Belgium Underground saves P-47 pilot shot down over Nazi territory

Second Lt. Robert Grace is pictured in his flying cap, goggles and leather flying jacket a lifetime ago. The North Port, Fla. retiree lost his P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane to flak over Nazi-occupied Belgium in World War II. Photo provided

Their target was a railroad marshaling yard along the German-Belgium border. Second Lt. Robert Grace was making his initial pass over the target at Prum, Germany in a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane on May 29, 1944 when he was shot down.

Grace, who now lives in North Port, Fla., was part of the 373rd Fighter Group, 411th Squadron of the 9th Air Force. They were based at a field in Woodbridge, England.

“Our squadron flew over the target like we were going past ‘em. Then we swung around toward the target as we went into a dive with our eight .50-caliber machine guns blazing,” he said. “Flak, from the German 88mm anti-aircraft guns, located around the marshaling yard, was coming up in little puffs of black smoke all around us.

“German 88 gunners never shot at individual fighter planes. When our fighters were attacking, the Germans would put down a layer of flak at 8,000 feet, 7,000 feet and 5,000 feet. We had to fly through it,” Grace recalled.

“I came in right on the deck to drop my bombs. As I started to pull up on the stick to get the hell out of there that’s when I felt this BLAM!

“The whole world seemed to explode. I was trailing smoke and fire from what was left of my engine. I had been hit by an 88 shell in the left wing and engine at about 2,000 feet,” he said.

“It’s really hard to explain what happens to you when you get hit like that. You’re not scared, but you know you have to get out of there.

The North American P-47 Thunderbolt was the heaviest fighter plane in World War II and one of the most durable. It was particularly effective as an air-ground support aircraft. Photo provided

“You don’t practice bailing out of a fighter plane. I opened my canopy and tried to stand up to bail out, but the wind blew me right back in my seat,” Grace said. “I finally jumped out the side of my P-47 still connected to my oxygen line and earphones. The rubber oxygen line snapped. It hit me in the nose and broke it. I also hit the wing and rolled off. I don’t recall pulling my chute’s rip cord.

“I swung in the air about two times after my chute opened before hitting the ground. It was almost a miracle that I landed in a clearing in the Ardennes Forest,” he added.

Grace injured both legs when he hit the ground hard. He was too low when he bailed out of his Thunderbolt. In addition to a fractured leg, injured knee and broken nose, he also had pinpoint shrapnel in both knees from the explosion.

“You really don’t think about what’s happening to you until you’re on the ground,” he explained. “When I started thinking about it afterwards, I was scared as hell.”

Despite his injuries, the 23-year-old aviator knew he needed to escape the crash site in a hurry. He had landed in Nazi-occupied Belgium. He quickly buried his chute, helmet and what was left of his oxygen mask.

Then Grace pulled his Plexiglas survival kit out of the pocket of his leather flying jacket. It contained life-saving equipment that might keep him out of the clutches of the enemy. There were two dime-sized compasses and a silk map of Western Europe. These items got him headed west toward the English Channel and freedom.

Grace wandered through the forest for a couple of days without running into a single person. He had no idea where he was. Then he spotted an old Belgium farmer sitting in the front yard of his home.

Grace pulled a “Phrase Card” out of his survival kit and showed it to the surprised farmer. He pointed to a line on the card written in German, French and Flemish that read, “I’m hungry.” The farmer and his wife fed him and took the downed flier in for the night.

The old couple also contacted the Belgium Underground while he was with them. The next day, two young women from the Underground, who were about his age, arrived at the farmer’s house. They took Grace back into the woods a short distance away and hid him. They told him to stay put until they returned with a guide.

Three days later, the two women came back with a third woman who took him to a nearby town. She introduced him to her cousin who agreed to guide him by bicycle to the headquarters of the Belgium Resistance in a town about 50 miles away.

By this time, Grace’s injuries were causing him concern. He realized that if he had to peddle far he wasn’t going to make it. Despite his injuries he took a bicycle he was provided and followed behind the guide, who peddled the lead bike a couple of hundred yards ahead, appearing not to be associated with the escaping pilot.

