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 Goodson arrived, Joseph Kennedy Sr., the U.S. ambassador to England, urged all American expatriates to return home because of the looming threat of war.
Goodson, who died Thursday 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.
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. 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 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 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.
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.
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.
Goodson’s wife of 62 years, the former Gwendolyn Rice, died in April. Survivors include a son, James Goodson Jr. of Marshfield, Mass.; and three grandchildren. Goodson had pneumonia and died at a hospital in Plymouth, Mass., his son said. Goodson was a resident of Duxbury, Mass.