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Return from Berlin

The Eye of a Navigator

Robert Grilley

Publication Year: 2003

During the summer of 1944, the now-legendary American Eighth Air Force was engaged in a ferocious air battle over Europe to bring the Allies victory over the German Third Reich. This is the story of one B-17 navigator and his crewmates, men who faced extraordinary danger with a maturity beyond their years. This vivid and detailed account of combat flying and its psychological toll also recalls the beginning of Robert Grilley’s  development as a painter of international renown, as he spends his off-duty time drawing the peaceful Northamptonshire landscape around Deenethorpe airbase.
    Wakened with flashlights on their faces in the predawn hours, he and his crew repeatedly face the Luftwaffe in battles five miles high, flying through flak "so thick you could get out and walk on it." Stretching their stamina to the limits, they succeed time after time in their missions to bomb munitions works, railyards, the Leüna synthetic oil plant at Merseburg in eastern Germany, the V2 rocket research center at Peenemünde on the distant Baltic Coast, and even to strike Hitler’s capital city, Berlin.
            But Grilley finds interludes of unexpected grace and restoration on his days off, making serious drawings from nature at the neighboring Yokehill Farm. There he slowly cultivates a friendship with a curious eight-year-old, the lively child Elizabeth, who becomes for the combat flyer a symbol of survival.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

title Page, Copyright Page

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Contents

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pp. vii-viii

Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xii

For a beginner at my advanced age, a book is an awesome project. I have an unusually clear long-term memory and exceptional things to remember, but to cause a book to become more than an fanciful daydream today, one needs the computer skills I've never learned. ...

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Prologue

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pp. 3-17

Robert Earl Grilley got his draft number and induction notice in short sequence. He was exceptionally physical, so before you could say Jack Robinson, or more timely, Jack Pershing, he'd easily passed muster, and began studying war as a doughboy at Camp Grant in Rockford—close order drill with a Springfield rifle out in the hot sun in a khaki woolen uniform. ...

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1. The 401st Bomb Group (H) in England at War

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pp. 18-23

Deenethorpe. If you were writing a fictional work, could you have invented a more English name for a small village in the Rockingham Forest? Not likely. Sometimes I try to picture it in my mind's eye, although I never saw it. When I got there in May 1944, its stones lay scattered among tall weeds, and Deenethorpe had come to mean the 40Ist Bomb Group. ...

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2. Paris in June: The First Mission

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pp. 24-43

A bothersome light washes over my face, flushing away my dream. It's persistent and vaguely threatening. The light also has an obsequious voice and a respectful hand connected with it. "Sir," the voice says, "time to rise and shine," and the hand gently nudges my shoulder. Rise and shine. What a damn fool expression! ...

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3. Hamburg

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pp. 44-51

Our second mission, flown on June 17, was, in military terms, tactical. We struck a German panzer unit by a process called carpet bombing. They had some surprisingly sharp-tracking 88s; nevertheless, we didn't get much damage. But three days later, on June 20, we were gotten up at 1:30. Germany, it was Germany, you knew it. ...

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4. Landscapes and Elizabeth

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pp. 52-57

Before Paris, I'd regarded my discretionary time as something lightly given, a happy turn of circumstances soon to be taken away, so what actually materialized could hardly have been imagined. Summer was certainly the time to make war when one might be expected to keep at it until he finished his tour, or got knocked down; ...

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5. Berlin

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pp. 58-64

June 21, the day after Hamburg—it came sooner than I'd expected—a 1:30 thing again, and that corporal with the fatigues and floppy hat was in with his flashlight and dulcet words. I was closest to the door so I always got it first. ...

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6. Frevent

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pp. 65-67

June 22. Number five came the next day, the third day in a row, but the wake-up call was flashed at 3:30, a kindness of sorts. Maybe it was just back to Paris, a scenic trip up the Seine. I won't quote Jardine, but his comments could easily be imagined—actually I enjoyed them—they improved my mood. ...

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7. Montbartier

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pp. 68-72

We flew our sixth mission on June 25, and it was sharply memorable for reasons in addition to enemy action. It was deep into southern France to a place called Montbartier, actually little more than a village. The Germans, however, had a massive underground oil-storage facility there, but it was well hidden. ...

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8. Leipzig I

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pp. 73-75

July 7,1944, 0100 hours by my watch, the earliest yet, number eight; twenty-seven more after this one. I probably did the arithmetic while counting sheep. Jardine was really mad. "Gedowdahere," he roared at the flashlight, loud enough to finish the wake-up call, and Russell set him off again with the same old stuff. "Hey John, didn't they ever tell you not to volunteer?" ...

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9. Munich I and II

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pp. 76-81

After the aircraft factory raid at Leipzig on July 7, we, the 613th, had four days free. The rest of the group went somewhere on one of those days, but this was our day of stand-down by rotation among the four squadrons. The weather was clear to partly cloudy, and there was a warm wind from the south. ...

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10. Leipzig II

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pp. 82-85

It was Leipzig, another one of those death-defying stunts our country kept asking us to do. I really liked Bowman, but I wasn't always happy with what he had to say, although sometimes his euphemisms could be delightful. "Our efforts today will help wean the enemy from his insatiable oil habit." ...

