I hadn’t initially planned to share this for a bit, but I was struck with the feeling that, tomorrow being Memorial day, it was the appropriate time to tell my Uncle’s story.
One question I’m asked very frequently – often by complete strangers, sometimes in an accusatory tone – is, “whose dog tag?” This question never surprises me – apart from an affection for jackets with epaulettes, very little about me would suggest a military background – but you’ll rarely find me without a dog tag hanging from a chain around my neck. My short answer is, “It’s my Great Uncle’s, he died in World War 2.” I usually leave it at that. Today, however, I feel like I should share a little more.
Sitting next to me are two photographs and a Navy pilot’s flight log book. They were among the items I received last week while I was visiting with family in Kent, Ohio, after the completion of my Spring tour. These items were found in the apartment of my grandfather, George Watson, who passed away not long ago. The pictures are of, and the flight log book belonged to, his brother-in-law, also named George.
My great uncle, George Walter Grill, was born September 9, 1919. I don’t know a great deal about his early life, but his story is one that stuck with me. What I do know is that before he was a pilot, he was a musician. In his late teens and early twenties, while attending Northwestern University, he played in a jazz combo. Every summer, he and his bandmates would get together for a few weeks to practice, then get a gig as the house band on a cruise liner crossing the Atlantic. Once they reached Europe, they would split the money they made evenly among them, and go their separate ways for the summer. After a few months of travelling, the group would reunite, practice once again for a week, and again get work playing music for trans-Atlantic voyagers to dine and dance to. He & his band did this from 1938 until 1941, which of course meant that George got to see, firsthand, the development of World War II in Europe.
In the Spring of 1942, George graduated from NorthWestern.
In the Summer of 1942, he volunteered for the US Military.
On September 2, 1942, he began flight training as a Navy Pilot, and made the first entry in his Aviators Flight Log Book.
On October 17, 1943, he made his last entry in that same book.
He had been stationed on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, flying escort missions. During takeoff on his final flight, the brakes of his aircraft locked on the runway. His plane crashed on the deck of the carrier. He was killed instantly.
From what I was told by those who remembered him, he was bright, creative, energetic and full of life – a man passionate about his music, but who felt compelled to do his part to stem the tide of what he had seen happening in Europe during his summers there.
I wish I could have met him.
Along with the photographs and log book, I also now have in my possession his pilot’s wings, medals, rings, cufflinks, tie clip, and the flag placed upon his coffin for his burial. I will be finding a proper way to display them soon.