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Charleston attorney tracks down relative killed in World War I

Chris Dorst
Charleston attorney Robin Godfrey poured himself into researching how and where his great-uncle, Henry Goodman, died in World War I in France.
Chris Dorst Henry Goodman was working at regimental headquarters one fateful day in 1918 when a German shell struck the building.
Chris Dorst A rubbing from Henry Goodman's gravestone, which sat unvisited for decades until Godfrey's family discovered its locale in 2009 in Queens, N.Y.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It didn't start as a quest. Robin Godfrey merely wished to track down a memorial plaque to his great-uncle, Henry Goodman.

He learned about the plaque in 2006 and that it was located somewhere along the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Godfrey was also interested in his relative because he had been, like the Charleston attorney himself, a lawyer, the only other one in the family.

After several attempts walking the length and breadth of the parkway, Godfrey finally came upon the plaque. It was a small one set into the ground that read simply: "This tree is dedicated to the memory of Corp. Henry D. Goodman, Hdqtrs. Co. 308th. Infantry Who died in the World War 1914-1918."

"Then I seemed to have set it down for a couple of years," Godfrey said. "Then I started to wonder, well, where was he buried? My cousin initially found the cemetery. After I found his gravesite, I started to wonder, well, how did he die? Then I wondered how he was a lawyer. So one thing let to another, until I discovered his burial record, which I thought had been burned up in a fire."

That was the main gold mine in this search because it told exactly what transpired and how he died, Godfrey said. "It was really another tragic death. It's one man's story from World War I, where how many million people died, and American soldiers?

"So, once I got the burial record, I said, well, we have to finish this journey and go to France. Fortunately, my cousin speaks French and my wife speaks pretty good French."

Godfrey has written up a 30-page draft of the tale of his search for his great uncle's story, tentatively titled "Finding Corporal Goodman."

It tracks the ins and outs of his attempts to piece together exactly where and how his relative died at the age of 30. "In this business, you just make the next phone call and keep looking for people."

What he found out was that his great-uncle was working at the regimental headquarters at Chéry-Chartreuve in the Picardy region of France while the place was under a heavy barrage of German fire at a rate estimated at 1,600 rounds a day.

Cpl. Goodman was at the time working for Charles Whittlesey, who would go on to fame as leader of the "Lost Battalion." Goodman was busy at his typewriter in the next room with the door closed when a shell hit the headquarters and burst through the roof. A shell fragment penetrated the door and hit him on the right thigh.

His burial record goes on to say:

"With his leg hanging on threads and through gas he crawled out of the room into the hallway, down a short stoop into a courtyard and then into a dugout where he received first aid. During the time that he was receiving medical treatment from Major Wagner he was conscious and made enquiries about the men who were in the room with him. On the way to the hospital he died from loss of blood."

Goodman was taken to a field hospital near Fère-en-Tardenois, a chateau which is a private residence today. He was first buried in a temporary cemetery. A year later, the body was exhumed and moved to what later became the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, the second-largest American cemetery in Europe. The family then requested the body be returned to America, where he was later interred at Mount Zion Cemetery in Queens, N.Y.

Godfrey headed to France this past October to seek out the last piece of the puzzle: the location of the 308th Regimental Headquarters on Aug. 21, 1918 -- the day his uncle died. He had done a lot of preliminary work, studying a host of maps and archives and working with a surveyor friend and a legion of contacts.

He got in touch with a local French historian, Gilles Lagin, who had studied the war for 40 years and had been an adviser in the making of "The Lost Battalion" movie. Upon their arrival in Chéry-Chartreuve, they met the mayor and a local historian, Laurent Vermot-Desroches.

"I realized that this visit was symbiotic," Godfrey writes in his manuscript on "Finding Corporal Goodman." "We were bringing attention to Chery Chartreuve and Madame Mayor and Laurent were in turn honoring the memory of perhaps the only American soldier killed in their community."

They found the likely site of where the headquarters had been that day so long ago. "This is where it happened. Either here or there," said the French guide Lagin. In the nearby gravel, he bent over and retrieved a couple of bullets from World War I.

They went on to find the field hospital, now a private residence.

"I had thought the hospital was gone and that there would be a forest," Godfrey writes. "But there it was, a handsome two-story structure, an honest-to-goodness château, at least in my mind. But you could barely see it from the road, as it was fronted by a thick hedge. I had come this far: I squeezed through the hedge, up to the fence and got my picture. This is where Henry had died.

"My cousin Ellen, Gilles and I studied the blueprints, and looked across the field. We concluded that Henry had been buried at the far end, near the willow trees. There was no way of marking it off, of really knowing where."

Quest fulfilled?

It had taken months of work over the course of years and not an insignificant amount of cash, counting the trip to France. Why has Godfrey been so consumed with the search for details on his great-uncle's life and death in the face of what he jokingly calls his family's "eye-rolling"?

Because he surely wants to learn more about his uncle's life. One great find was discovering his uncle's 1911 graduation photo from National University Law School in the basement of George Washington Law School, the first time he ever laid eyes upon his relative's face.

And then there is the prospect of returning to France in 2018 to place a memorial to his uncle in Chéry-Chartreuve on the centennial of his death.

Godfrey pondered the question.

"I started to feel like the family had really forgotten him, and maybe my generation was the last one that could really help preserve his memory and know what happened to him," he said. "Ultimately, maybe it reflects on our own question: Who remembers us when we're gone?"

From the time he was finally buried in New York in 1921 until they found his grave in 2009, there was nobody to visit Corporal Goodman's grave," Godfrey said. "Hopefully, he'll be remembered now."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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