Wounded warrior rolls with the punches

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published December 16, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 14, 2012 at 11:48 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Olen Grant of Hot Springs was a waist gunner on a B-17 during World War II and was shot down and held in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He is one of the leading characters in a new book about the crew of the plane and their time in prison. He was wounded during the mission by shrapnel from the cannon fire of a German fighter plane, resulting in him losing his right eye. He holds a photo taken after his return to the United States in 1944.

Olen Grant just completed 20 treatments for skin cancer, and his arms are scarred by the results. However, the 89-year-old Hot Springs resident is confident it will get better. It is not the first trauma his body has endured.

As a gunner aboard a B-17 returning from a mission over Germany during World War II, he was blasted by a shell fired by an attacking fighter plane, and he was riddled with shrapnel, including a piece of metal that tore into his head and blew out his eye.

Grant, then 20, rode the crashing plane to the ground near Paris. He was captured and often moved from a prisoner-of-war camp to military hospitals for a series of operations.

All of that didn’t get him down, he said, because his Arkansas childhood forged his strength.

“My early childhood was about as low as you could get in the Great Depression in Arkansas,” Grant said. “That had more influence on me than anything that happened during the war. Growing up that way, I felt I could take on more than most people. I always just ride with the punches.”

Grant is one of the men whose story is being told in a new book called To Kingdom Come: An Epic Saga of Survival in the Air War Over Germany, by Robert Mrazek, a former U.S. congressman from New York. It is the story of the Sept. 6, 1943, bombing raid on weapon factories in Stuttgart, Germany. With 338 B-17 “Flying Fortresses,” the U.S. 8th Air Force flew over the cloud-covered target four times. Between the antiaircraft fire at the target and the fighters that harassed the group to and from Stuttgart, 45 planes went down, and hundreds of men were lost or went missing. Grant was one of the missing.

Grant was born in Bauxite, and his father, Eli, was a miner who helped dig out the mineral that gave the town its name. The family moved to El Dorado when Grant was a baby so his father could work in the oil fields.

In the book, the author said, “Growing up dirt poor in the horse-and-buggy town of El Dorado, they lived in a home so close to the refinery that the stench of hot petroleum was constant.”

Grant said his father was troubled by his experiences from battle in the trenches of World War I, and when Grant was a child, his father was placed in the veterans hospital in Little Rock, where he spent many years.

Grant’s mother and her children moved to Hot Springs to be closer to her family, and he went to high school there.

After graduation, he and his two brothers joined the Arkansas National Guard. When war came, his mother asked for Grant to be the one son released from service. He stayed home, while his brothers ended up going to Alaska, where the Japanese Army had invaded two of the Aleutian Islands between the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

“I tried to find a job, but I ended up joining the Army Air Corps,” he said.

In the book, Grant said he enjoyed Army life compared to life in an Arkansas that was still in the grip of the Depression. In the service, he found plenty of good food, new uniforms to wear and clean sheets on his bed.

After being tested for his skills, he was sent to armament training near Denver, then to St. Louis, where he studied in the factory that built powered machine-gun turrets to be placed at the top and bottom of bomber planes.

“That was real learning, where they were made,” Grant said.

From there he went to Windover, Utah, where he became an armament inspector.

“No guns could be loaded until I had inspected them,” Grant said.

Yet that seemed to not always be the case. During one inspection, Grant touched a turret machine gun, and it fired bullets into the ground that bounced into the tail of the plane.

While his commanding officer was convinced Grant was not to blame for the incident, he was demoted from tech sergeant to private, the lowest rank in the Air Corps, to avoid a court marshal and allow the unit to remain on schedule to be sent overseas for combat. Grant agreed to go along with the demotion at the request of his commander.

“He promised I would get my rank back,” Grant said.

The colonel made good on his promise, and by June 1943, then in England, Grant was again a sergeant and an inspector.

Feeling left out of the action as a member of the ground crew, Grant volunteered for gunnery school. He was trained as a bomber gunner.

He may have made that request because he found out that flight crews had real eggs and bacon for breakfast instead of powdered eggs and Spam. Grant said in the book that he certainly noticed the difference.

“I had had two missions before Stuttgart,” Grant said, “one as a tail gunner and one as the bombardier. I worked without a bomb sight. I looked at the plane ahead of me. When he opened his bomb-bay doors, I opened mine, and when I saw his bombs fall, I released mine.”

One evening while out on the town in nearby Leicester, he was found around midnight by the military police.

“The MP told me they had been looking for me for hours,” Grant said. “The MP said, ‘Get in the back of the jeep. You’re flying on a mission tomorrow,’ So I went.”

Grant never got back to that town.

After coming back to the base, he had no time for the fliers’ breakfast or the pre-mission briefing. He picked up a parachute and was taken directly to the bomber just before takeoff.

Arriving, Grant saw the plane’s name was the “Yankee Clipper,” an ominous sign for an Arkansan whom his friends called “Reb.” He climbed aboard and found one man he knew and had enough time for the pilot to order him to load two 75-pound boxes of ammunition onto the plane.

