GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A fighter pilot from Grand Rapids who fought in World War II is just days away from his 100th birthday.
First Lieutenant Gerald Graham served in the 339th Fighter Group, 505th Fighter Squadron, and flew for the U.S. Army from a British air base near Cambridge.
Graham will turn 100 on Nov. 21 and still lives in his hometown with his wife.
“I flew 67 missions,” Graham said. “I enlisted in August of ‘42 and I was not discharged, I was put on inactive in May of ‘45.”
He flew his P-51D, the Mary Lee, named after the woman he would marry.
Graham enlisted in the Army to become a pilot without knowing much about planes or flying and qualified for an aviation cadet program.
“When I was young an airplane was still rare,” Graham said.
He continues to feel grateful knowing he made it home when so many did not.
“I’ve been shot at, I don’t (know), thousands of times,” Graham said. “My airplane was never struck one time and I’d been looking at this and thought, ‘a bird couldn’t fly through there.’ Never a dent or a scratch.”
Shortly before D-Day, Graham and a friend were sent to London for leave. They learned about the invasion after seeing a driver holding up a newspaper.
“It said ‘Invasion’ and here we were in London,” Graham said. “So my buddy and I, we ran back to the hotel, got our stuff, got on the train.”
He made it back to fly his plane on the next mission. Graham’s role was to escort bombers to their targets.
“We’d have one squadron above, one on each side protecting them as they’re going in and the Germans would be, you know, they knew we were coming. There’s spotters,” Graham said.
As the war was winding down the Army made him inactive — with a need for fewer pilots — and transferred him back to the U.S.
Graham still remembers where he was when the war was officially over.
“I was based at a base in Dalhart, Texas, and of course a big announcement we knew that right away,” Graham said. “Everything stood still.”