Jay Godfrey’s dad famously fought the Nazis, then ALS

  • ABOVE: Johnny Godfrey was a World War II Flying Ace. JAY GODFREY / Courtesy

  • Johnny Godfrey (left) and fellow World War II flying ace Don Gentile during the war. Godfrey died of ALS in 1958 at the age of 36, and Gentile died in a plane crash in 1951. Godfrey’s son, Jay, lives in Pembroke. JAY GODFREY / Courtesy

  • RIGHT: Jay Godfrey has two passions: one, his chickens and two, bike riding. But he is also keeping alive the memory of his dad, a World War II pilot who died of ALS in 1958. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jay Godfrey is keeping the memory of his father, Johnny Godfrey, a World War II ace pilot who died of ALS in 1958. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jay Godfrey is riding to keep alive the memory of his father, Johnny Godfrey, a World War II ace pilot who died of ALS in 1958. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/12/2021 8:00:05 PM

Jay Godfrey, 10 years old, was beaming that day 65 years ago.

He recalls watching a video shown to veterans at a VFW in Freeport, Maine, documenting his father’s career as a fighter pilot. His dad, John Godfrey, known as Johnny, shot down 18 German planes and hit 18 more on the ground during World War II, and on this day, with Johnny’s young son standing at dad’s side, the image that emerged for those vets was one of a Flying Ace, dashing and daring and brave.

“I was so proud,” said Jay, now 75, a retired local chemistry teacher who lives in Pembroke.

But bitterness is also part of this story, anger at 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. Jay’s team is called Johnny’s Reply.

“Some of the money will go to the national ALS, which funds research,” Jay said. “That is how you stop this frigging disease. Yes, I have a chip on my shoulder, and I’ve had it for 60-something years.”

A residual effect from those final snapshots of Johnny, no doubt. Immobile and speechless, his breathing forever threatening to stop, before it eventually did. The disease halts communication between the brain and the muscles, which leads to paralyzation and, eventually, suffocation. There is no cure.

It goes by a short name (ALS) and a famous name (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Gehrig was a Hall of Fame baseball player, one of the greatest ever, for the New York Yankees. ALS forced his retirement in 1939, and he died two years later, at age 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, a period lasting 14 years. Imagine not calling in sick for that long. Terrible irony, from the Iron Horse to bed-ridden at 37.

Johnny was bigger than life as well. He earned enough medals to make Patton jealous, enough heroics to fuel more than one book, and enough fame to command his own Wiki Page.

“Yes, he was famous, a famous fighter pilot,” Jay reminded me. “He was the number two Ace in the European Theater. He shot down aircraft in the air and he strafed the airfields.”

He raised his family in Rhode Island and joined England’s Royal Air Force in Canada before the bombing of Pearl Harbor had even pushed America into the 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 the skies over Germany.

Gentile was billed the Ace of Aces. He surpassed Eddie Rickenbackers’s record, set during World War I, of downing 26 enemy aircraft. Sadly, Gentile was 30 when he died in a plane crash during a test mission in 1951.

Johnny lived for seven more years. He moved his family to Maine in the 1950s. Jay recalls his father had a silly sense of humor. He liked to hunt and fish. The family spent summers swimming and boating in Casco Bay.

Johnny ran a lace manufacturing company in Freeport and made a good living. He later 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 Merchant Marine during the war, was killed after his ship was torpedoed by a Nazi U-Boat. Johnny named his plane Reggie’s Reply.

“It was like (Reggie) was saying, ‘Here you go, Nazis. Take that,’ ” Jay said.

Germany surrendered to the Allies in 1945. Johnny surrendered to ALS in 1958. He had been diagnosed two years earlier.

“This was a story about a famous person’s illness,” Jay recalled. “The story got covered all over the place, and my family got letters from all over the world, with condolences and suggestions to try this and try that and see this doctor and your illness 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 went to Germany as well, for the same reason. Searching to get his life back. There was no cure, however. Then or now, 65 years later.

Jay’s parents hid the truth from him, that his father had a terminal illness and a short time to live. Jay accidentally learned the truth from the local newspaper, which ran a photo and story on its front page. A war hero, a local war hero, was dying.

Jay recalled the day he had to lift his father from shallow water at the beach, after a small wave had knocked him over. He remembered Johnny’s slow walk, a changed voice, a changed man.

“Toward the end, he’d blink his eyes,” 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 the Granite State 50 years ago, got married, raised kids, taught chemistry all over the place. 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 during the First Gulf War 30 years ago.

He heard recently about the Ride to Defeat ALS in Massachusetts and created Johnny’s Reply. He bikes up to 50 miles per week.

He still beams when talking about Johnny and all he did.

Johnny wrote a book detailing his war experience called The Look of Eagles. He and Gentile were featured in a book called Two-Man Air Force that documented the dangerous missions flown 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 those veterans to Johnny at a Maine VFW, circa 1955, while Jay looked on.

The clips show a 50-caliber weapon firing from a fighter plane, scenes shot by a camera that would automatically click on and record each time the trigger was pulled.

That’s how history documented Johnny’s service. That’s how history knows he tangled with the Luftwaffe and downed 18 German planes. It’s how Jay prefers to remember his father. A swashbuckler, fearless and tough.

Not the man dying in his mid-30s, blinking to communicate. That’s why he’s riding on Sunday, leading a team of younger riders.

“I was 12 when he died, and that’s why ALS pisses me off,” Jay said. “I cry when I’ve done something physical and enduring to help fight ALS. My heart and soul are in it. I’m demanding of my body and determined in my fight.”

Optimism doesn’t come easily. Gehrig brought the disease into the open more than 80 years ago, and still, no cure. This enemy has yet to surrender.

“I really want a cure but I’m not holding out hope,” Jay said, before quickly pivoting.

“No, I have lots of hope,” he said.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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