“We circled the target four times because it was socked in with clouds,” Grant said. “We left and dropped our bomb load and didn’t hit a damn thing.”

The crew was attacked by German planes on the way back, and the bomber was hit by a cannon shot that burst inside the plane.

“I was hit in the side of the head, and it shot my eye out,” Grant said. “I thought I was dead.”

Several members of the crew tried to help him jump from the plane, but he told then to get out themselves. The last one turned away from him and was shot in the chest and fell out the open door, Reb said.

Grant went down still inside the bomber and was amazed that he survived the crash.

“A French kid got me out, and I found out later he was an ambulance driver,” Grant said. “I came to once, and they were cutting off my uniform. The next time I woke, I was in a German ambulance, and the soldier guarding me was eating grapes. He offered me one, but I passed out.”

Grant was badly wounded not only with the shot to his eye but by shrapnel that had struck him all over his body. Sitting in his Hot Springs home, he pointed to his nose and said one piece of shrapnel remains behind the bones there.

Reb had surgery in Paris, where a strip of skin was grafted over his eye socket. It was several days later when he woke to find himself in a room with three other Allied fliers — two Englishmen and one American pilot shot down in North Africa.

More than a month later, Grant was taken by truck to the Frankfurt train station under guard.

“The city had just been hit by a British bombing raid, and the German soldiers protected me from citizens who wanted to get hold of me and kill me,” Reb said. “They were mad.”

Grant said he would find that the danger of being attacked by civilians was a routine part of being moved by train in Nazi territory.

Reb was taken to a POW camp outside Krems, Germany, near the Danube River and the Austrian border. Called Stalag 17-B, the camp held hundreds of American airmen and other American soldiers.

Soon Grant was taken to Vienna, where he had more surgery.

“I got the best medical treatment,” Grant said. “My doctor was in the Austrian Army before the Nazis took the country over, and he took care of me.”

While recovering, Grant met a German in the hospital who was recovering from wounds received on the Russian Front.

“His came was Karl,” Grant said. “If I knew his last name, I never remembered it. After he got better, he became our guard, but he and I would talk.”

Some of the other Allied patients didn’t like Grant’s friendship with Karl.

“I didn’t care. I was captain of my own ship,” Grant said. “We were not going to war again.”

On one occasion, Karl even shared his lunch, giving Grant a sandwich and a beer.

“I liked that, and we often talked about the terrible things happening on the Russian Front,” Grant said.

In January 1944, he was returned to the POW camp and was told he would come back in the summer for additional treatment and perhaps another operation.

Grant returned to Vienna in early June but was told no treatment would be coming, and he was to return to the camp that night. He was rushed back to Stalag 17-B, and the commander of the American POWs asked if he had seen anything different during the trip.

“I said it had felt like something was wrong,” Grant said. “There were too many people talking fast and moving around. And I saw too many men in black-shirt uniforms around everywhere.”

Both Grant and the commander guessed that the great Allied invasion, known as D-Day, had come.

In late 1944, because of his wounds, Grant was part of a large prisoner exchange at the German border with Switzerland. In the hands of the Swiss authorities, he was moved to Marseilles, France. He and the rest of the repatriated men were placed on a Swedish ship and sailed for New York.

Back in New York, Grant was placed in a Staten Island hospital, and during a trip into the city, he met a woman he would marry three days later.

Their marriage lasted a little more than two years.

For a wounded soldier who needed more medical care and had been a POW, it was hard to find work. He went from hospital to hospital, from Missouri to Pennsylvania.

Over the years, Grant has worked many jobs, from

Colorado and California back to New York and Hot Springs.

He attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and earned a degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter and a technical writer in several states.

Along the way, he married a nurse from Little Rock, and they had two daughters.

For many years, Grant worked with the Internal Revenue Service, first in Little Rock, then in Austin, Texas, where he hoped the drier weather would help his breathing.

However, he developed tuberculosis and retired from the IRS. Grant received some of the first effective medicines created for the disease and recovered.

While working in El Paso in the late 1960s, he began to write letters opposing the Vietnam War to local newspapers. Grant said he believes he was denied a driver’s license so that he lost his job at Fort Bliss, Texas.

“It didn’t stop me, and then I got a call from someone who wanted to meet me,” Grant said. “I was told by this person that he represented President Richard Nixon and that he wanted to see how the president could show his appreciation for what I was doing.”

Grant said his disability listing had been reduced under the Eisenhower administration from 90 percent to 70 percent, costing him benefits.

“The man said he would see what he could do,” Grant said. “I told my wife I would never see anything from that.”

However, a few months later, he was reassessed at the Veterans Administration hospital and received a 100 percent disability rating.

“I had all the perks of retired military,” Grant said. “I could send my kids to college, which I did. I had PX shopping privileges, and I could hitchhike on military airplanes.”

Grant continued to live in the West for several years, returning to Hot Springs to stay in 1992.

Over the years, Grant tried to stay in contact with his Army buddies, especially with friends made in the POW camp, but now he said he thinks he might be the only remaining member of the group.

Still battling health issues, Grant still rolls with the punches.

“I still write letters to the editor,” Reb said. “They still get attention.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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