularly apt.
Born March 21, 1921, in New York City, Goodson never knew his father, who left before his son was born to look after property he owned in Russia — then in the throes of the Bolshevik revolution. His father was never heard from again. As a consequence, young Goodson grew up with his mother and relatives in Toronto, Canada. He was 18 years old when he set out to see the world in 1939, working his way across the Atlantic as a steward aboard Athenia. A student of modern languages, Goodson spent the summer in Paris to polish his French. In late August, he was back in England visiting his aunt and uncle in Kent when he learned Americans were advised to return home before the conflict in Europe boiled over into war.
He booked passage back to Canada aboard Athenia, and a day after leaving Liverpool, on September 3, 1939, the ship was torpedoed less than ten hours after England declared war on Germany. Goodson was on his way up from the Tourist dining saloon when the torpedo struck, plunging the ship into darkness and tearing apart the stairway he had just used. He helped pull people up from the deck below, but the water appeared to be rising. Women and children were screaming for help because they could not swim. Goodson didn’t hesitate. He lowered himself into the cold, dark water and began rescuing the children first and then the women. Back and forth he swam, ferrying the frightened passengers on his back to the damaged stairway and passing them to the stewards above, who hauled them up to safety. When no one was left to be rescued, Goodson helped the crew inspect cabins to make sure no passengers were trapped in their rooms. Up on deck, he helped passengers don their life jackets and get into lifeboats until all the boats were away.
Undaunted, Goodson climbed over Athenia’s railing and lowered himself down a rope into the water. He swam to a nearby lifeboat, but the effort of pulling himself through the ocean’s swells was much greater than he expected and he was exhausted by the time a group of young women pulled him aboard.
“I collapsed in a wet heap on the bottom of the boat and gasped my thanks to my rescuers,” Goodson recalled later. “Amid peals of young female laughter I heard: ‘Hey! You’re an American!’ ‘So are you!’ I mumbled in reply.” Several college girls in various states of undress wrapped him in a blanket. As author Francis Carroll noted in his book Athenia Torpedoed, it was a rescue far beyond young Goodson’s expectation.
Back in Canada, he resumed his university studies but grew restless. Eager to do his “bit to stamp out Nazism,” Goodson dropped out and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in March of 1941 to train as a pilot. After earning his wings, he returned to England and had to give up his American citizenship to join Britain’s Royal Air Force as a member of one of its “Eagle” squadrons, units made up of American ex-pats. Goodson proved an able fighter pilot, knocking German fighters out of the air and strafing them on the ground at enemy air fields in France and Belgium.
When America finally entered the war, the Eagle squadrons were incorporated into the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942 and Goodson’s U.S. citizenship was restored. He became one of the country’s most decorated aces, eventually shooting down 15 German planes and destroying 15 more on the ground. His luck ran out in June of 1944 when he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and spent the remainder of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Goodson’s wartime honors included the nation’s second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, plus the Silver Star, nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Purple Heart and 21 Air Medals.
He retired from the USAAF as a lieutenant colonel. Goodson authored a book about his exploits, Tumult in the Clouds, published in 1983 and now out of print. Following the war, he attended Harvard Business School and eventually held executive positions with Goodyear, Hoover, and ITT Corp., serving mostly in Europe.
The word “hero” is often used today to define entire groups of people – war veterans, first responders – and rightly so. There was a time, however, when the word was reserved for an individual of great courage and character. James Alexander Goodson was every inch a hero in the throwback sense of that word.