Joe Grace died today, just after midnight, as St Patrick’s Day came to another close. Our mother, Catherine, lost her husband of sixty four years and cried. We seven, Joseph, Carolyn, Frances, Jonathan, Marilyn (Cristal), Mary and Alexander (not ALEX!) lost our father and cried. Our children lost their grandfather, too. Our lives will never be the same, because he and his home was our magnet.
Joseph F. Grace was born on Sunday, May 11, 1924 in White Plains, New York to Frank M. Grace and Jean Eadie. He was the eldest of three and pre-deceased by brother John (Jack) and sister Mary. His father was an Irish immigrant from Tipperary who served with New York’s Fighting Irish as an infantryman in France, where he was severely wounded during WWI and never really recovered. There was no Veteran’s Administration then and their family suffered terribly before finally dissolving.
At an early age, during the Great Depression’s high (or low) point, Joseph was forced to quit all high school sports in order to support his mother, brother and sister. He tried to leave school altogether, but was lured back by caring teachers and the school principal. He’d attend school in the mornings, developing a lifelong love of world history, and work afternoons, submitting all wages to his mother, having surrendered his teenage years to crushing responsibility.
He had dreamed of one day attending Yale, loved their academic and football tradition. He never forgot White Plains High, who’s Alma Mater he could still sing.
After graduation, a kindhearted Superintendant with the New York Central Railroad hired Joe along with two friends, Jack McGrath and Rocky Moore as brakemen just prior to Pearl Harbor. Although not required to, they each enlisted in the Army Air Corps, putting their lives in jeopardy when they didn’t have to. All three teenagers left the railroad for more dangerous work and were not disappointed.
Joseph rose to Bombardier/Navigator with the 15th Air Corps, 451st Bomb Group and flew from an air base in Foggia, Italy. He completed forty two successful missions, crash landing once before being shot down for good by Messerschmitt fighters on a run to Budapest, Hungary.
He never flew again. He never was the same again, either.
He would admit that the price he paid for his military discipline and preparedness came at the cost of acute Post Traumatic Stress as the youngest officer in his squadron. He was shot down, terrorized and starved as a prisoner of war for ten months.
When his ship exploded at twenty one thousand feet, only Joe and the pilot, Colonel Beaucond, survived. He parachuted into Kulsovat, Hungary on August 22, 1944, breaking his ankle and injuring his back. The local population didn’t take kindly to any bombardier, now in their midst, defenseless and injured in the dirt. Avoiding their bayonets, he rolled on the ground while trying to extract his .45 cal pistol from within his heavy flight suit.
He wasn’t going to go down easily.
A rifle butt to the head knocked him out and ended the fight. A Catholic priest halted the abuse and a Hungarian woman, an ex- NYC schoolteacher, showed him kindness while helping him to drink water. He was incarcerated for ten months, enduring boxcar trips to prison camp, beatings, starvation and finally, a forced march through a blizzard. He suffered pestilence and disease. Never to be totally defeated, he actually came to love lentil soup, which he was fed because it was cheap! Rotten potatoes, he never cared for. When the internees became frisky, they lured the guard dogs to their window with ground horse meat. That dog, the guards pride and joy, was never seen again until his hide obstructed the septic system. He was housed in Luft StalagIII, six months after the Great Escape. He had lost sixty pounds by the time General Patton drove his tanks through the barbed wire, announcing that everyone would enjoy a hot meal tonight! Then he drove away. No hot meal. No meal period! The younger and healthier flyers procured German carbines and scoured the countryside, shooting chickens and gathering potatoes to bring back to camp with which to feed their comrades. Germany surrendered and the war was over.
In March, 1947, Father Gerard Taggart, our mother’s brother, married our parents. They had seven children and finally settled in Brewster, N.Y.
Although not a religious man, he rather silently admired his wife’s devotion to the Catholic faith, and all of their children were raised as such.
He loved to tease us that he had proof of the absence of a Heaven. After a near fatal heart attack and blackout, he joked that there were no Pearly Gates and no St. Peter. Beverly, our Sister-In-Law, dryly replied that perhaps he had been heading in the other direction! Gotcha, Dad!
That first heart attack struck in 1990. Since then he suffered three more. Gallstone attacks, too, which he said were worse. His vibrant boisterous lifestyle of hunting, fishing and visiting friends slowed up. Almost all of his friends died and it truly saddened him. The joy began to leak.
He would not move in with any of his children, probably believing he’d be a burden. His legs failed, his heart killed him, but his mind was good to the end. He lived the life he wanted to live. We children hope the joke is on him and that, right now he is reunited with Henry and Blackie (the DOGS) and Rocky, Jack and Red (the PEOPLE) in Heaven.
Our family wishes to thank everyone at the Castle Point Veteran’s Hospital with little doubt, you extended our father’s life and happiness by decades. We salute you.