Ellijay’s Godwin flew 53 combat missions in World War II

  • At top, the U.S. Army Air Corps 42nd Bombardment Group, of which World War II vet John Godwin was a member, flies over Bouganville in 1944. At bottom, brothers John T. “Jake” Godwin, right, and W.H. “Barney” Godwin in their respective Army and Coast Guard uniforms. A third brother served in the Marines. (Contributed photos)
by Mark Millican

As the lead bombardier and navigator in a B-25 bomber, John Godwin remembers vividly his combat missions in World War II.

“I’d look to my right and one of our planes would be going down in flames, then I’d look to my left and another one of our planes would be going down in flames,” he said of flying 53 bombing flights in the South Pacific. “I’d say a little prayer.”

Godwin, 92, was born in Birmingham, Ala., but raised in Homestead, Fla. He excelled in school there — doing well in debates and winning a statewide public speaking contest while in Future Farmers of America — then went on to study at an agricultural college. He and a pal were on a double date when they heard the news: Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

“I looked at my buddy and told him, ‘You know where we’re going,’” he recalled recently at Cameron Hall Senior Living Community of Ellijay. “We went and packed our bags and headed home to enlist.”

In the Coral Sea

During bombardier training with the U.S. Army Air Corps, Godwin proved adept at using the “aerial dead reckoning computer,” which was actually a mechanical device utilized to sight bombing targets. Soon he found himself stationed in the Coral Sea, northeast of Australia and due east of the island of Papua New Guinea. His base was on Sterling Island, but the bomber crews also “island hopped” when Marines fought for and secured islands from the Japanese.

Godwin said he never took malaria pills since he was so used to the southern Florida mosquitoes, but he still lost weight and “came back skinny,” said his niece, Louise Godwin, who sat in on a recent interview.

She related a story where her uncle and another officer went into the jungle on one island with pistols to try and shoot something to eat. But the island was known for its headhunters and when the pair heard a tribe’s drums nearby, they turned around. On the way back to their airstrip, they ran across some enlisted men who were running a still close to the beach. She said Godwin told her the enlisted men were afraid the officers would report them, but they just saluted and said, “Carry on!”

“He’s told me dozens and dozens of stories,” said Louise Godwin.

‘They gave us a shot’

Godwin said if the crews were fortunate enough to return safely from their mission, their nerves would be “shot” when they got back to base.

“They gave us a shot of bourbon to help calm us down, because we’d been up all night and all day,” he said. “A couple of the guys were Baptists and wouldn’t take it so that would be double-portions for some of the rest of us. Then we’d hit the rack and go to sleep.”

After flying his 53 missions and miraculously not getting a scratch, Godwin said the Air Corps lowered the mission threshold to 25 flights since they were losing so many planes and crews. A senior officer told him he’d promote him from first lieutenant to captain — since he’d been doing a captain’s job anyway — if he’d re-enlist.

“I told him I wouldn’t stay in if he made me a brigadier general,” Godwin recollected. 

One of his highlights in the Pacific was getting to see his brother, W.H. “Barney” Godwin, Louise’s father, who was in the U.S. Coast Guard at the Battle of Tara in the Pacific.

“He was able to fly to another island and then found him,” she said. “My father was asleep but Uncle Jake — that’s what I called him — grabbed his arm and he jumped up. He was about to hit him until he saw who it was.”

A third brother enlisted in the U.S. Marines and also saw action in the Pacific.

‘So be it’

Godwin was asked what it was like to be on a bombing mission.

“Was I scared? Yes,” he said. “It’s an experience I can’t explain. You’re at the top of all the emotions your body can generate. They were shooting those big anti-aircraft guns at us, especially over urban areas. I had a little prayer I said: ‘Lord, if you see fit to get me through this, I’d appreciate it. If not, so be it.’”

Still, he got an extra flak jacket to sit on to protect him from the shrapnel the big guns released.

Godwin earned two Air Medals for meritorious service and his outfit — the 42nd Bombing Group, 70th Squadron — received a Presidential Unit Citation for its “air coverage of the capture of a Japanese oil refinery in Southern Borneo, a 1,700-mile flight.” During the war, the unit dropped over 460,000 pounds of napalm and demolitions, hitting 91 percent of their targets, and fired 415,000 rounds of strafing ammo, according to military reports.

“I felt it was an honor and my duty to protect this great country,” he said, “and my buddies deserve a pat on the back for helping save the Pacific ring.”

Godwin said when his unit got liberty in Australia the Aussies treated them like kings because they “knew we’d saved them from the Japanese,” he recalled. 

Back in Homestead, he was elected president of the city council at age 27. He ran a bait-and-tackle shop, matriculated at the University of Miami and attained a degree in mechanical engineering. He met his wife, Bennie Mae, on a blind date.

Louise Godwin said the pair loved to dance and when John flung Bennie Mae over his shoulders and between his legs the other couples would stop dancing and watch. Bennie Mae passed away eight years ago due to complications from Alzheimer’s, and Louise said John took care of her the last six years of her life.
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