“When we reached the first town, I got stopped by a Belgium policeman. Most of these policemen were patriots opposed to German occupation. They would look the other way when Americans were involved. I showed him my American dog tags and he waved me on,” he said.

A couple of towns later, when Grace and his guide reached the next town, he wasn’t as lucky. He was stopped by two “Resists,” these were Belgian collaborators who worked as police for the Germans. They were despised by the locals.

“I wouldn’t tell ‘em anything. So two of them took me to their headquarters, a chateau in the village that had been turned into a police station,” he said. “The first thing I did was ask to go to the john. They let me and they even allowed me to close the bathroom door. When I spotted the outside window in the bathroom I locked the door. Picked up a stool and threw it through the glass window.

“Then I hid behind an old cast-iron bathtub. The two Belgian collaborators broke down the bathroom door, spotted the smashed window and assumed I had escaped without looking around the room. They ran out back into the woods looking for me. At that point I simply walked out the front door, got on my bike and pedaled away.”

His underground guide, concerned about Grace’s fate, was waiting for him up the road. When Grace finally arrived, he told the guide he could peddle no further.

This is the Medieval Benedictine abbey in Denee, Belgium where 2nd Lt. Robert Grace of North Port, Fla. hid in the bell tower and watched Gestapo agents kill three Allied prisoners in the courtyard below. Photo provided

The guide explained that they were within a mile or so of the Benedictine Abbey de Maredsous at Denee, Belgium. If he could make it there, the guide knew a monk at the abbey that would take him in.

Father Ambrose Watelat, a monk at the Abbey de Maredsous in Denee, Belgium, would not only be one of those who would save his life, but the Catholic priest would become his lifelong friend. The monk took the injured fighter pilot in and hid him in the monastery for a few days until it got too risky because of Nazi sympathizers.

“The Gestapo got a tip from someone at the abbey that the escaped prisoners were being hidden by the monks. When the Gestapo arrived they went right to where the three guys were hiding,” he said.

Father Ambrose Watelat was a Benedictine monk at the medieval abbey at Denee, Belgium, when 2nd Lt. Robert Grace arrived at his door fleeing from the Germans during World War II. Photo provided

By then, Father Ambrose had moved Grace to the Abbey’s bell tower. The pilot watched in horror from on high as the German secret police took their revenge on the men in the courtyard of the centuries-old house of God.

“One of the guys the Gestapo was looking for was shot and killed while trying to escape. He was the lucky one. The other two, the Gestapo tortured to death in the courtyard. They left their bodies for the monks to take care of,” he said.

“I was scared as hell watching all this. I thought they might come looking for me,” he said. “The next day, after the Gestapo murdered the three men, the monks got word they were coming back to look around some more.”

Father Ambrose spirited Grace away. He hid him in the forest for several days until he could make further arrangements with the Belgium Underground. A couple of weeks later, he was hidden in a woman’s home in nearby Flavion, Belgium.

Angele Hubot was the middle-aged woman in Flavior, Belgium, who hid Grace in her home for five months. She was a member of the Belgian Underground. He called her his “Belgian mother”. Photo provided

It wasn’t a simple procedure. Grace was interrogated by a panel of underground leaders to make certain he was who he said he was and not an English-speaking German spy. He was quizzed by a Belgium engineer who spent a few years working in Cleveland, Ohio, where Grace had grown up. His interrogator asked him about points of interest in Cleveland a native would know about.

He passed the ordeal. When moving a downed Allied airman from safe house to safe house, the Underground used a simple but effective procedure for verifying the players involved in the transaction.

When his guide arrived at Angele Hubot’s front door with Grace in tow, he presented a half of a Catholic prayer card that had been cut irregularly into two pieces. Hubot accepted the card and closed the door leaving the two of them standing on her stoop.

The other half of the prayer card was concealed in the bottom of a small box of wooden matches the underground had given her earlier. She matched her half of the card with the half she had just been given. They matched perfectly. She knew immediately the two people standing outside her front door were from the Underground and not German spies or collaborators.

She welcomed Grace into her home.

