Colonel Grant Bird
U.S. Army, Army Air Corps and Civil Air Patrol,
Combat Pilot – Colonel
World War II and Korean War (1941-1966)
VETERAN PILOT Col. Grant Bird of Novato vividly remembers his first combat mission in the cockpit of a Martin B-26 Marauder – which fliers called “Widowmaker” – on Sept. 19, 1943.
Shortly after dropping a load of bombs, he was ambushed by a German fighter. The fighter’s 20-millimeter cannons splintered the tail section of the B-26, leaving the gunner seriously injured, and the aircraft barely made it back across the English Channel.
“The plane was bad, but the tail end was pretty well shot up,” said Bird, 85. “I damn near got my tail blown off that time.”
Bird, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Sept. 23, 1941, went on to fly dozens of combat missions in the B-26, including a 1944 mission in which his plane was shot down near Paris and he was captured. He spent more than a year in a German prison camp.
Memorial Day -Êwhen families visit cemeteries to honor fallen soldiers across the country – is a time of reflection for Bird, a glance back in time to the missions he has flown and the ravages of war. The day recalls images of the friends he has buried.
“It’s really a time for retrospection,” Bird said. “I think back to so many things I haven’t thought about in years. And then I think about how truly fortunate I’ve been. “I am a survivor.”
He can no longer attend civic ceremonies, so he and his wife, Jean, will reflect at their Novato home. “I can’t stand for long periods of time, and I can’t walk very well anymore,” Bird said.
He remains a staunch military advocate and is steadfast about the country’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s absolutely insane for any politician to talk about pulling out the troops now,” Bird said. “I think it would be totally disastrous. It’s an idiotic idea.”
He added: “They talk about all the troops lost in combat, but we lost 600 people on one raid flying missions over Europe. People nowadays don’t have a clue.” Other veterans will spend the day much as Bird, deep in thought as memories of the past flash forward. “Memorial Day for me is when we honor the dead,” said Novato’s Frank Cambria, a retired U.S. Army captain who served in Vietnam as a member of the Blackhorse Regiment of the 11th Cavalry.
“It’s really not another holiday,” said Cambria, 61. “It really has special meaning for me. “May was my toughest month in Vietnam when we lost most of our men.” Cambria, who graduated from Terra Linda High School in 1965, remains active in veterans groups, including an association of soldiers from the Blackhorse Regiment, and planned to attend Memorial Day ceremonies at the Civic Center.
Bird, the son of an Oklahoma oil field worker, was born in Barnsdall, Okla., but grew up in Anderson, Mo., about 30 miles south of Joplin. He graduated from high school in 1940 and enlisted a year later.
He attended radio school, then flight school in Tampa and started flying B-17 combat missions over the East Coast, searching for German submarines. Before long, he moved on to the B-26, an aircraft dubbed the “Widowmaker” because of so many crashes during takeoffs.
In Europe, during a bombing mission near Paris, Bird’s plane lost its right engine and its bombs became jammed. The squad was able to jettison them and limp back to England. “We were just damn lucky,” Bird said.
On his last mission, on April 30, 1944, Bird’s plane was hit in the left wing and the crew bailed out. One was killed.
Bird celebrated his 21st birthday in a German prisoner of war camp eating a variation of bread pudding. By the time Gen. George Patton’s Third Army liberated the camp, Bird’s weight hovered around 90 pounds.
But he returned to flying after the war and, after getting a degree in agriculture from the University of Missouri, he served as commander of a Civil Air Patrol unit.
It wasn’t long before he was called back to duty during the Korean War, where he switched to helicopters on medical evacuation duty.
His last flying assignment brought him to Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, where he was chief of the rescue control center that provided 24-hour civilian disaster assistance for eight Western states. He retired from duty Aug. 1, 1966.
He spent a number of years working in the banking industry and, with his wife, Jean, raised a son, Eldon, named after his wife’s brother, a P-38 pilot who was killed by a Japanese pilot in the Pacific.
Bird has diabetes, arthritis, has had a knee replaced and suffers from what doctors say are residual injuries from being out in the elements during the war.
“I’m totally amazed I’m still alive,” Bird said. “I feel like I’ve been lucky. I’m too stubborn to die.”
Interview by Joe Wolfcale, SF Bay Area journalist, on May 25, 2008.