Hero of the greatest generation finally gets Soldier's Medal

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 31, 2012 

Godrey Lewis was an unassuming mail worker, but his heroics in World War II were the stuff of John Wayne on the big screen.

It was something the Lady's Island retiree never talked about.

But his action as a young U.S. Army lieutenant earned him the Soldier's Medal, the highest honor a soldier can receive for an act of valor in a non-combat situation.

He got the neatly typed citation, but for some reason never got the medal, or his Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

A decade ago, he tried unsuccessfully to get his medals.

Last November, his nephew, retired Army Col. Colin McArthur of Dataw Island, waded into the bureaucracy for his uncle.

"It kind of irked me that he never received his medals," McArthur said.

Two days after McArthur sent his first letter to the government, his uncle died.

He was 95 and had moved back to New York to be near his daughter, Carolyn Lewis. She said her dad was suffering from dementia and may not have known his medals were in the works.

"I did tell him Colin was getting his medals," Carolyn said. "I told him more than once. He smiled. I'm not sure he knew what I was saying, but in my heart I think he did."

The Soldier's Medal that Lewis earned when his bomber crashed into a mountain in 1945 arrived on Dataw Island two weeks ago.

'LIKE A GHOST'

Carolyn never heard her father's war story until she was a teenager with a history paper due. Her mother, Mary, said, "Your dad has some special history that maybe he would like to share with you."

Even with that, it wasn't until her mother died in 2007 that Carolyn found paperwork with the full story.

It happened in the vicinity of Balete Pass on Luzon, the largest of the Philippine Islands. The Allies took control of the island in a bloody fight that claimed more than 350,000 casualties, most of them Japanese.

On March 7, 1945, Lewis was the navigator on a B-24 flying a bombing mission. While trying to rise above difficult weather encountered in a pass, the plane crashed into the top of a mountain in enemy territory.

"Lt. Lewis managed to extricate himself from the wreckage and returned to help the bombardier, who had broken his leg and was trapped in the twisted metal of the nose compartment," the U.S. Army citation reads. "He assisted the pilot and co-pilot in releasing the injured man from the burning plane and removing him to safety."

Then, equipped with a compass, a map, a knife and a box of rations, he set out alone through the jungle to get help while the other officers tended to the bombardier.

"Though he lost his food, compass and map on the second day, he continued walking through dense forests and over numerous mountain ranges for five days until, after making his way through enemy lines, he contacted American infantry patrols," the citation reads.

In a letter written three days later to his mother in New York, Lewis told how some of the bombs in the plane tumbled down a ravine and "a few went off while we helped get the bombardier out."

He wrote that when he finally saw "those doughboys when I broke out into the valley, I must have looked like a ghost with my flying suit torn to shreds."

Lewis then guided troops to rescue the survivors and bring home the dead.

Only then did he learn from native scouts that he had walked through a concentration of 500 Japanese on part of his trip. And, he told his mother, "I came out in the valley through one of our own minefields. I spoke to one of the men who laid those mines and he couldn't understand how I didn't get blown to bits."

A HOME BUILDER

Carolyn Lewis read it and said, "It's almost like a story about someone else."

She knew an unassuming man born on the Isle of Wight in England, who fought for his new country, returned from war and lived in the projects in Queens with other veterans. He rode in a train mail car, sorting the mail as it rocked from New York City to Syracuse and back, over and over again.

Godrey and Mary Lewis had three children and wanted them out of the city. He discovered they couldn't afford a home in the country. So out of the blue he bought a lot for $500, bulldozed it and built his own home. It took him five years.

He worked for the postal service until he was 55, then as a police dispatcher until he was 65.

When he retired, he and Mary moved to West River Drive on Lady's Island. He liked to play golf. He had a fantasy baseball team and watched every sport that came on TV.

He missed Mary terribly when she died. He moved to assisted living near a son in Charleston. When Carolyn brought him home to New York, he couldn't walk and had to be lifted into the plane with a crane.

"He was such a trouper," she said. "He was such a good sport. He never complained."

When her father talked about the plane crash in the Philippines, he expressed hurt for the troops who died. He said he didn't do anything heroic.

Carolyn can now hold a medal that says otherwise.

The ashes of the quiet hero will soon be laid to rest beside Mary in the Beaufort National Cemetery.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Rlated content:

The battle for Luzon

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