Hubot was a middle-aged woman whose husband and son were killed by the German invaders while serving in the Belgian Army. To 2nd Lt. Robert Grace of Cleveland, Ohio she was “my Belgian mother.”

For five months, from June to October, he hid out in her home. She fed him, clothed him and cared for him like her son.

“The Belgian people were some of the bravest people I ever met. They put their lives on the line by taking in Allied airmen,” he said. “If the Germans had found out what they were doing, everyone in the family hiding an Allied pilot would have been killed. They might have also arrested other people in the village and lined them up and shot them, to teach ‘em all a lesson,” he said.

Shortly after he arrived at Hubot’s house, a BBC broadcast from England instructed downed Allied airmen to remain in hiding until they were liberated by advancing Allied forces.

By late October, everyone in Flavion knew their day of deliverance had almost arrived. They began hearing big guns in the distance that got closer and closer and louder and louder.

Robert Grace looks a copy of “Silver Wings,” an autobiography he wrote about his misadventures during the Second World War. Sun photo by Don Moore

Thunderbolt fighters were flying over, staffing the retreating Germans who were pulling out of the town in disarray. They were using horses to draw equipment because they no longer had fuel to power their machinery of war.

“I was standing along the street holding a homemade American flag Angele had sewed together on the morning the 9th Armored Division rolled into the village with its tanks,” Grace said. “I yelled to the guy in the turret of the lead tank: ‘You got any American cigarettes?’

“The tanker stopped his Sherman, climbed down and walked over to me. “You speak pretty good English for a Frog.”

“I’m not French. I’m an American fighter pilot who was shot down and rescued by the Belgium Underground,” he replied.

“Sgt. Harry Blood, the tanker from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, gave him the cigarettes he requested. The tanker would be killed a month later during the Battle of the Bulge.

Grace was more fortunate. He was driven to Paris and immediately caught a flight back across the channel to England. Since he had been shot down over enemy territory, he was not allowed to rejoin his fighter squadron. His shooting days as a Thunderbolt pilot in World War II were over.

Grace’s File


Name:Robert Grace
Date of Birth: 22 Jan. 1921
Date of Death: 23 Dec. 2012
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Address North Port, Fla.
Discharged: November 1945
Rank: 1st Lieutenant
Unit: 373rd Fighter Group, 411th Fighter Squadron, 9th Air Force
Commendations: Purple Heart, Air Medal with five battle stars, World War II Victory Medal.
Children: Denise, Robert, Stephen, Debra

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, April 14, 2005 and is republished with permission.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

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Robert Grace - Services at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo provided

Robert Grace – Services at Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo provided

ROBERT J. GRACE

22 Jan. 1921 – 23 Dec. 2012

Beloved husband of Eleanor (nee Salerno) and the late Marjorie (nee Siravo). Loving father of Denise Turek (Jerry), Robert (Laura), Stephen (Marilyn), Debra Ann Carroll (Robert), step-father of Dominik Giampietro (Sharon), Frank Giampietro and Catherine DeBiase (Donald).

Cherished grandfather of William Turek, Matthew Turek (Betsy), Jennifer Turek (deceased), Nicole and Anthony Grace, Frank Giampietro, Jr. (Danielle), Danielle, Dino, Gabrielle, Donald DeBiase, Jr. and Angelique DeBiase, Michael and Dominik Giampietro, Jr. Great grandfather of 8. Dear brother of Mary Ann Henry and the late Ellen Copeland, Joseph Grace, Donald Grace and Gerald Copeland.

U.S. Army/Air Corp WW II Veteran and recipient of a Purple Heart. Funeral services at the funeral home Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 at 7:00 PM. Interment Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery (Rittman, OH) Friday at 11:30 AM. Friends received Thursday 4 – 7 PM at the A. RIPEPI AND SONS FUNERAL HOME, 18149 BAGLEY ROAD, MIDDLEBURG HEIGHTS, OH (West of I-71).

Comments

  1. my father was an armorer in the 411th F.S . My son is going thru pictures that he sent home and compiling them. We have many shot of the planes. his letters speak of the names of “smitty” and “Brownie” as well as a dog that they kept. I would like to exchage some of these with you.

    growing up I recall that my parents exchange cards at christmas with this smitty person who i believe was from buffalo.

    please let me know if you would like some of these pictures.

