Paul Grassey, who piloted a baker’s dozen B-24 bombing runs over Europe during World War II and helped get the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force off the ground, talks in detail but focuses on the big picture of war and remembrance.
He will be speaking Monday during Statesboro’s Memorial Day Remembrance. After a musical prelude beginning at 10:30, the program will convene at 11 a.m. in the Emma Kelly Theater. American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90 hosts the event.
Grassey, a 91-year-old who describes stretching a B-24’s range to cross the icy North Atlantic in as much detail as if it had happened last week, now lives at the Landings near Savannah with Nancy, to whom he has been married for 56 years.
That first long-distance mission involved transferring 16 B-24 bombers from Goose Bay, Labrador, to a base in England in 1943. Twelve of the planes made it. The other four were lost in the ocean with crews of nine or 10 men each.
“This whole game is a lot of luck in those days,” Grassey said in a phone interview, painting the big picture in the present tense.
For that flight, lasting 14 hours through the night over the ocean, he and the other aircrew members were “pretty green” and new to the B-24, he recalls. They had flown to the point of no return, seven hours equidistant from Labrador and Great Britain, when the flight engineer admitted that he did not know how to transfer the reserve fuel from the wing tanks to the main tanks.
After a radio callout, a voice replied from another plane, saying that its crew had encountered the same problem and explaining where to find the fuel pump switch. The pump provided the extra hour of fuel needed to survive.
Even then, one of the four engines shut down because of a mechanical problem, but Grassey landed the plane in Wales, on the near side of Britain, with about 15 minutes of gasoline left.
“I call that the night that God winked at me,” he said.
From the Allied airbase at Bungay, England, Grassey and his crew flew those 13 combat missions over Nazi-ruled Western Europe. Their targets included Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley and cities such as Leipzig, Magdeburg, Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Bremen.
Bombers of the 446th Bombardment Group, part of the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force, helped prepare the way for the June 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy.
“Our mission was to get rid of the Nazi war-making capability – manufacturing and oil refineries – and then also get rid of their airpower so that on D-Day, we would have control of the air over Europe,” Grassey said.
More lightly armored than the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator flew a little lower but also a little faster, cruising at now amazingly slow speeds around 200 mph.
But B-24’s were studded with machine guns on the nose, tail, both sides and a turret. They were also escorted by the fast, long-range P-51 Mustang fighter, introduced in 1943.
“In the beginning the Germans were the heavies,” Grassey said, explaining that the Luftwaffe pilots were better trained at first and their fighter planes fast and maneuverable.
But the advantage shifted.
“Between 1943 and 1944, the Germans lost more than 12,000 pilots,” Grassey notes, “and we just started to out-manufacture and out-train and we were getting experience, and the P-51’s could take you anywhere in Germany.”
Late in the war, Nazi Germany introduced the first jet fighter plane. The Messerschmitt 262 could fly about 500 mph.
But this did not prove to be an advantage, Grassey said. The Germans were putting inexperienced pilots into the jets, which had to slow down to attack the bombers.
On one of his crew’s toughest missions, he said, their B-24 was one of 23 sent to bomb two airfields where Me-262’s were based. About a dozen of the German jets attacked, but the American bombers and their fighter escorts shot down six of the jets. Grassey’s crew got credit for one of them.
His crew completed all 13 missions without suffering casualties or damage to the aircraft.
Before and after
Grassey, who grew up in New Jersey, had joined the Air Corps, then part of the Army, in 1942 and, through an accelerated training program, was able to become both a pilot and an officer without completing college. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 446th.
After the war, he finished college and had a long civilian career, first in sales management with the Burroughs Corporation, an early leader in computers. Later, he worked with a credit card processing company, moved to Savannah more than 25 years ago, and retired only in his late 80s.
In Savannah, he learned of the efforts of people such as Lt. Gen. E.G. “Buck” Schuler Jr. and the late Maj. Gen. Lewis E. Lyle to create what was originally the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum.
The Mighty Eighth
Now renamed the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, the nonprofit museum at Pooler is attracting national recognition while honoring the Eighth Air Force’s history, Grassey says. He has been a member of the board of trustees since its founding nearly 20 years ago, before the building was built.
The museum has a program called Character Counts! to teach “six pillars of character” to students in kindergarten through high school. Mirroring that program, Grassey wrote a book titled “It’s Character That Counts,” which uses stories of six of his lifetime friends to illustrate trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
For Memorial Day, he plans to talk about three friends who died during World War II.
He will also urge younger generations to see a bigger picture.
“Memorial Day is observed so that all generations will understand the price of freedom,” Grassey said, “and I want to talk to the younger people. You know, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Dan Foglio, master of ceremonies, said he is honored to have Grassey as keynote speaker.
“When you hear Paul speak, he speaks from the heart, and the man has a lot of character,” Foglio said. “I’m proud to know him.”
The program also features a welcome from American Legion Post 90 Commander Terry Preslar, prayers by post Chaplain Charles Williams, and remembrances, recitations and music by other veterans, officials and volunteers. Foglio, a Post 90 past commander, has been organizing the annual event for a decade.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.