One Lucky Devil: The First World War Memoirs of Sampson J. Goodfellow, edited by Edward Willett, details the incredible wartime experiences of a remarkable man. Sampson Goodfellow seemed to have nine lives, but there was more than just blind luck involved.
Born in Scotland, he immigrated to Toronto, then moved to Regina in 1911, working as a machinist. The next year he witnessed a cyclone barrelling through the city. “I watched it coming from the south,” he wrote, “and saw the houses on Cornwall Street tumbling down, one after the other.”
Goodfellow enlisted in the Canadian Army when World War I broke out and, because of his mechanical skill, was assigned as a driver. At Passchendaele, German planes bombed troops unloading shells from his truck. Shrapnel smashed through the back seat where he’d been sitting just moments before.
Goodfellow transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, renamed the Royal Air Force in April 1918, as a navigator. Understanding aviation concepts better than his instructors, he wound up teaching a course. He survived several crashes and near-crashes.
When his Handley Page bomber was shot down over Germany, Goodfellow remained calm and cool-headed, opting to burn the remains of his plane rather than let the Germans learn its secrets. Holding bayonets to his belly, the Germans forced him to surrender.
One of the most exciting chapters deals with Goodfellow’s internment as a prisoner of war. Here he showed his true mettle. When he refused to reveal information about a new type of British plane, a German intelligence officer indignantly exploded, “Do you know, or are you just a damn fool?” Goodfellow impudently replied, “Yes.”
In his memoir, Goodfellow doesn’t talk much about the love of his life – there was a war going on, after all. But he did manage to meet and, after the Armistice, marry Anne Owen “Nancy” Ridgway. When Goodfellow’s bomber was reported missing, Nancy and her parents consulted a fortune teller, who told them, “You couldn’t kill that devil. He is alive and trying to escape.”
When a doctor examined him after his release from the POW camp, he said Goodfellow had endured enough to be dead several times over. There was more than just luck involved, however. Survival required skill, ingenuity, and innovation. Some bold-faced audacity also went a long way.
One Lucky Devil is accompanied by more than fifty black and white photos and illustrations. In a brief epilogue, Willett addresses Goodfellow’s post-war life. He and his wife moved to Regina, where they sponsored artistic and cultural endeavours. Each year, Regina Little Theatre offers an award in honour of Sampson Goodfellow, affectionately known as the “Sammy.” Willett, incidentally, married Sampson and Nancy’s granddaughter, and they currently reside in the Goodfellow house.
With deft editing, Willett lets Goodfellow tell his story in his own words. Even if some of his exploits may seem exaggerated, Goodfellow’s memoir is a gem, a beautiful story simply told. This is Canadian heroism at its finest.
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