    Clifford Welden
    Glen Head, NY

    • Hello, Cliff. My dad flew with the 411th FS and I’m writing a book about his training and combat years. I’d very much like to share photos and other info. My dad’s last two planes were named Maid from Michigan and Maid from Michigan II. Would love to find photos of their cowl art, which depicted a bathing beauty diving over the state of Michigan. Also, I recently contacted the son and daughter of my dad’s crew chief, George “Red” Gormley. He painted cowl art. I wonder if Red and your dad were on the same maintenance crew? At minimum, they certainly knew each other, both being 411th people. Thanks.

  2. Hello,
    I believe my grandfather served with Robert Grace. Is there any chance you have some sort of contact information with him?

    Thank You

  3. My father was Lt John E Schiefen who served in the 411th squadron. He died in 1955 but I have a few photos that I would share with others who’s fathers and grandfathers served. Perhaps they have photos of him. My best guess is that he was there in late 1944 to April when he was wounded and sent home. He and I were born in Rochester, NY. I now live in RI.

    • Hello, Bill. My dad flew with your dad in the 411th FS and I have one photo he shot of Lt. Schiefen among many photos he shot overseas with the 411th. Lt. Scheifen is posing in front of a P-47 nose with another un-named pilot. I’d love to find out who the other pilot was. Perhaps you already have that photo, but if not, I’d be happy to email you a copy. I don’t know if the photo is unique. Perhaps multiple copies of photos the pilots shot were printed and shared with buddies in the fighter group.

    • A followup to my previous note to you last June. I also found some mission claims reports filed by your father and would be happy to email them to you. On at least one report, I see that my dad was on the same mission(s) and is noted on your dad’s claim form(s) as being the confirming witness to your dad’s claims. Kurt

  4. My father was the Guide of Robert Grace during is trip between Jevigne (our family estate in the Ardennes) and the Maredsous Abbey (Belgium).

    If you want more info, I have my father’s book about his live during WWII and a lot of testimonies.

    Best regards,
    Emmanuel de Briey

  5. I was given the opportunity to take care of this wonderful man in his later days.He told me many stories that I will never forget. He was a true blessing to know.

  6. Sandy,
    I can’t picture a face with your name but I am truly grateful for the care you gave to my father. My family was so honored to have him in our home with hospice the last several weeks of his life and blessed that he died very peacefully in his sleep.

    Over the years he passed on to me a wealth of information, maps, pictures, military documents, correspondence with Belgians that helped him and letters from individuals that enjoyed his book. He and I were in the process of pulling all that together to do a revised edition of his book, Silver Wings, A Young Man’s Dream, and it’s a project I intend to continue. The only one of his books left in the CLEVNET system (Greater Cleveland Ohio Library System) is in “archive” status and only available for use in the Hudson Library because all the other books that were put in circulation were not returned. He was interviewed for the Library of Congress WWII Veterans Project and the interview includes audio excerpts that I discovered a few weeks after his death. It is wonderful to have a record of his voice recalling his experiences.
    Denise Grace-Turek, a very proud daughter

    • I’m not sure why this message just popped up today but I’m happy to have the information. The only photos I have of dad overseas is after he was shot down & in hiding in Belgium. I have a newsletter article from their base in England. I used Google Earth to go to the town in England where they were based & now they have WWII airplanes in air shows.

      • Dear Denise,

        As I told you, my father helped your father to cross by bicycle the Belgian Ardennes, the 5th of June 1944, the day before D-Day.
        If you are interested, I can send you his war souvenirs (in french) One chapter is dedicated to the escape of your father.
        I could also, with pleasure, translate the chapter.

        Regards,
        Emmanuel de Briey

      • Dear Emmanuel,
        That would be a most generous and wonderful gift. In 2002 I was able to visit the Abbeye de Maredsous and see Fr. Ambroise & where he hid my father during his time at the Abbeye. He took me to Flavion and we took a picture sitting together on a bench in front of Angele Hubot’s home – his “Belgian mother” where dad stayed for most of his time in Belgium. Father was a life long friend to my family, baptized my firstborn, and visited our homes many times. I would be so grateful for any information you can share.

