Godfrey De Courcelles Chevalier was born on March 7, 1889 in Providence, RI. His family moved to Medford, MA when he was a young man and he attended Medford High School in 1902.
A High School Athlete…
He was a member of his High School battalion, attained the rank of corporal and won first prize in the junior individual drill. In 1904, he won the senior individual and bayonet drills and the championship in individual drill at the MIT interscholastic competition.
A well rounded scholar, Godfrey was interested in many subjects.
In athletics, he was captain of crew and track and managed the High School hockey team. During Medford’s 275th anniversary celebration, he won one gold and three silver medals in athletic events. While captain of the track team, he won the 600 yard open run. He was also a member of the Medford Boat Club.
He also performed and managed his class play and was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Review.
In 1906, Godfrey left Medford High School during his senior year to prepare for the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He topped the entrance examination and received his appointment from Congressman McCall.
The Young Hero…
Godfrey graduated from the Naval Academy and was assigned as a midshipman to the U.S.S. New Hampshire.
The night of October 1, 1910, was an eventful one for Godfrey and his shipmates. The New Hampshire, along with other ships of the fleet, was moored offshore in the Hudson River near the 157th street dock. In those days, sailors traveled to and from the big ships on barges towed by cutters. This night, Godfrey was in charge of the cutter transporting the men from the dock.
It was a cold night and there were high winds blowing up swells in the river. 150 seamen were in the barge being towed to the fleet when the high winds whipped up a sudden swell, and the barge overturned, dumping the men into the frigid water.
Several of the sailors panicked, some were overcome by the cold water and couldn’t swim. While the ships of the fleet prepared their rescue launches, Godfrey, realizing they could not arrive in time, dove from the Cutter into the water and swam to the struggling sailors. In spite of the cold, the turbulence and the general mayhem of the scene, Godfrey managed to rescue 20 men from drowning. He was about to dive into the water for another rescue when he collapsed from the effort and sheer exhaustion. He spent weeks in the hospital recuperating from the ordeal.
It was a tragic incident that sunk the barge, and in spite of Godfrey’s efforts, 29 sailors drowned. Everyone recognized Godfrey’s heroism, yet this modest man later said of the incident: “Any part that I played in the affair is so completely overshadowed by the loss of 29 of our men that I simply cannot bear the memory of it.”
Godfrey was recognized for his heroism and promoted several ranks. Rear Admiral Vreeland, and Captain Rogers of the New Hampshire sought a Presidential and Congressional testimonial to honor him.
In March of the next year, Godfrey again showed his heroic stature. The New Hampshire was in dry dock in Brooklyn for fittings. A valve in the engine room began to leak, and the fireroom was flooding. Godfrey dove into the water to try and repair the valve. But the valve was stuck and could not be closed. Godfrey, with amazingly quick thinking, spied a bucket of red lead, and seizing it, packed the valve tight, slowing the leak until the water could be pumped out of the room. Godfrey saved the Navy an estimated $1M in potential damages by his quick action.
An Aviation Pioneer…
As time progressed, so did Godfrey’s excellence as a naval officer. He soon became a Lieutenant and naval pilot. By 1917, he was considered one of the most experienced pilots in the Navy. During World War I, Godfrey was sent to France, where he he flew and distinguished himself at Dunkirk, Avord and Pau.
The planes of the time were still pretty experimental, and safety standards were not always adequate. Godfrey understood the errors made. In one letter, he even explained the need for a seat harness, which had never been implemented on Wright brother’s designed planes. He did not blame the designers, but simply explained why the lack of a harness posed danger to the pilot.
In the years of 1917 through 1922, the Navy was very interested in developing what was to become the modern aircraft carrier.
Godfrey already had experience in the Navy’s “F” boat, an amphibious plane that could land near a ship in the water, but not on it. Much experimentation was done in the years between 1917 and 1922 to create the aircraft carrier. The first ship to attain this status was the U.S.S. Langley. It was a primitive affair, basically a battleship with a deck mounted on top. It was experimental, and dangerous, as the ship pitched and rolled in rough seas. It should come as no surprise that the pioneering Lieutenant-Commander Godfrey Chevalier was assigned to her as senior flight officer.
The Historic Flight…
On October 22, 1922, Godfrey Chevalier made naval history. He successfully landed the first plane on a moving ship, an heretofore impossible task. It was an historic moment and paved the way for future development in naval aviation.
Then, tragedy struck. Less than a month after this historic landing, Godfrey Chevalier was flying maneuvers near Norfolk VA when his plane crashed. He died two days later in hospital only 33 years of age.
Godfrey Chevalier, for whom this theatre is named, was a greatly loved officer, a aviation pioneer and hero. It is not surprising that the building dedicated to him was, at the time of its construction, equally pioneering in design and remains noble and heroic in stature.
When we maintain the theatre and restore it to its original glory, we not only preserve an architectural and cultural artifact, we continue to honor the man who selflessly served society and helped usher in the modern age of naval aviation.
For more information about Godfrey Chevalier and the ships named in his honor, visit the Web site: DomeIsland.com and their page devoted to the hero.