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France awards WWII bomber navigator highest honor

Nov. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Col. Brian Newberry, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, congratulates retired Maj. Clarence Grimes, 92, who received the French government's highest recognition.
Col. Brian Newberry, 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander, congratulates retired Maj. Clarence Grimes, 92, who received the French government's highest recognition. (Staff Sgt. Veronica Montes / Air Force)
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Maj. Clarence E. Grimes (Staff Sgt. Veronica Montes / Air Force)
Army Lt. Col. Jeffery Grimes speaks about his uncle, retired Air Force Maj. Clarence Grimes at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., on Oct. 25, before his uncle is awarded the French Legion of Honor Medal for actions in the spring of 1944. (Staff Sgt. Veronica Montes / Air Force)

If Clarence Grimes hadn’t survived the cave-in while working the coal mines of central Pennsylvania as a teenager, he wouldn’t have ended up on a runway in Italy preparing for his first combat mission in the spring of 1944.

And if Grimes hadn’t survived the B-24 crash after it lost an engine on takeoff, he wouldn’t have gone on to fly more than 40 missions with the 449th Bomb Group in the final two years of World War II.

Turns out, that was only the beginning of his luck.

On Oct. 25, the French government awarded 92-year-old Grimes its highest recognition — the French Legion of Honor Medal. The nephew Grimes inspired to go into military service oversaw the ceremony at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., Grimes’ last duty station before he retired in 1963.

Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Grimes, a medical force integration officer at Fort Belvoir, Va., said he wanted to see his uncle receive the medal for risking his life in the liberation of France nearly 70 years ago.

“He keeps asking why,” Jeffrey Grimes said. “To me, he’s always given. He’s never received anything.”

The elder Grimes never had children of his own. But he was like a second father to his nephew — and many others over the years, Jeffrey Grimes said. “He and my Aunt Peggy always helped us kids out. He sent home money to my grandmother. They bought school clothes for relatives. He never asked for anything. It was selfless service.”

After he retired from Fairchild as a major, Clarence Grimes opened a campground on 800 acres in Newport, Wash. It was there that Jeffrey Grimes, who grew up on the East Coast, first met his uncle at age 13. The young Grimes was sitting out sports that summer after breaking his leg in a sledding accident. His aunt and uncle invited him to the campground to help out. He loved it so much he returned at 16 and 18. By 19, Jeffrey Grimes had joined the National Guard.

Clarence Grimes talked his nephew into going back to college and commissioning into the Army.

“We always joked that if I ever made it to lieutenant colonel, he would have to pin me and salute me,” Jeffrey Grimes said.

In October 2012, he did.

Clarence Grimes keeps a picture of that moment hanging in his dining room.

'They did their job'

Three crew members died in the runway crash Grimes survived in March 1944.It was supposed to be Grimes’ first combat mission. Two were injured so severely that they returned to the U.S. and never flew again.

Grimes, a bombardier navigator, spent three days in the hospital. Two days after his release, he was “voluntold” to fly a morale-boosting mission to Ploiesti, Romania, home to German-held oil fields. The 449th was up against at least 200 German fighters and nearly 300 anti-aircraft guns.

Afterward, “I went down to see the ones who were still in the hospital,” Grimes said in a telephone interview from his home. “When I went through the door, they said, ‘How did it go?’ I told them, ‘Stay where you are because we’ll never make it.’”

The close calls weren’t over by a long shot.

Two months later, in May 1944, his plane was shot down over the island of Vis, Croatia.

“I got out from under the wreckage by throwing dirt and sliding out. I stood up. When I stood up, I spit up some blood. I said, ‘Oh boy, this is it.’ But it really wasn’t. The blood went away in a few minutes.”

They stayed there for two days, sleeping on a mountainside, until British Rangers ferried them across the Adriatic Sea to Italy in a small open vessel.

Grimes received credit for 50 combat missions. He flew five missions over France, bombing submarine pens over Toulon and a railroad bridge over the Var River. When two bombs “hung up” on a mission over Marseille, Grimes walked onto the catwalk and used a dime to release the shackle. He dropped the unspent weapons into the ocean.

After the war, Grimes went on to serve in Japan under Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He also studied at Harvard University. Before retiring from Fairchild, he had another close brush with death. He’d been scheduled to fly a B-52 mission when another officer, who needed the flying hours, asked to take his place. The plane crashed, killing everyone aboard except for a crew member in the tail.

A few years ago, surviving members of the 449th Bomb Group learned they were eligible for the French Legion of Honor. The 449th inflicted untold damage on the enemy, including taking out 199 fighters — at the cost of more than 100 B-24s and 388 airmen’s lives.

Most of the applications went forward. Grimes’ was held back from the main group because it was missing his mission logs. His nephew stepped in to try to get everything together. The medal is not awarded posthumously.

“They better hurry up,” he told his nephew.

Almost two years later, Grimes learned he’d been chosen for the medal.

“I was really surprised and elated,” he said. “Thousands or maybe millions participated in the liberation of France. To be chosen, it really was an honor. There were thousands of other people in combat doing much more probably than I did.”

At Fairchild on Oct. 25, “they really rolled out the red carpet,” Jeffrey Grimes said.

Col. Brian Newberry, commander of the 92nd Air refueling Wing, as well as dozens of airmen and Grimes’ friends and family, attended. The Honorary Consul of France presented the award.

“For your courage, faith and declaration contributed almost 70 years ago to defend and preserve the independence of France, and to save our common values of freedom, tolerance and democracy, I would like to extend this tribute to you and all your fellow soldiers during World War II,” consul Jack Cowan told Grimes, according to an Air Force news release. “You are forever France’s hero. The French people will never forget what you and all the other Americans did to restore our freedom.”

Jeffrey Grimes also had words for his uncle.

“I want to personally thank you for your service to this great nation, and further, for being a mentor and role model to me,” he said. “I think this group, it was just what was expected of them. They did their job. That carries on today. You don’t do this for the fortune.”

He pointed to his heart. “It’s got to be in here.”

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