The letters began arriving more than 20 years ago.
Don Grimes isn’t sure why he responded to each one with such detail. He hadn’t kept in touch with the men he served with in World War II, except the pilot of his B-24. But relatives of those men began writing, and so Grimes wrote back.
At some point along the way, he started to make copies of all his responses and drafts, correspondence with 20 to 30 people, some 300 letters.
He wrote about the raid on the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania, on Aug. 1, 1943, what he did, the picture he took with his own camera.
He wrote about the crew he flew most missions with, 10 men on a B-24 called Thar She Blows, under pilot Chuck Merrill.
He wrote about his crash landing into Switzerland on the Death Dealer, the first bomber to land there during the war.
Some men are prone to exaggeration, telling their war stories with slight, sometimes not so slight, embellishment.
In a letter dated Jan. 16, 2002, Grimes wrote: “It’s only natural that after the event many pilots would get carried away and cook up some self-serving stories. And naturally, rank would enter into it. ...”
But Grimes deals with just the facts.
He enlisted in November 1940 in Cheyenne, thinking he’d like to get in combat somewhere. He trained in gunnery school and later radio school. Grimes was assigned to the 329th Squadron, 93rd Bombardment Group.
Grimes served as a radioman, flying most raids on Thar She Blows. His duties, he said, were simple. Every once in a while, he’d get a bearing from the base. He sent messages only in an emergency, and Grimes doubted he sent more than two or three messages during the war. Once, while bombing a port in France, a shot went through the wing and the equalizing tank of his plane. Grimes sent a message then. The men on board thought the plane would crash, but all made it back to England.
The radioman was a spare gunner and a photographer for strike pictures. In an undated draft of a letter, Grimes explained: “On all bombing runs, ‘my’ sequence went like this: when the bomb bay doors were opened, I stepped down from the flight deck to where I could push a lever that would make sure the doors were fully open. ... Then would stay there until the bomb hit — and take the strike foto, then back up to the flight deck.”
In his writings, Grimes estimated his plane had flown 18 to 20 raids out of England before flying to Africa. Leading up to Aug. 1, 1943, the planes practiced flying in formation low to the ground, but no one thought much about it, Grimes said.
“All raids out of England were hairy at this time and we all figured there was no chance to survive and complete a tour (25 raids),” he wrote. “So going to Africa was like a reprieve from a death sentence.”
But Grimes’ B-24 was about to participate in what would later be called Black Sunday. The goal of the Ploesti Raid was this: Fly low to avoid detection and deplete the oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania, supplying the Axis. Because of various complications, navigational errors, loss of formations and an inability to communicate because of radio silence, that day would become the Army Air Force’s greatest loss in a single mission.
“They called it a suicide raid,” Grimes said.
“You were just god— — lucky to get through there alive.”
Grimes’ B-24 took off from Benghazi, Libya, in the early morning hours and reached Ploesti, its target. Flak was heavy. Grimes didn’t have an aerial camera for strike photos, so he used his own.
The bomb bay doors were open when Grimes moved to the back of the plane to snap a photo. A blast at the back of the plane knocked the gunners flat on the deck.
“The hit in the back was most likely by a 37 or 40mm,” Grimes wrote. “I say this as I don’t believe a 20mm blast would have knocked all four gunners down.”
The blast ripped through the men’s clothing.
“This probably saved all the gunners, as the well was packed with our winter flying suits including probably 10 electrical suits. The blast made a rats nest out of them,” Grimes wrote.
“A foot higher and they’d all been dead.”
Grimes used one crew member’s gun to fire a few rounds at a train unloading troops.
All the men in Grimes’ plane made it back to Benghazi. They went on a 10-day leave to Cairo. Grimes doesn’t remember what morale was like after the mission; he didn’t have time to think about it.
One mission short of completing his tour, Grimes volunteered as a substitute radioman on another plane, the Death Dealer. After that, he’d get to go home.
On Aug. 13, on the way to Austria, a bomb from another American plane hit Grimes’ B-24 at the engines.
When the plane hit the ground, the Death Dealer burned. Grimes grabbed his escape kit, a Cracker Jack-sized box given to every crew member before take-off in case of emergency. Grimes was told the kit should include maps and currencies of the countries the crew flew over, plus two gold pieces.
“I had time to open my god— — kit, and there’s no gold pieces in it,” Grimes said. “How do you like that?”
Grimes said he knew they were in Switzerland because of this: A man smoking a long, curved pipe walked by, looking like what Grimes imagined a Swiss man looked like. Grimes said, Switzerland? And the man replied, “Ja,” Grimes said.
Before long, Swiss military arrived.
Grimes was interned for 22 months, working for the Office of Strategic Services and the State Department Intelligence. Mainly he did courier work, bringing papers from Lugano to Berne, Switzerland.
As a kid, Grimes’ daughter Nancy heard her father’s war stories, over and over. She didn’t have much interest then. Her father kept letters and photos and books, decades’ worth of correspondence.
Last summer, she took his pile of papers home and organized it all chronologically. She’d never been a history buff, but she found herself now interested in her father’s story. Nancy Stranger photocopied everything and made two bound books. Now, she’s writing a book about her father and his war story.
Nancy said she began to know him in a whole different way, respecting and appreciating what he went through. His story is unique, she said, surviving the Ploesti Raid and leaving his crew to fly just one more mission, not knowing he’d be interned for nearly two years.
“To even get back on a plane just a few days after experiencing Ploesti is phenomenal,” she said. “I don’t think many people would do that.”