A few weeks ago, we here at the Wayne County News had the pleasure and honor of meeting Mr. Bill Grafton, a resident of the Beech Creek community in Wayne County. At 95 years young, Mr. Grafton, or “Bill,” as he prefers to be called, may get around a bit slower than he did in his youth, but in speaking with him one soon discovers that his mental acuity is just as sharp as someone half, one-third, or even one-fourth his age. After we spoke with Bill for a few hours, a story unfolded about his very eventful life that we felt would only be fitting to print on Veterans Day.
Bill was born in Meridian, Mississippi on November 11th, 1924, which somewhat ironically was the day celebrated as “Armistice Day” at that time, later celebrated as “Veterans Day.” November 11th, 1918 marked the cessation of hostilities between the Allied nations and Germany in World War I.
Just after turning 18, and with his mother’s reluctant approval, Bill joined the United States Army. There was no U.S. Air Force at that time, but an Army Air Corps instead. Bill wanted very badly to become a pilot, but unfortunately, he had quit school after the 10th grade and did not possess the high school diploma required to become a pilot. Bill instead became a mechanic, and moved up to flight engineer in short order. He trained on B24s, which he described as “boxes with wings.”
Bill’s first trip overseas was on a ship with 3,000 ground troops. After one training flight, he was immediately put into combat. Bill described in great detail how he flew in the top turret of the airplane, and had a bird’s eye view directly into the cockpits of enemy planes.
The first bombing mission that Bill went on was an abandoned monastery in Italy. During the flight to the target, the first plane that Bill and his crew were on lost all oxygen in the cockpit and cabin, and they had to land and get another plane. They were able to catch up with their formation, and Bill described how they flew over Mt. Vesuvius while it was erupting – what a dangerous but exciting flight that must have been!
Bill’s 18th flight mission was something that drastically changed the course of his life. While on the mission of bombing a town in Hungary, Bill’s plane was shot down by the enemy. Bill still remembers in vivid detail how he could see the pilot of the enemy plane as they were fired upon, and how he came to realize that the plane was going down. He described how half of the tail of his plane suddenly “was gone,” and how holes that were shot in the wings ruptured the fuel tanks. The crew immediately began to bail out, parachuting out of the damaged plane. The last three to bail out were Bill, the pilot, and the co-pilot. Bill said that he remembers warning the pilot that the plane was “going to blow any second.” The three then parachuted out from about 17,000-18,000 feet above the ground. Bill landed in a clearing; the pilot landed in a tree. They couldn’t find the co-pilot, and learned some time later that he had perished during the incident.
Bill said that there was a big snow on the ground where they ended up in Hungary, and neither he nor the pilot were dressed for the conditions. The pair walked for three days, armed with only a compass and a map. Their intention was to walk to Yugoslavia, where they would receive assistance from Allied sympathizers. Bill described how they finally came upon a huge lake in Hungary where they saw a haystack. Being cold, starved, and exhausted, the men crawled into the haystack in an attempt to get warm. Unfortunately, a young man tending his sheep spotted them, and thinking they were Russians, he drew them out of the haystack at gunpoint. The shepherd tied them together with a whip, put a bayonet on the end of his gun, and walked Bill and the pilot to the nearest village. The villagers, who also thought the men were Russian enemies, threw rocks at them and spit on them as they walked to the mayor’s office in the town.
The mayor reported the men’s presence to the Germans as soon as they were brought into his office, Bill said. The language barrier caused much confusion, until an English translation book was brought in. After the villagers discovered that the men were Americans, they cooked them a big meal of Hungarian goulash and apologized profusely for their previous actions.
As the Germans had already been notified about the men, they soon came to get them. They were forced to walk 60 miles to Budapest, Hungary, where they were interrogated by a Catholic bishop and a Hungarian Lieutenant who spoke perfect English. Bill and the pilot were then placed in a federal penitentiary in Budapest. Bill said that none of the guards spoke English, but they kept saying “Sing, sing!” Bill said that he and the pilot both began singing for the guards, thinking that is what they wanted. But they were wrong – the guards were actually referring to Sing Sing prison in the United States, which was very similar in appearance to the Budapest prison!
After a month in the Hungarian version of Sing Sing, the American prisoners being held there were transferred by cattle cars on a train to a German prison camp. The three-day trip was miserable, with the men being packed fifty to a cattle car that was designed to hold eight horses.
Bill described the German prison camp as the bleak, hopeless place that it surely was. He told of being in a room with twelve other prisoners, and only one tiny stove. They were given one bowl and one spoon, no other utensils. The guards gave them just enough raw vegetables, moldy cheese, and blood sausage (which was exactly what it sounds like) to make one meal a day for the prisoners. Bill said that he was the only one in his group who had any experience with cooking, so he did the best he could with what he was given. He described how he would dream at night of being home once again and eating his mother’s delicious home cooking. Bill wasn’t a large man when he joined the Army, but he said he went down from 130 pounds to 95 pounds before he ever made it back home to his mother’s cooking.
After many months in the German prison camp, Bill said that in February of 1945, the prisoners got word that Hitler had ordered the General in charge to shoot all of the 10,000 prisoners. Miraculously, the German General, who admitted that he disliked Hitler very much, told the prisoners to put on all the clothes they had and to gather their meager belongings, as they were going to be transferred to a different German prison camp. However, the bad part was, even though the prisoners were not shot and killed, they were forced to walk for three days and three nights in temperatures that sometimes dropped to -40 degrees below zero.
Bill said that after the three-day trek, the bedraggled and exhausted prisoners reached what he described as a “pottery town” where they were allowed to rest. Bill and some of the other prisoners found refuge in room that held a pottery kiln, which heated the room up to about 80 degrees. That certainly had to feel amazing after the temperatures they had just endured.
After being allowed to rest for a couple of days in the pottery town, the prisoners spent another three days and three nights on a train that took them to yet another prison camp near Nuremberg in the Bavarian region of Germany. By the time the prisoners were confined in this camp, Bill said that the Allies were looking for them and soon discovered where they were being held. Remarkably, General George Patton himself was driven into the camp in a Jeep, preceded by a tank that tore down a fence so that the General’s Jeep could enter. Hearing Bill’s description of seeing General Patton standing up in that Jeep, knowing that freedom was finally within reach, brings tears to your eyes – along with a feeling of indescribable patriotism.
After being freed from the prison camp, Bill spent three months on a military base in Florida recuperating from his ordeal. After three months, he was finally able to visit his mother back home, and enjoy her cooking that he had dreamed about during his confinement in Germany.
After serving in the military, Bill’s life has never been dull or boring. He worked with NASA for many years, and was actually on the team that designed and sent up the first ballistic missile from Cape Canaveral. At one time in his career, he met and worked with the famous pilot Chuck Yeager. He went on to work for several years under the German-born American aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun in Huntsville, Alabama.
To say that Bill Grafton has led an interesting life is such a massive understatement. His military career aside, Bill has met and worked with more fascinating people, including NASA officials and U.S. Presidents, than most of us will ever even come into contact with in our lifetime.
His years in the military are what make Bill a true American Patriot, as well as a living treasure. It is truly astounding to be in the presence of a military hero from World War II who sacrificed so much for his country at such a young age, and at the age of 96 is still able to remember and recount his stories with such clarity and detail. It is a fact that whatever our American soldiers may have to endure now and in the future, Bill Grafton’s story is one that will never happen exactly that way again. On this Veterans Day, may we all remember that it is the American Veteran who has paved the way with his or her service for all the freedoms that we enjoy, and all too often take for granted.