By Andrew R. Graham
As we pause for this Memorial Day, it is hard to realize that there are precious few remaining who actually participated in World War II. But we who were too young to wear a uniform back then had some experiences that remain unforgettable.
Once such moment occurred for me while I was playing in the backyard of our farmhouse near Manlius outside of Syracuse.
My oldest sister was away at college. She was engaged to her high school sweetheart, a dashing young Army Air Corps pilot, 1st Lt. George Douglas Grubb.
Like all newly minted pilots, his dream was to fly fighters, but he was assigned instead to a squadron of B-26s, known as the Martin Marauder. This twin-engined medium bomber was used for high-risk, low-level bomb attacks, and those who flew them often mimicked the maneuvers of the fighter pilots they envied. I heard that Doug had flown under every bridge on the Hudson River.
As an 8-year-old in the midst of a world war, I didn’t collect baseball cards, I knew airplanes! I could identify the silhouette of just about everything we flew and describe their intended mission. It was heady stuff bolstered by the Saturday afternoon propaganda movies we all religiously watched at the Strand Theater in Manlius.
To the relief of the rest of the family, Doug turned out to be too valuable for combat and at age 20 became a pilot instructor stationed in Dodge City, Kan. Their relief was short-lived. His plane crashed with no survivors while on a training flight.
I never learned what happened, but years later I was told by a former B-26 pilot that the engine governors were insufficient, and at full power an engine sometimes over-revved. The pilot had only a couple of seconds to react before the engine would disintegrate and take off half the wing. Maybe with a student at the controls, this is what had happened.
Several months after the crash, the shock had worn off. The whole thing seemed to me not unlike the war movies we watched at the Strand in which heroes kept up the fight and life went determinedly on.
So, on that unsuspecting sunny day in our backyard when I first heard the distant but unmistakable growl of Pratt & Whitney engines, I was in plane identification mode. I looked toward the sound, and off in the distance was a B-26!
It approached unerringly, dropping down to well under 1,000 feet and flew right over me. I couldn’t have been more excited. It went off to the south, climbed a bit and then made a sharp 180-degree turn and started back.
Again it swooped down to roar over the house as I stood transfixed. As before, it turned again to head back. I turned to run into the house to tell my Mother, but she was already standing behind me in tears, and as the plane made its third and final pass, I realized what was happening.
We watched in silence as the plane flew away; then Mom went back into the house to call my sister.
It was the practice of the Army Air Corps to send a plane to salute the family of a lost member. My sister and Doug were only engaged, and yet the Air Corps flew a plane from God knows where – there were none stationed anywhere in central New York – to express the nation’s appreciation for her sacrifice. It still amazes me.