Thousands of American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines lost their lives in World War II during training exercises, their sacrifices often over looked. On August 28, 1944, a woman in Quincy, Washington, Mrs. W. C. Grigg, witnessed one of these casualties firsthand. The next day she wrote to the commanding officer of nearby Ephrata Air Base to ask if she could communicate with the mother of the young man who had died.
Last evening about 7:45 from our farm near Quincy we witnessed the crash of an air plane that may have come from your field. My husband and mother were first to reach the lad’s side and although it was too late to be of any help, they, with others, checked the grass fire and moved away.
They were touched by his youth and the nice wholesome American boy he seemed to be. So much like a boy in our family whose fate was so nearly that of this lad when his plane fell two thousand feet before he regained control and he was able to come out of the tailspin he was in.
This boy who is so much like ours has gone now but he must have a mother grieving somewhere. It is she who like so many others will continue to suffer.
We feel that we could comfort her and help ease the burden she must bear. This is our request. If, in due time, you are privileged to do so, would you forward this letter to her so that she may correspond with us if she cares to? We would all be very grateful to you, sir.
Thanking you very kindly and hoping you can do this for us, I remain,
Mrs. W. C. Grigg
The parents of the pilot, who was named Gordon G. Anderson, did indeed want to know more, and they wrote to Mrs. Grigg after the CO forwarded her letter to them. Only about a week shy of his twenty-first birthday, Gordon was a second lieutenant who had volunteered to serve in the military after spending a year in college. Mrs. Grigg’s handwritten twenty-five-page response to the Andersons candidly details how their son was killed, but also reveals the anguish Mrs. Grigg felt for their loss.
Sept. 11, 1944
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Anderson,
I received your letter just this morning and was very grateful to find that the commanding officer of the Ephrata air base had been so kind as to send my letter on to you. Some of the family doubted that the army would grant such a request but I felt impelled to try. I knew so well what it would mean to you.
Our thoughts have been with you so much. Not knowing where you were or how to reach you, but knowing too how your hearts were aching from such a loss. I know how anxious you are for all details and I am glad to give them to you. I only hope I can do so without hurting you more.
Our farm lies out on the open prairie where one may see for miles and distance is very confusing. At night the beacon lights from the Ephrata air base eighteen miles away may easily be seen.
We, being from Seattle where so often the clouds hide the beauty of the sun sets there, marvel at the magnificent grandeur to be seen in the sunsets here on the prairie. Each evening it’s different and each evening I stand in wonder at its beauty.
It was on such an evening as this that the accident occurred.
I had just stepped out of the cabin to once more view that grand spectacle. The sun had just set in the west and the whole blue sky was ablaze in brilliant colors. As I turned to the east the sight was magnificent with golden fields of grain already harvested, laying edged on the distant horizon by a rim of the most delicate shades of peach and rose blending into the blue above.
It was there, in that clear blue sky, I first saw the planes. Four of them. As I stood watching them they divided into two groups and seemed to go into battle maneuvers, the leader in each group apparently trying to evade and out maneuver the plane behind.
The way they dipped, turned, first this way and that and the ability of the one behind to follow was amazing. After a few minutes it was difficult to tell just who the leaders had been and, fascinated, I continued to watch.
Finally each one in turn went into a dive. The last one didn’t come out.
I thought at first that he was more daring than the others but soon realized he was in trouble as the plane was so noticeably out of control. My anxiety grew when one of the planes dove and circled him trying so hard to help.
I’ll never forget those seconds that plane was falling. It is so difficult to describe. Everything seemed to stop. I could hear myself screaming. I tried to pray. Tried to ask God to stop it but I couldn’t.
He seemed to fall so long, although I feel quite certain it was not more than a minute of my life.
I shall always remember that night, that sunset. Twice since then I have seen the same glow in the eastern prairie sky and tears come awfully close. I can’t bear to look at it anymore.
As it struck there was a terrible explosion and a blast of black smoke followed by a burst of fire with flames shooting many feet into the air.
The rest of the family hurried to the car but I didn’t make it. Their concern was with the boy in that plane.
They thought at first that it had crashed just on the other side of the next field but found it was three and a half miles away….
When the family reached the scene of the crash the plane was completely ablaze, your son being barely outside the circle of fire and only a few feet from his plane.
My husband was first at his side, my mother making her way there a moment or two later. Having been a nurse in years past she was quick to adapt herself to circumstances and although as she knelt beside him searching for any sign of a pulse in his wrist, his throat, smoothing his hair, he was as she said, “So much like one of her own grandchildren, such a nice, fine looking boy,” it was very difficult for her.
She was terribly upset when she returned. All Mom could say was that he was so young, so very much like one of “our boys,” that although he was a stranger he seemed so dear. We do sympathize with you folks so very much.
He lay on his back, very natural, as one resting. His feet together, knees slightly bent, one hand over his breast and the other arm sort of bent with his hand up by the side of his face. He had no hat on, his parachute open and laying by his side. His tags were thrown out of his shirt and it was in examining it, my husband found his name was Anderson.
When they knew there was nothing else to be done my husband covered him with the parachute and checked the burning grass. His body didn’t appear to be broken which was very remarkable considering the distance he fell….
Opinions vary on whether he jumped or not but I did see something fall away from the plane and it went down just as fast.
The army claimed that the chute caught onto the plane. We hadn’t noticed but if such was the case that may be why the chute didn’t help.
The plane burned for hours. The next morning it was still smoldering. I am so thankful for you that your boy managed to free himself from the plane. It’s such a comfort to know you have him home there near you….
This whole world is nothing but sorrow it seems, but it does bring people closer together. It does help one to understand the sorrow and suffering of another and I sincerely hope I have helped you in some small way. I hope that your suffering has been eased just a little.
Hoping that some day we may have the opportunity of meeting you.
Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.