December 2004

The airplane had apparently exploded because all I could see was - sort of hurtling around going down to the water.

Ed Grabhorn enlisted in the Air Cadets in 1942 as an 18-year-old, and by March 1944 was navigating a four-engine bomber headed across the Atlantic in wintry weather, before the days of radar. On his 11th bombing mission he was shot down over Germany, northeast of Berlin. He tells of this in an excerpt from an oral history interview. The complete interview can be found at the Concord Free Public Library.

Because it was so deep into Germany, our fighter escort couldn't stay with us, they didn't have enough fuel, and the Germans loved that because their fighters came up and beat us up. So our crew was shot down by a German plane.

I was shot up while still in the airplane. Among the other things the fighters did, they pretty well riddled our airplane and actually, my leg collapsed under me, I was lying on the floor in the front part of the airplane where the navigator is stationed, and thinking that I was really trapped, and the rest of the crew was sort of collecting around the flight deck, and the next thing I know, I'm out in the air. The airplane had apparently exploded because all I could see was - sort of hurtling around going down to the water. This was over the Baltic Sea, and there were 3 other parachutes that were out in the air beside my own. Yes, my leg was shot up. I got fished out of the water by a German freighter the next day and taken to East Prussia, put in a Naval hospital and the doctor said that he would amputate my leg when he had time, but he was still busy with Germans.

And the next day, without doing anything, changing dressings that I had put in the water or anything else, they put me in a vehicle and took me across the country to a German Luftwaffe hospital. Apparently they decided that I wasn't in the jurisdiction of the Navy and I should be under the Air Force.

They took me to that hospital and there I met a really wonderful doctor who looked at my leg and said, "I should amputate, but I'll try to save your leg. If I'm unsuccessful it will be cut off much higher than it would be right now," and he wanted to know what I thought about that, and I said, "I'd appreciate having my leg." And he did, he did a wonderful job, and it's fine now.

It took a long time, I was in the hospital of some prison camps, and then back in the States and other military hospitals until early 1947, I was finally released back on to active flying duty. I developed a bone infection when I was in prison, and that took a long time to sanitize and clear up, including bone grafts and skin grafts and that kind of thing.

Much later in my career, in 1950, I was flying in and out of Germany quite frequently… [The surgeon] had corresponded with my mother, I had given him my home address and he corresponded, she would send him food packages and clothing and all sorts of other stuff. I had that address and so I searched him out, and found him to be a successful surgeon in a small hospital near Cologne. Naturally we had many fine reminiscences, talking about what had happened to each of us, but, yeah, it's sure good to have a leg.

Grabhorn recounts collecting atomic particles during the Korean Conflict: In 1952, I ended up in Japan, and started flying in RB-29s, which had been a big bombing airplane in World War II and was developed into a reconnaissance airplane - we flew 15 hour missions. People talk about long flights being eight hours these days, and it's laughable to think of recon flying for 15 hours at a time. Oh, so tedious! We flew in wet suits too. Realize you're flying in a rubberized suit that's cuffed around your arms and your legs. But you could only last 30 minutes in that water if you went down in the Japan Sea, it was that cold, and so we were uncomfortable, but we wore those wet suits the whole time we flew.

We had another device on our airplane that was used to collect debris from atomic explosions, so that if we were flying on the Kurile Islands and the Russians had set off an A-test, the debris from that would float in the atmosphere :and we would collect particles and bring them back to be analyzed.

Well, these devices had sort of filters that you would stick up in the collector, and periodically we'd change them, we'd put the filters down in the airplane.

That sounds so dangerous.

Well maybe it does now, but in those days we said, "It was just a guy back there catching bugs." But, of course, a lot of times on those missions, we were sent out when our intelligence knew the Russians had just set off atomic tests.

After 26 years in the service Ed Grabhorn retired as a colonel. He has hiked all across Massachusetts and parts of Europe on that leg - and pursues landscape painting en route.

Dick Krug is the veteran's agent for the town of Concord and a monthly contributor to The Journal. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.