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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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).