      • Dear Denise,

        I would be very happy to start translating the chapter.

        Like most member of my family, (grand father, oncles, cousins and brother) I was educated (from 12-18 year old) at the school
        of the Abbey. So I know every square inch of the place and most of the monks.
        The escape of your father with mine is still today something we tell to our sons…in front of the fireplace.
        Coincidence, yesterday I was hunting (wild boars) in the very same woods where your father was hidden ! The estate is still in our family.
        As a matter of fact, my father, (Claude de Briey) was at that time in the Intelligence Service, not in the armed resistance. The escape to Maredsous was something organised only by our family without any link with the resistance. For security reason, your father was not at that time aware of that and ignored even the name of his “guide”. It’s only, when he was in Maredsous that contact where taken with the resistance for continuing the escape to England. But after 6 June 44 it would have been too dangereous to cross France and they decided to keep your father save until arrival of the US troops.

        Best regards,

        Emmanuel

      • This exchange between you and Denise is fantastic. Please keep us in the loop. Emmanuel, if you wish to share your story with War Tales readers, send it to VeniceBeaches@gmail.com and we’ll put it at the end of this story. If you care to share pictures, then (if you have them) and now, we can use them, as well.

    • Hello, Louis. My dad flew P-47s with the 411th FS from August 1944 through the end of the war. I am working on a book for my family about his time in WWII, from stateside training through the end of the war. I have lots of photos he shot and I have an actual unused 411th fabric squadron patch I found in his memorabilia. I would be happy to email you a jpg image of the 411th patch if you have not received one by now. Kurt

  7. What a gift you have given me Emmanuel! Dad died 12/28/2012, one month before his 92nd birthday. I miss him very much. Did you know that he wrote a book, Silverwings, A Young Man’s Dream – it tells of his great love of flying but several chapters are about his experience in Belgium and the wonderful & courageous people who saved his life. We had started to work on an epilogue to his original book to add all the wonderful information that we’ve gathered in the years since 1999 when we first self-published his story. A dear friend that traveled with me to Paris and then to Maredsous was able to stay at the Abby with me for 3 days – we were able to attend evening prayer & the special Saturday midday meal – a very special consideration for two American women. I brought home a CD of the monks recording of their Chants & some other rememberances that I treasure.
    Father made arrangements for my oldest – the son he baptized – to stay with a family for 6 weeks the summer before his last year of high school. I just spoke with him to make sure my memory was correct – he said Father took him to meet the man & his wife that fed him when he was in the forest on their land, took Will to where dad was hidden & then along the way he was taken to Maredsous. William said they had lunch with the couple – do you have any memory of that or perhaps your parents speaking of it? Father also took him to Flavion to Angele’s and whatever family member that owned the home showed him several photos of my dad in the back yard and in her home. I am so excited to have this contact with you. We have always been proud of dad’s service in WWII, but there are no words that adequately express the gratitude for the risk people like your father took to keep my father alive.

  8. Still looking for pictures and info on the 411th.
    2lt. Frank M. Thomas

    Kevin Thomas
    1573 Brownlee Rd.
    Calhoun, La. 71225
    318-737-0541

    • Hello, Kevi. My dad, Bruce Byers, flew with the 411th FS. I have a photo he shot of 411th pilots Lts. Evans, Marshall, Gibian, and Thomas posing together. Don’t know if there was more than one Lt. Thomas in the squadron. I’d be happy to email you a copy of the photo. There also is a photo of a “Buck” Thomas in my dad’s collection. Could that have been a nickname for Frank? I could send that photo, too.

      • A followup, Kevi, to my note above. I also have some mission claims reports submitted by Lt. Thomas. I’d be happy to email those to you.

  9. My dad, Bruce Byers, flew with the 411th Squadron from August 1, 1944, through the end of the war. I have a copy of the actual mission report that notes Lt. Grace’s disappearance. I’d be happy to email it to anyone who would like to read it.

    A correction to two photo captions above: The P-47 was built by Republic Aviation Corporation, not North American.

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