Our World War II vets are passing to the great reward at an ever accelerating pace, and tonight I learned of the passing of one of my personal heroes from that horrid war, Paul Grilliot.
Paul was the third eldest son of a family of 18 children, raised on an Ohio farm. Drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1943 when he was 18 Paul, although disappointed not to be the first in his family to attend college as he had planned, willingly went when his country called, as had his two older brothers before him, one in the Army in Hawaii and one in the Marine Corps.
When he was at flight school he trained to be a gunner. Being from a small farm town he was amazed at the gunnery simulators the Army used to train them, calling them the only video game he had ever payed. While his buddies would take weekend passes and go to town, Paul stayed on base and “played” his “video game”. As a result he became the best gunner in his squadron, a skill that would greatly affect his war time fate.
He was of the generation that dealt with the trauma of war much different than today. They sucked it up and lived their lives after it was over. They didn’t refuse to talk about it, they reveled in talking about their experiences, especially to the young ones, so that they could understand what had been done on their behalf. And tell his tales he did. To his nephews, his brothers, his buddies at the VFW and American Legion, and to high school students when he volunteered his retirement years to speak to each graduating class about the war.
And oh the tales he told. Even his stories about his stateside training could hold you enthralled. Like when he told of the time he bombed Arkansas. Yes, our Arkansas, not some unknown province in Germany.
You see, Paul was rather unique in that he was an enlisted bombardier. Most bombardiers were commissioned officers, trained to be bombardiers first and gunners second. But in the skies over Europe the Luftwaffe pilots learned that the least defended point on a B-17 was the nose, and they perfected head on attacks to counter the massive firepower B-17′s had. So the Army Air Corps developed the B-17G, which had a chin turret carrying two Ma Deuce .50 cal machine guns to make life hard on ol’ Fritz. Problem was that bombardiers weren’t really trained to be gunners, and there is a certain skill set involved in engaging a fighter moving at 300 MPH from a bomber moving at 185 MPH.
Well Paul was a damned good gunner, and the Army in all of it’s wisdom realized that they could train bombardiers easier than they could train good gunners. So guess who became a bombardier.
So Paul and his crew were flying a training bombing run over Arkansas. Halfway to the bombing range the squadron ran into a severe squall, visibility was almost non-existent. As the pilot was climbing through the storm a sudden break in the clouds allowed just enough visibility to see that they were feet away from smashing right into the ass end of the lead plane of the formation. The pilot immediately dove to avoid the crash, and flew right into an air pocket that stalled the plane and put them into a spin. The plane was too heavy for the pilots to correct the spin and Paul knew he had to jettison the bomb load. The jettison switch was over his right shoulder and Paul had practiced many times to hit the switch in an emergency, but now the G’s from the spin had his arm pinned to his side. With all the strength he had he hit the jettison switch and the pilots were able to recover from the spin; in the process he bombed some Arkansas farmer’s field. If Paul was telling you this story between 1992 and 2000 he would emphatically tell you he wished it had been a trailer park in Hope Arkansas instead of some corn field. Save the country a lot of heartache he would say.
Paul shipped out to the ETO in 1944 and flew over 35 missions with the 385th Bomb Group. He spoke often of the raids to Berlin, and how the enemy fighters would get so close that he could see the color of the pilot’s eyes. He spoke with admiration of their skill and tenacity and never flinched from describing the terror of watching a BF 109 or an FW 190 flying straight at you with their guns blazing. But his skill as a gunner saved himself and his crew on many occasion, driving off the Luftwaffe pilots determined to prevent them from dropping their payload.
Luck; Paul (a devout Catholic) would say grace, stayed with him though. Like on his “Miracle Mission”, a particularly hairy sortie to Berlin. His plane was shredded by shrapnel from flak so thick you could get out and walk on it and they lost two engines on the run in. They managed to stay with the formation long enough to drop their bombload, but they soon fell behind and lost the protective fire of their formation. A wounded and straggling B17 was like blood in the water to the waiting Messerschmidt’s and soon they were swarmed by Nazi fighters eager for revenge. The gunners fired for all they were worth and manged to keep them at bay until the German’s ran low on fuel and ammo and disengaged. The crew breathed a sigh of relief and continued limping along towards Belgium, hoping to make it to the American lines, until they spotted four more fighters approaching in a pursuit curve, moving in for the kill. With what little ammo the gunners had left they let off a burst to let the bastards know that the crippled Fort still had some sting left, when amazingly the fighters broke off the pursuit and wagged their wings. It was then that they saw that they were P51 Mustangs, beautiful silver birds with big white stars on the fuselage telling them they would make it. If they could keep the bird in the air.
With radios and instrumentation shot out, the pilots had no idea where they were as they flew over the snow covered terrain, ground which was rapidly closing on them as the crippled bird struggled to stay airborne. Realizing that they were too low to bail out they braced themselves and waited for the ripping and tearing of aluminum as the B17 smacked into the ground.
Amazingly, all the crew emerged from the crash unscathed. But now they had to worry about the Germans. The heaviest firepower any of them carried were their 1911 pistols, definitely not what you wanted to bring to a fight with a German infantry squad. Guessing as best they could which direction was West they started off, hoping for the best. What they found they couldn’t believe. Rather than a squad of German infantry, or even a Kraut field kitchen, they stumbled into a U.S. Army field post office. During the struggle to fight off the ME109′s and to stay in the air, they had overflown the front lines by close to 20 miles. They were as safe as if they were back in England.
Paul was shot down a second time, parachuting to safety a tad bit closer to Allied lines this time, but still close enough to be rescued and not be taken POW.
There were many, many other stories Paul told, each as riveting and told with the same gusto and skill as the last. He was the consummate story teller, and when he spoke you were right there with him, even to the point of knowing the names of the planes he flew on.
After the war Paul finally went to college and became a teacher. He also continued to be a faithful Catholic, making homemade communal wine for his local parish. And he continued to tell his stories, proud of his service to his country. Once when questioned about the morality of bombing raids on civilian population centers he unashamedly said “They started the war, and if terrorizing them into giving up by bombing their cities brought us home one day earlier, or saved one G.I.s life, I would have bombed every city they had until it was rubble.”
Paul, like two of his brothers before him, developed Alzheimer’s, and passed away today in Delphos, Ohio, where he had taught high school and spent his retirement speaking to the younger generations about the Greatest Generation, and what it means to be an American.
Paul was my uncle, and the last of seven of my uncles who fought in that terrible war.
And he, like all of his generation, will be sorely missed.
Goodbye Uncle Paul. Thank you.