AN SUV PULLS up to the front entrance of the venerable National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, as if it could be carrying any major dignitary to a VIP event. A few seconds later, with a little assistance, out steps Paul Grassey, a 97-year-old World War II veteran who flew 13 combat missions for the 446th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, and has been a volunteer docent at the museum since the day it opened.
As we introduce ourselves with an elbow bump and masked, muffled greetings, his companion brings around a walker, and he grabs it with a mix of consternation and acceptance, but announces “I only have this because of an incident I had chasing an ice cube across the floor the other day.”
As we turn to enter the museum—closed to the public on the day we chose to talk—his voice booms in the giant atrium. The walker does nothing to minimize his stature as he is now just pushing it in front of him like a toy he doesn’t need. He walks tall, and confidently points out many of the plaques and memorials of men and women who made the museum possible, as if I’m not there to get to know one of Savannah’s most fascinating individual figures.
He leads the way to the enormous room that houses scores of military aircraft, including the B-17 Flying Fortress “City of Savannah,” for which the museum is famous for restoring and showcasing. Someone hits the lights as he enters the room, and within a few minutes a couple of chairs are set up in front of the large window. Settling in, I don’t even have to ask a question before I’m learning about his life, work and passions.
Paul Grassey is a storyteller.
He starts by telling me the history of the museum, naming names and listing dates.
“We started this museum over 20 years ago,” he notes. “There were around 90 or so volunteers working here and a lot of us veterans around when we cut the ribbon. Every one of them is gone now except for me. I’m the last one.”
He’s proud of this place and what it means to him and countless others like him who want future generations to know the reasons it even needs to exist, and the sacrifices that were made to make us the nation we are today.
Soon, a story almost a century in the making starts to unfold.
Born on July 27, 1923 in Glens Falls, New York. Grassey graduated from Ridgewood High School in 1941 and attended Virginia Tech Military School (then VPI) through November 1942 when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.
“I talk a lot about my buddies. At the time the World War started, we were in high school. We would all get together at friends’ to discuss what was going on in the country and the world. The war was raging all over the world, at high speed. And we all wanted to get into the service of our country.
One Sunday we were in Ridgewood, NJ. This particular day, there were seven of us talking about whether we should enlist or not. The father of two of my buddies walked into the room and we asked him ‘Mr. Dolan, should we enlist?’ And he told us he couldn’t make that decision for us, but he said ‘Let me show you something.’ He went upstairs and came back down with pictures of World War I. He had been a member of the famous Lafayette Escadrille flying over Germany in World War I. We were really impressed, and hadn’t really known what this one man had done for his country,” he says.
It’s hard not to look around the room as he recounts, and notice the artifacts of war and freedom, imagining the mindset of young men so many years ago, who were willing to give their lives for this cause. A mindset Grassey attributes to character and courage.
“The next Sunday we were in the same house, and my buddies—his two twin stepsons—said, ‘wait till you see the old man.’ And he walked in the room. He had his Captain’s uniform on; he had his pilot’s wings; he had his Captain’s bars. He said ‘I’m leaving Tuesday. You guys can make up your own mind.’ There we were. He was our mentor. We all enlisted.”
But it wasn’t as easy as making a decision right there on the spot.
“My father didn’t want me to do it. My brother had already enlisted. He had 60 hours of flying time when he was 24-years-old. They called my brother up, and in 90 days he was teaching Navy cadets how to fly an airplane.
I really was determined to get into the fight, so I signed up, but my father still wouldn’t let me go. I came home for Thanksgiving that year and said to my dad ‘Pop, you’re going have to sign these papers, because I’m going to be sworn in Monday morning and you have to have those papers signed. He got mad at me, but he eventually signed. My father never got past sixth grade, growing up in the Depression, and he was afraid for me to go. I don’t know why. He probably thought I’d go out and get myself killed. But here I am at 97, still kicking around, right?”
Grassey enlisted in the Army Air Corps to be a pilot—to “fly for his country,” he says. He received his wings at Stutggart, Arkansas, and was assigned to B24s. He received orders for the 446th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, Bungay, England, and flew 13 combat missions.
“I got to fly missions over Germany. You didn’t really know what you were going to run into. As the days went by, we got better and better at our business,” he notes.
He tells of long, hard missions and being in London, England, the day the lights came on after Germany was defeated.
His bio from the museum states that after the war and serving six years in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Grassey decided to return to school, where he graduated in 1948 from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. Once he received his degree, he worked in the civilian sector with Burroughs Corporation in New York City for more than 20 years.
