Gone, but not forgotten

Ellis Desher (left) and Jack Burke, members of the 381st Bomb Group (Heavy), flip through an album of photos from World War II during a reunion of B-17 veterans Wednesday at the Francis Marion Hotel.

The shooting began just after the B-17 flew into French airspace.

Harry Grimball, a Charleston native, was in the turret when it was hit. The artillery was relentless. The engine took some flak, and it was clear the plane was going down.

"Everything just blew off," Grimball recalled.

It was Dec. 31, 1943, and the crew could do nothing except strap a parachute on the injured Grimball and push him out the bomb doors before following him out.

On Wednesday, Grimball recalled those days during a reunion of the 381st Bomb Group (Heavy), which is holding its annual meeting this week in Charleston.

Between 1943 and 1945, the 381st flew 296 combat missions and suffered 1,373 casualties. Nearly 700 of its members ended up as prisoners of war.

On Wednesday, more than 50 veterans of the 381st held a memorial service for their comrades lost in the war, and those who have passed away since. And they traded stories of those days.

Stationed at Ridgewell, the Royal Air Force base in England, these men were in the thick of the European Theater for two years. Grimball was captured by German troops when he landed.

He was taken to a Paris hospital and spent a year and a half as a POW. His unit is filled with men who have similarly dramatic stories.

--Sam Whitehead, of Whiteville, N.C., was piloting his B-17 over Germany on a bombing run to Leipzig. Flak severed an oil line on one of the plane's engines, so they had to fall out of formation and turn back to Ridgewell.

"When we got over Belgium, they started shooting at us," Whitehead recalled.

At one point the propeller flew off and ripped through the fuselage. Whitehead managed to fly the B-17 back to base, saving himself and nine others.

--Joseph Walters of Pittsburgh was on the first Schweinfurt mission on Aug. 17, 1943, when his B-17 was hit. The entire crew was forced to bail out at 20,000 feet.

While most of the men were captured, Walters was taken in by members of the German underground, who hid him in attics and factories. Eventually he was smuggled out of the country on a construction truck.

For nearly four months Walters moved from place to place -- Gibraltar, Spain, Casablanca -- before making it back to England in December 1943.

--Jack Lantz, a flight/engineer gunner, was on a bombing run to take out an airplane factory in January 1944 when his B-17 was shot down over Holland. The crew bailed out at 20,000 feet, plunging into icy water below.

The rest of the crew died, but Lantz was rescued by a Dutch fishing boat and turned over to German troops. He spent his 20th and 21st birthdays in POW camps.

Jim Grey, a member of the 381st Bomb Group Memorial Association's board of directors, said the reunion has been held for more than three decades, moving from city to city each year.

"All of these people in it are in their 80s and 90s," Grey said. "We've got children and grandchildren becoming members so we can perpetuate this forever."

A lot of the guys -- men such as crew chief Charles Dobbs, and Bill Palmer, who worked in the 381st headquarters -- show up every year.

Each year they go over those two years in Europe and all the things that have happened to them since. But they never forget the men who can't make it to these reunions. "We lost 1,373 men," Dobbs said. "At 10 guys per plane, that's 137 planes lost."