Robert Grimes dies at 87; WWII pilot evaded Nazi capture

Col. Grimes evaded capture by the Nazis during World War II.
Col. Grimes evaded capture by the Nazis during World War II. (Family Photo)
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By Peter Eisner
Friday, April 23, 2010

Col. Robert Grimes, 87, an Army Air Forces pilot who evaded capture in World War II when his B-17 bomber was shot down over Nazi territory, and who later was a Prince William County schools administrator, died April 21 at his home at Fort Belvoir. He had complications from prostate cancer.

Only in recent years did Col. Grimes speak extensively of his wartime experiences, in part, he said, because the military had ordered airmen to treat their experiences as secret.

When he sat down for extensive interviews about the war in 2002, he said he felt relief about being able to share his memories. After that, he met with Air Force jet pilots at a base in Colorado, in which he described flying night training missions in the dark, without radar and under radio silence. He knew other planes were nearby but used instinct and occasional flares to avoid collisions. The top-gun pilots were shocked and rendered speechless.

In 1943, then-Lt. Grimes and a nine-man crew flew bombing runs over Nazi Europe from an English air base, north of London. He was 20, unknown to the others, and was the youngest of the crew. It was the height of the U.S. Army Eighth Air Force daylight bombings of strategic targets over Nazi territory. On a mission near Gdansk, Poland, on Oct. 9, they faced intense ground fire and flak.

After dropping his bombs, he was able to return to his base at Snetterton Heath, but the B-17 was riddled with holes and taken out of service. Lt. Grimes and crew set off with a different plane on the morning of Oct. 20, six days after what became known as "Black Thursday" -- an attack on a Schweinfurt, Germany, ball-bearing plant in which 60 B-17s and 600 men were lost.

The target this time was a bomb manufacturing plant near Aachen, Germany. Nazi fighter planes zoomed in when Lt. Grimes experienced engine trouble over central Belgium. He was forced to linger beneath the clouds and separated from the rest of his squadron.

Within minutes, cannon fire destroyed the plane's tail, and Lt. Grimes struggled for control. As he sounded the alarm, not realizing he had been wounded in the leg by machine-gun fire, the pilot held a slow circle and fought for crucial seconds so the crew could jump free of the stricken plane. He was the last to bail out before the B-17 crashed into a field close to a Luftwaffe base, 35 miles southwest of Brussels.

Col. Grimes later learned that four of his crewmen were killed in action, but five had survived the crash. "You never stop thinking about it," he said in a 2004 interview. "In my mind, I'm back in the cockpit, left seat, looking at the controls, and I'm dodging and diving around the Nazi fighters, trying to make it to a cloud bank. And I look for every option, but I never come up with anything to save us."

On the ground in Belgium, he heard Nazi patrols and barking dogs but was able to hide in the brush until dark, when farmers saved him, knowing the penalty for harboring airmen was execution. He was handed over to members of the Comet Line, a civilian escape organization that saved an estimated 700 airmen during the war. A young member of the organization, Micheline Dumont, arranged for a doctor to remove a bullet from Lt. Grimes's leg and nursed him back to health.

He recalled celebrating his 21st birthday in Brussels on Thanksgiving Day, hidden by Micheline and her friends.

In mid-December, Comet operatives provided forged Belgian and French identity papers and led him on foot, by bicycle and train to a village near the French-Spanish border. Basque guides took Lt. Grimes and several other airmen on an overnight hike in the freezing rain through the Pyrenees. He and his companions waded to safety across the Bidassoa River into Spain before dawn Dec. 23, pursued by Nazi patrols and facing fire from border guards.

Lt. Grimes returned to the United States, trained other bomber pilots in 1944 and was preparing for an impending invasion of Japan when the war ended in 1945. As part of the new Air Force, he went back to Europe for the Berlin Airlift that brought supplies to Berliners during a communist blockade of that city.

He finished his military career as chief of the logistics operations division with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After military retirement in 1972, at the rank of colonel, he spent 10 years as an associate superintendent of schools in Prince William County.

Robert Zeno Grimes was born in Portsmouth, Va., on Nov. 24, 1922. He was one of seven children born to a master carpenter at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

In 1945, he married Mary Helen Moore. Besides his wife, of Fort Belvoir, survivors include three daughters, Susan Grimes of Washington, Jennifer Grimes of Falls Church and Dale Soper of Woodbine, Md.; two brothers; two sisters; two grandsons; and three great-grandchildren.

After the war, Col. Grimes received a bachelor's degree in military science from the University of Maryland and a master's degree in business administration from George Washington University. His military decorations included the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

One of Col. Grimes's riveting memories was having been on a Brussels street car the night of his birthday celebration, which was halted by Nazi guards. "I gave the first guard my Belgian ID card and got through it. Then the second guard came and asked me in French if I'd already shown my identification. I somehow saved myself with my high school French. And this was what I said, 'Oui, oui.' Those words saved my life."

Peter Eisner, a former Washington Post editor, is author of "The Freedom Line" (William Morrow, 2004), the story of Robert Grimes and the Comet Line.

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