After retirement, Grassey and his wife, Nancy, relocated to Savannah. A few months after arriving, he was asked to attend meetings at The Mighty Eighth Air Force Historical Society. Grassey loved what the historical society stood for, so he decided to join the organization. As a member, he was able to watch the development of the Heritage Center Museum in Pooler, Ga. The Mighty Eighth Air Force opened their own museum on May 15, 1996, where Grassey served as a volunteer for 18 years and is now a board trustee.
Just last year, the country of France bestowed upon him its highest decoration, the Legion of Honor.
He traveled to France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He’s been interviewed by major media outlets all over the world at this point. And there is a message he always tells that he wishes would ring clear.
“I don’t know where we lost it here. But we really wanted to fight for our country, we were thinking we were fighting to save the universe. And that’s part of why I wrote my book. I wanted young people to understand the mindset we had.”
Paul Grassey is an author.
In his book ‘It’s Character That Counts” Grassey tells more of his story, and of his life before and after the war that shaped the most pivotal points in his century-long timeline.
“I’m going to give you this book. There’s a lot in here that needs to be shared,” he says as he flips through pages showing me photos that bring to life the words he’s been speaking to me for the past hour or so. The book is available at the museum’s gift shop, as well as in local libraries.
“But I want to make sure you see this one quote that I included in here that sums up why we wanted to enlist. It’s from President Franklin Roosevelt.”
As we find the page, he uses his finger to follow along and emphasize the printed words as he reads the quote aloud:
There is a mysterious cycle in human events.
To some generations much is given.
Of other generations much is expected.
This generation of Americans has a Rendezvous with Destiny.
“I talked about this exact thing the other day when I was on a radio program with Savannah State University,” says Grassey. “I’ve had a lot of interviews in my life, but the point I wanted to get across was if we didn’t work together, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We are one country needing to work together, just like we were back then.”
“Speaking of radio,” I add, “I hear you are quite the musician also.” His eyes light up and he lets out a booming laugh that echoes through the room.
Paul Grassey is a singer.
Andy Steigmeier, a close friend of Grassey and the Executive Board President of The Birthplace Chapter for the Eighth Air Force Historical Society steps over to interject:
“He’s always been an entertainer, you know. He was in shows in the war. He was instrumental in putting on shows for the soldiers. Paul will start singing at the drop of a hat,” he says, chuckling.
“At our chapter meetings, I’ll ask Paul to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance, then maybe a song. Without a thought he’ll just stand up and belt out ‘God Bless America,’ the full song. He’s not shy that way for sure. Paul is a one-of-a kind character.”
“I enjoy singing,” Grassey says pointedly. “When I was 90, I made a CD of all my favorite songs. It’s been very successful. I’ve sold hundreds of them,” he says with a laugh.
He jokes that he’s been on most of the stages built in Savannah at this point, including a few sets with local bands and acts like The Fabulous Equinox Orchestra.
“I didn’t know that I had a voice. I mean, I’ve sung at some real bad places in New York City growing up. But I just enjoy it. I sang in shows when I was in the service. I’ve just been doing it for so long now, and people keep asking me to, so I do, he adds with a laugh. “Anywhere there’s a piano and a microphone, I’ll go for as long as they’ll let me.”
With that, he sings a few bars of his favorite track on the CD “The White Cliffs of Dover,” made famous in England by Vera Lynn who, he notes, lived to be 103-years-old.
There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, just you wait and see
I’ll never forget the people I met
Braving those angry skies
I remember well as the shadows fell
The light of hope in their eyes
And though I’m far away
I still can hear them say
“He’s one of the last of the Greatest Generation,” says Steigmeier, “and one of the main things that is up to us as members of the next generations to do, is to follow in their steps by not only remembering their sacrifice, but understanding they blazed a trail for us, and now—luckily—we are just having to follow that trail in this great country.”
He glances over to Grassey. “Tell him how you end the song, Paul.”
Grassey pauses in thoughtful reflection.
“I narrate the song. I tell the story of what happened over there,” he says. “Then I finish the song, when it ends, I say ‘We’re home guys.’ And boy... That knocks the daylights out of them.”
As he sings more of the verses like a reverent hymn, I can’t help but look around at the menagerie of artifacts from bygone days and think of everything this song represents to him and others like him who made a life-altering, yet fulfilling choice so long ago.
It’s hard not to realize that this institution where we sit is the literal embodiment of Paul Grassey and his buddies, of the choices and achievements and passion that held a nation together in the toughest of times.
Paul Grassey is a legend. Paul Grassey is home, guys.