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11. Marlene Dietrich

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pp. 86-87

It didn't do much good to get to the Marlene Dietrich show early. There were no seats, and the crowd was quite fluid. You naturally expected to stand and to move about as the current flowed. She was going to arrive in Colonel Bowman's well-polished B-17 and climb down a little aluminum ladder from the front hatch, ...

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12. Saint-Lô

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pp. 88-91

The Eighth Air Force high command and its chain of subordinate unit commanders made no special effort to keep us informed about the progress of the war. Except for Bowman's exhortations at briefing about destroying the enemy's sources and supplies of war materiel, little was said about how our actions fit into the big picture. ...

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13. Merseburg

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pp. 92-101

July 28, mission fifteen. We got the flashlight in the face very early again. It would be somewhere way over there. There wasn't a whole lot of table talk at breakfast, but the sunny-side eggs were temporary bright spots in the gloom. We'd had a run on the green powder scrambled stuff and were in need of a little diversion. ...

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14. Lead Team

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pp. 102-105

As far back as late June it had already been mentioned that we were being considered for lead-team evaluation and training. John had been with the 614th Squadron at its inception in Glasgow, Montana, before coming to Rapid City where he joined our crew. By this coincidence, our placement in the 401st Bomb Group reunited him with several old acquaintances ...

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15. Nienburg and Kettering

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pp. 106-115

We began the work of August with a not-very-daunting tactical near Chartres. A German mechanized division remained obdurate longer than expected, and we were sent in to loosen them up. Things seemed to be going well when, with few shell bursts to be seen, one of our B-17s was hit badly and flamed instantly, ...

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16. Peenemünde

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pp. 116-122

The meaning of the word spectacular has been diminished by careless use, so I should find a more appropriate word to describe our twenty-first mission—possibly beautiful—flown on the 25th of August. It was to Peenemünde, the V2 rocket research and production facility located on the Baltic coast north of Berlin. Visually it provided the ultimate. ...

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17. Berlin II

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pp. 123-125

After Peenemünde, it looked as if we might slip through the rest of August unscathed and I was in a languorous mood. What I'd seen of Germany seemed sufficient to last for quite a while, although summer has always been the best time to make war, so maybe a tactical or two might well be used to round out a memorable season. ...

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18. Good-bye, Elizabeth

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pp. 126-128

Mter Berlin I had one of those luxurious rows of free days, six of them, as it turned out, with a trifling of practice on two of the mornings. It was late summer with a hint of fall in the air; cloudy mostly, but still good outdoor weather. I'd accumulated a variety of drawings in my little gray linen-covered portfolio and was spending some afternoon time reading to Liz. ...

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19. Ludwigshafen

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pp. 129-137

Every soldier knows it can happen, and at times he wonders what it could be like—the flash, the pain and moment of bitter regret—light darkening into invisible gray, and then a forever-lasting silence. It's to be expected in the great barrages at Berlin or Merseburg, but the Germans have enough going on here too to keep their tracking guns well warmed. ...

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20. Ludwigshafen Again

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pp. 138-141

The Germans' will not only to survive as a political entity but to hold on to their ill-gotten gains was shown many times over in the promptness with which they set their expendable slaves to work after the dust from our strategic attacks had settled. Strike photos from the September 3 assault on the I. G. Farben Chemical Works uniformly indicated that our three squadrons ...

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21. Groesbeek

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pp. 142-146

On September 17, again after a seven-day layoff, we flew a mission that stands out clearly in my memory from briefing to execution. As a matter of fact, it was one of those rare textbook-perfect strikes, and we received a letter of commendation as the lead crew. ...

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22. Forgotten Missions

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pp. 147-148

I've not described, nor do I even remember, some of the missions listed in my file by place names and date. Perhaps it was the canceling effect of redundancy, the lack of specific markers to single them out. Even gut-gripping experiences can, in war, be played over to a point of monotony. The ones that can easily be conjured and retold, though, were unique ...

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23. Münster

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pp. 149-154

As I've said, we spent some of our best and most useful efforts in reducing the Enemy's synthetic oil production to a dribble and in depriving him of his ability to move the meager supplies to where they were needed. Large railroad marshaling yards with loaded freight cars were very attractive targets. ...

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24. Nürnberg

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pp. 155-162

Meanwhile, on October 3, we flew to Nürnberg carrying frag bombs, the kind that were bound in clusters by straps and that became armed when a small charge broke the straps after release. Nobody liked them. You had to tiptoe around the airplane before you got in. I can't remember why we even had them. ...

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25. After the Last Bomb Run

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pp. 163-166

What I'd called Indian summer ended abruptly, and there was no flying for awhile. A warm front had moved in on a mild southeasterly breeze, and the English fog that came with it dropped conditions to well below instrument takeoff and landing minimums; and there actually were limits, ...

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26. Back in the U.S.A.

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pp. 167-174

I got back to Madison in mid-November on or about my twenty-fourth birthday, and when my normally demure mother caught sight of me at the station, she let out a whoop heard by everybody meeting the train. ...

Appendix A: American Strategic Bombing

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pp. 175-180

Appendix B: Missions

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pp. 181-182

Appendix C: Robert Grilley's Military Decorations

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pp. 183-


E-ISBN-13: 9780299185039
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299185046

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2003

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Grilley, Robert, 1920-.
  • United States. Army Air Forces -- Officers -- Biography.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Personal narratives, American.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Aerial operations, American.
  • United States. Army Air Forces. Bombardment Group (H), 401st -- History.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Regimental histories -- United States.
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