I’m sure we all can share stories about someone in our family that has served in a war. My grandfather (Dad’s side) served in WWII in the South Pacific and China. My grandmother (Dad’s side) served as a nurse on the west coast. I will never have any idea what they truly experienced, but I owe all those who have served my deepest respect and gratitude.
I wanted to share with you Nate’s (my husband’s) grandfather’s story. Olen “Reb” Grant was a member of the 8th Air Force during World War II. He participated in the greatest air armada of all time. His mission was one of the air war’s deadliest. Of the 350,000 individuals involved in the air war over Europe, over 54,000 were either killed in combat or taken prisoner.
Olen Grant was interviewed by the Research Department’s Joey Balfour. This article was written by Seth Paridon, Manager of Research Services.
Olen “Reb” Grant was never one to avoid trouble. As a matter of fact, Reb was the type who generally went looking for trouble whenever and wherever he could find it. Reb joined the Army in 1941 for reasons that most people did. He found that Army life suited him as he steadily made his way through the ranks until he reached sergeant and was shipped overseas with the 384th Bomb Group’s ground detachment.
Being rather proficient with a firearm, Reb decided to volunteer as a spare gunner for combat missions. The average life expectancy for combat crewmen in the 8th Air Force during 1943 was five missions. In the fall of 1943, crewmen had less than a twenty percent chance of completing their allotted twenty-five combat missions before finishing their tour duty. Reb was fully aware of the chances he was taking by volunteering as a spare gunner.
On September 6, 1943, Reb was driven to the parachute shed and told to dress for combat because he was slated to go on a mission. Reb joined the crew of the B-17 “Yankee Raider” at their hardstand, prepared his weapon and flight gear and boarded the plane. He wasn’t even aware of where they were headed until he asked his friend, Daudelin, the other waist gunner on “Yankee Raider.” Their target was Stuttgart Germany.
All the way into the target, German fighters nipped at the bombers and reaped a devilish harvest of burning B-17s. When the formation arrived over Stuttgart, the flak took over and started dropping B-17s left and right. In the ensuing flak barrage, Reb was wounded in the left arm by shrapnel.
Unable to visually locate the target, General Robert Travis, the mission commander, decided to take the formation over the target area three separate times in hopes of being able to drop the bombs on the assigned target. Stuttgart was at the maximum range of the B-17 in 1943, and by circling the target three times, Travis ate up precious fuel and also caused the formation to become strung out and loose.
Reb recalled, “By the time we came out of the third pass we were last in formation and on the outside. That’s one of the reasons we got shot down. It was a matter of time until we couldn’t take it anymore.”
As the pilot put the “Raider” into a dive to avoid incoming fighter, the airplane was raked from nose to tail by twenty-millimeter rounds. The aircraft caught fire and the order to bail out was given, but Reb was unable to hear as his interphone had been shot out during the fighter attack.
The other waist gunner, Daudelin, motioned for Reb to bail out, and as he turned away Reb immediately found himself on the floor of the aircraft. He recalled, “I didn’t feel a thing. It was paralyzing. I was on my feet one second, on the floor the next.”
Reb had been hit in the right side of the head with a twenty millimeter round, his right eye was blown out, and half of his cheek had been shot away. Daudelin looked at his friend and was amazed at the gruesome sight. Reb continued, “I was conscious and told him to get the hell out of there, I couldn’t do anything, and he did.
The ball turret gunner, Redwing, attempted to help me by dragging me to the escape door, but when he did, he got hit in the chest and he rolled out of the ship when it lurched. After that I don’t remember anything.”
The B-17, now pilot-less, plunged earthward with the unconscious Reb Grant stuck inside the waist compartment. The pilot-less aircraft made an almost perfect belly landing on its own and came to a stop outside Entrepagny, France with Reb still in the waist.
Germans immediately swarmed over the aircraft and pulled Reb from the wreckage. What happened next is a vague memory to Reb as he slipped in and out of consciousness for days. After trips to several hospitals and many operations, he finally regained full consciousness two weeks later in a German hospital near Paris. Reb remembered, “The German doctor told me that my wound was infected and I would be in the hospital for a few months, but I knew I was going to live. After everything I had been through, I knew I would live.”
In November 1943, Reb was shipped to [German prisoner of war camp] Stalag 17 in Krems, Austria, and would remain there for over a year. “The food there was scarce and life was really boring. The good thing was that I ran into several members of my crew when I got there, including Daudelin. They all thought that I had been killed in the plane. They were amazed to see me alive, minus an eye and half a cheek, but alive none the less.” Life in the camp was unsanitary to say the least. Bed bugs, lice, dysentery, and disease were commonplace. After his wound again became infected, Reb was sent to Vienna where he was operated on yet again and sent back to Stalag 17.
In late December 1944, Reb’s name was put on a list of prisoners who were to be repatriated back to the United States. With half of his face shot away, the Germans felt that he could cause them no further harm and would not re-enter service. On February 20, 1945, Olen “Reb” Grant arrived in New York a free man.
He had survived combat as a gunner in the 8th Air Force at the air war’s deadliest time, survived being shot in the head by a twenty millimeter wielding Focke Wulf 190, rode his flaming B-17 to the ground, survived German hospitals, operations, infections and a prison stay in Stalag 17. If Reb was nothing else, he was a survivor.
Several reconstructive surgeries awaited him in the United States, and following those, Reb attended college at the University of Arkansas, graduating with degrees in Journalism and Political Science.
Olen “Reb” Grant lived to be 91 years of age. He died September 28, 2014.