10-year-old Jay Godfrey beamed that day 65 years ago.
He recalls watching a video shown to veterans on a VFW in Freeport, Maine, documenting his father’s career as a fighter pilot. His father, John Godfrey, known as Johnny, shot down 18 German planes and hit 18 on the ground during World War II. a flying ace, dashing, daring and courageous.
“I was so proud,” said Jay, now 75, a retired local chemistry teacher who lives in Pembroke.
But bitterness is also part of that story, anger over a rare neurological disorder – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – that killed Jay’s father and will fuel his 70-mile bike ride Sunday in Massachusetts, raising money to fight back. .
Johnny died in 1958. He was 36 years old. Jay’s team is called Johnny’s Reply.
“Some of the money will go to the national SLA, which funds the research,” Jay said. “This is how we stop this bloody disease. Yes, I have a chip on my shoulder, and I’ve had it for about 60 years.
A residual effect of these last pictures of Johnny, without a doubt. Motionless and speechless, her breathing forever threatening to stop, before she finally did. The disease interrupts the communication between the brain and the muscles, which leads to paralysis and, eventually, suffocation. There is no cure.
She has a short name (ALS) and a famous name (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Gehrig was a Hall of Fame baseball player, one of the greatest of all time, for the New York Yankees. ALS forced him to retire in 1939 and he died two years later at the age of 37.
There is a thread here. A common thread. Gehrig was nicknamed the Iron Horse, a symbol of power and durability. He set the record for most consecutive games played, 2,130, in a 14-year span. Imagine not calling sick for that long. Terrible irony, from the iron horse to bedridden at 37.
Johnny was also larger than life. He’s earned enough medals to make Patton jealous, enough heroism to fuel more than one book, and enough fame to commission his own Wiki page.
“Yes, he was famous, a famous fighter pilot,” Jay reminded me. “He was the number two ace in European theater. He shot down planes in the air and strafed airfields.
He raised his family in Rhode Island and joined the Royal Air Force of England in Canada even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor pushed America into war.
“He ran away from home after high school,” Jay said, proudly, of course. “He wanted to fight. He moved to England because he wanted to fight.
He was good at it too. So good, in fact, that Johnny and his wingman Dominic Salvatore Gentile became the Luftwaffe’s worst nightmare in German skies.
Gentile was billed the Ace of Aces. He broke Eddie Rickenbackers’ World War I record of shooting down 26 enemy planes. Sadly, Gentile was 30 when he died in a plane crash while on a test mission in 1951.
Johnny lived another seven years. He moved his family to Maine in the 1950s. Jay remembers his father having a silly sense of humor. He loved to hunt and fish. The family spent their summers swimming and boating in Casco Bay.
Johnny ran a lace making business in Freeport and made a good living. He then sold the building to LL Bean and made a lot of money.
“We had a really good life there,” Jay said.
Johnny’s brother, Reggie Godfrey, a wartime merchant marine, was killed after his ship was torpedoed by a Nazi submarine. Johnny named his plane Reggie’s Reply.
“It was like (Reggie) saying, ‘There you go, Nazis. Take this, ”Jay said.
Germany surrendered to the Allies in 1945. Johnny surrendered to ALS in 1958. He had been diagnosed two years earlier.
“It was the story of a famous person’s illness,” recalls Jay. “The story has been covered everywhere, and my family has received letters from all over the world, with condolences and suggestions to try this and that and see this doctor and your disease will be cured.”
Desperate, Johnny and his wife, Joan Beattie, flew to Florida to investigate a breakthrough treatment. He was told it could kill the disease. He also went to Germany, for the same reason. Seeking to take back his life in hand. There was no cure, however. Yesterday or today, 65 years later.
Jay’s parents kept the truth from him, that his father was terminally ill and had little time to live. Jay accidentally learned the truth from the local newspaper, which posted a photo and front page story. A war hero, a local war hero, was dying.
Jay remembers the day he had to get his dad out of the shallow waters of the beach after a small wave knocked him over. He remembered Johnny walking slowly, a changed voice, a changed man.
“Towards the end, he would blink,” Jay said. “Mom used Morse code, blink, I’m hungry, I’m cold. Nowadays they have voice synthesizers.
He died on June 12, 1958. His son moved to Granite State 50 years ago, got married, raised children, taught chemistry everywhere. Concord, Gilford, Hopkinton, Goffstown. He also spent 20 years in the Army Reserve, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He commanded a battalion that fought in Iraq in the First Gulf War 30 years ago.
He recently heard about the Ride to Defeat ALS in Massachusetts and started Johnny’s Reply. He cycles up to 50 miles per week.
He’s still beaming when he talks about Johnny and everything he’s done.
Johnny wrote a book detailing his war experience called The eagles’ gaze. He and Gentile were featured in a book titled Two air force which documented the dangerous missions carried out by Johnny and Gentile while the world awaited its fate.
He’s in the history books, never to leave. Jay has that old, grainy black and white film that introduced these veterans to Johnny on a VFW from Maine, circa 1955, while Jay watched.
The clips show a 50 caliber weapon firing from a fighter plane, scenes shot by a camera that would automatically click and record whenever the trigger was pulled.
This is how history documented Johnny’s service. This is how history knows that he mingled with the Luftwaffe and shot down 18 German planes. This is how Jay prefers to remember his father. A swashbuckler, fearless and resilient.
Not the dying man in his mid-thirties, blinking to communicate. This is why he rides on Sunday, at the head of a team of young riders.
“I was 12 when he died, and that’s why ALS pisses me off,” Jay said. “I cry when I did something physical and lasting to help fight ALS. My heart and soul are there. I am demanding of my body and determined in my fight.
Optimism doesn’t come easily. Gehrig revealed the disease over 80 years ago, and still no cure. This enemy has yet to surrender.
“I really want a cure but I’m not having hope,” Jay said, before quickly pivoting.
“No, I have a lot of hope,” he said.