Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Nov. 15, 2013

William and his oak tree

Every work day, I take the same short trek from my van to my office on the Kansas State University campus. But recently I noticed two small U.S. flags in the ground in front of a small oak tree. Stopping to look, I discovered they flanked a small plaque.

Only 28 years old - just a little older than daughter Mariya.

"Too young," I thought as I wrote down the name.

An Internet search revealed that William D. Grimm had been the navigator of an AC-130H Spectre Gunship dubbed "Spirit 03."

In August 1990, Iraq had invaded and occupied Kuwait. In January of the following year, Operation Desert Storm, a counterattack to liberate Kuwait by a coalition of forces, began. Grimm was one of the men sent to fight.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 31, 1991, U.S. Marines were being aided by "Spirit 03." They were attempting to eject Iraqi forces from the Saudi Arabian port of Khafji just across the Kuwaiti border. Gunships fly slowly in a circular pattern. The multiple armaments are all on the plane's left side and can keep a withering rain of gunfire on an enemy position.

But flying slowly means they are easy targets in daylight.

The Marines had asked the crew of "Spirit 03" to help a bit longer, despite the rising sun. The crew did. The plane was hit and all 13 men aboard, including Grimm, were killed when the plane went down. It was the single largest loss of the war.

Perhaps it was because Grimm died at about the age Mariya is now or because Veterans Day was coming up. Maybe it was because Grimm was about the age my first husband was when he died. Whatever the reason, I wanted to know more about him than just that he was sent into harm's way and was killed.

From the K-State website, I learned there was a William D. Grimm Memorial Scholarship in geography. An email from a university foundation representative informed me about a window display in K-State's Myers Hall, home to military studies. Among its items was Grimm's obituary. Survivors included his wife, Natalie, his two daughters, Stephanie and Elizabeth, and his parents.

I emailed his father Jim Grimm. His response was immediate.

"Gloria, thank you so much for your email and your interest in my son's plaque by the oak tree on campus. I would be so glad and honored to talk to you!"

I asked what his son was like growing up:

"William was a very strong minded kid, to say the least. It seemed there wasn't anything he wasn't willing to tackle. He completed High School in three years because he wanted to get on with life's challenges. All his endeavors were just tickets he had to get punched so that some day he could be in the Air Force. Even going to and graduating from K-State was just a necessary stepping stone to becoming an Air Force officer.

As a little kid, he played soldier and would make guns from sticks. Of course, growing up in an Army active-duty family had a large influence on this. It seemed with William there wasn't any stumbling block that he wouldn't try to overcome.

After graduating from High School, he decided to attend Rick's College in Idaho before going to KSU. Remember, he was only seventeen, so a two-year college seemed to be most fitting to start on his education towards the Air Force. He had just enough money to cover tuition and board, but not quite enough for getting him to Idaho. So, just a small thing for this kid!!! He bought a one-cylinder Honda motorcycle and rode it from Manhattan to Rexburg, Idaho. The little Honda just held a gallon of gas, so William was looking for a gas station every forty miles. No problem for William, just something he had to do. That story really gives a good picture of what he was like."

In journalism classes, we train young reporters to refer to people by their last names. But the words shared by his father had somehow made that a bit too hard to do. Grimm had become William.

William was born in North Carolina, but his father's career in the military meant the family moved often, including living in Germany for a time. William went to high school in Las Vegas. The family later moved to Manhattan, Kan. where Jim retired in 1983 while stationed at Fort Riley after 23 years in the Army.

I located an article in the "Deseret News" from March 28, 1993 about a trip Natalie was about to take to Kuwait two years after the war ended. She said:

" ... I didn't believe I could live without Bill, I just didn't think it was possible.

"But you do it. Life goes on. I'm a single mother now. I'm going back to school in the fall to earn a degree so I can support my two girls. ... That time when we were together seems like a whole different lifetime now. I'm fine now, my life is good. I don't consider myself to be a grieving widow.

"But sometimes, on occasion, something will trigger a memory - a song, whatever - and I'll find myself in tears. Life is different than what I thought it would be."

Jim said the family established two scholarships in William's name: The William Grimm Memorial Scholarship for students studying cartography and the William Grimm Aerospace Scholarship for Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps students. He said the scholarships were set up to help others with interests and ambitions similar to his son's.

The Silver Wings/Arnold Air Society planted the oak tree in April 1991. Air Force ROTC cadets dedicated the tree and plaque near K-State's Vietnam Veterans Memorial at 11:11 a.m. Nov. 11, 1991, with family and friends present.

But as Natalie observed, life goes on. She remarried and lives in Wyoming. Their daughters also live in Wyoming, where Stephanie is an elementary school teacher and Elizabeth is in college.

William had four siblings - two brothers and two sisters - all graduated from K-State. The three boys were all Air Force officers. John is now a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and recently returned from Afghanistan. James retired from the Air Force and lives in Utah. William's father moved to Arizona and his mother lives in Connecticut.

But even though life goes on, it's never quite the same. Even for me, someone who never met the man, since the first day I noticed the plaque, I find my attention drawn to it and the nearby tree whenever I walk by.

The armistice that ended World War I went into effect at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. For that reason, we especially honor our veterans on that day every year. Special events are often timed to begin at 11:11 a.m.

This past Monday was Veterans Day - 22 years after the tree and plaque were dedicated. It had begun warm and calm for a November day. But as the morning wore on, the wind picked up from the north and temperatures dropped quickly toward freezing. As 11 a.m. neared, I walked from my office to the oak tree. I felt sorry for the cadet standing vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a short distance away.

In a May 1993 "Deseret News" article, Natalie said:

"After meeting the [Kuwaiti] people and seeing the land, hearing their experiences, I'm at peace with it. I'm proud of Bill; he did the right thing. It was one life for millions of lives."

It's good to remember the sacrifices men like William D. Grimm made, but it's even better to get to know just a bit about the men who made them.

Left: William Grimm in his Air Force uniform (photo courtesy his father Jim Grimm) ; right: model of an AC130 made by William's brother James and displayed in KSU's Myers Hall.

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