The Belly Turret Gunner

Just past Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin there is a Walgreen’s that comes in handy if you forgot something on your way to Washington Island—like Biotene mouth rinse. Once you pass it, you’re on your home stretch to the Ferry and whatever you don’t pick up there, you might have to do without. We stopped for the Biotene and a case of Ensure for Dad.

After asking the sales clerk for directions, Dad headed to aisle 3 for the mouth rinse and I  headed to aisle 9 for the Ensure. But on my way, I passed another aisle that captured my interest—an entire wall of assorted trail mix. I zoned in on the ones with dark chocolate. I settled on three bags that had different nut assortments but all with dark chocolate and started back to look for my dad. I found him looking for me. His eyes kind of popped when he saw my arms full of the bags. “What’s all that?”

“I couldn’t make up my mind.”

“I thought you were getting the Ensure.”

“Oh, right, I forgot…I’ll go get it,” I turned and he followed along.

At the checkout counter, alongside Star and People, I noticed a Time commemorative D-Day 70th Special Edition magazine and showed it to him, “Look at this, Dad! You’ll love it!”

“How much is it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said laying it down on the conveyor belt along with my array of ‘healthy’ snacks. “We’re getting it.”

Dad loves stories about war and planes and ships. I think it’s partly because his asthma kept him from being able to serve during the Korean War.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful but we enjoyed driving through the beautiful small Door County towns with the art galleries, wineries, restaurants, antique shops, cherry picking farms……

We had a special ferry ride on the Robert Noble. There were only three cars. That’s a first. Usually they pack you in like sardines.

We were barely settled in at the cabin when Dad said, “Debbie, I’m so glad you talked me into buying this magazine!” Before long he was telling me how 350,000 troops had been trapped at Dunkirk. “Churchill put out a call to anyone with a boat, any boat, to come help. From motor boats to yachts, can you believe one by one every one of those troops were rescued! That was one of Hitler’s many mistakes.”

I was sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter early that evening, organizing my assorted pairs of glasses, pens, books, cords and chargers when Dad walked up with the  magazine open to a double page photo of a B17 bomber.

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“I’ve never seen this kind of detail.” He had my attention. My ex-husband’s father flew in B17s during WWII—Charlie Grimes II, my son’s namesake, was a belly gunner at seventeen years of age.

“See there? That’s where Charlie sat,” Dad said pointing at the center of the underbelly of the plane. We looked at the picture together.

“I never realized how small the turret was.” I said feeling my claustrophobia pressing in on my chest at the thought of it.

“This position was particularly vulnerable during anti-aircraft fire as the plane approached its target. It was also dangerous because it was so hard to get in and out of during an emergency. The gunner had to rotate the turret to align the opening in the top of the turret with the opening in the belly of the plane,” Dad explained. “They had to be lined up in order to enter into it or exit. If there was an electrical shortage, he was stuck.

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“At one point in WWII after a flying crew had completed 20 missions, they would be sent home. As Charlie was approaching his 20th mission, the rule was changed to 25. On one of his last missions, he had a new captain. As they approached the anti-aircraft fire, the captain radioed, Belly turret gunner out!

I’ve always remained in, Captain! Charlie radioed back to him.

Not on my plane you don’t! I order you out.

So it was in response to an order that Charlie exited his turret position to one that was ‘safer’. After his 24th mission, he was sent home because his commander thought he had been through enough. On the crews’ next mission, the plane was shot down and Daddy Grimes’ nine war buddies were killed…………

I remember the time my parents went with Justin and me to visit his parents in Robbins, North Carolina. A lot of war veterans don’t talk about their war experiences but Daddy shared his with my Dad. Afterwards, Dad wanted to respond to Charlie’s heroic efforts and found a picture of a B17 Bomber, had it matted and framed and sent it to him. Daddy Grimes hung it on a wall in their dining room.

I sat and looked at the picture of the plane then, remembering Charlie Grimes II, the soft spoken, kind man–the war hero–my son’s grandfather.

“Debbie, I am so happy you talked me into buying this magazine!” Dad must have said that a dozen times during our past week together on the Island.

Me too, Dad, I’m glad I did too.

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