Three World War I-era British biplanes dipped their wings as they flew over a graveyard near Eureka, Kansas, saluting a bygone comrade as the late pilot’s young nephew looked up in wonder.
“I decided right there that’s what I was going to do,” said Maj. (Ret.) Albert Grasselli, coolly sipping a martini as he reminisced on his days as a Marine Corps aviator and that day 90 years ago when it all began.
Realizing his dream of becoming a pilot would not be so easy, however. “I would eventually become a pilot, but little did I know how many mountains I would have to climb first,” Grasselli wrote in a memoir.
That climb and the journey after in the Marines took Grasselli to highs and lows through battles from Pearl Harbor and Midway in World War II to the Chosin Reservoir campaign in Korea, as well as calmer adventures flying with pilots and friends who would have a deep impact on his life.
Grasselli tried to apply for the Army Air Corps in 1938 at age 18, but was told he was too young and too tall at more than six feet. In 1940, he tried for the Navy’s aviation program, but failed an eye test by a tiny margin. A recruiter next door guaranteed Grasselli an aviation career if he would enlist in the Marine Corps.
After a tumultuous boot camp experience, Grasselli found himself stationed in San Diego with a Marine Air Group, only as an aerial photographer instead of a pilot. Still, he was working his way closer.
January 1941 found Grasselli sailing to Oahu with a group of Marines charged with building up an airfield that would become Ewa Marine Air Base, located several miles west of Pearl Harbor—directly between the U.S. Pacific fleet and a looming Japanese force.
After months of building and preparations, the small base was becoming livable. Grasselli had been taking classes at the University of Hawaii, and on December 6, went out to celebrate the end of the semester.
“George Temple, who was Shirley Temple’s brother, he and I had been out to Waikiki that night,” Grasselli recalled. “We got back about 4 o’clock in the morning and I didn’t bother to take my clothes off because Reveille’s usually about 5 o’clock.”
Falling asleep fully dressed with his rifle, he soon got interrupted as the war began.
“I heard all this noise outside and I thought the Air Corps was getting revenge on us for something and waking us up on a Sunday morning, but then the airplanes started blowing up,” he said. “It was the first time I’d ever been shot at, so I was a little afraid. But these airplanes came down so low; the pilots were smiling at us and that really got to me.”
Grasselli and the Ewa Marines grabbed their rifles and broke out ammunition—still packed in munitions boxes—and began trying to defend their small base as waves of Japanese aircraft passed overhead.
“They hit us first because we had 40 aircraft and they had to pass over our base to get to the Navy ships,” Grasselli said. “We just grabbed our rifles and started shooting at the airplanes. We shot one down. It’s pretty hard to hit an airplane with an ‘03.”
All 40 aircraft soon lay destroyed, and Grasselli and another Marine huddle in a hastily-made fighting position in a lava hole with a .30-caliber machine gun, waiting for a Japanese landing force that didn’t come.
As the Ewa Marines rebuilt and regrouped, they received new and larger planes. With them came a sudden need for someone who knew how to navigate over the ocean.
“They sent me to the University of Hawaii for a course in intelligence, and that was about a three month push, and I lived in the city then. So that was one reason I was picked to be a navigator,” Grasselli said.
Grasselli and another Marine, chosen for their academic background, became the first two designated aerial navigators in the Marine Corps, and soon found themselves on 17-hour training flights learning dead reckoning and how to read ocean currents and stars.
In June 1942, as the U.S. was luring the Japanese into an ambush at Midway for one of the most strategic naval victories of the war, Grasselli helped navigate reinforcements to the island for the coming battle.
“I navigated a squadron of SB2Us out to Midway,” he said. “There were about 25 of us. There was 1000 miles of nothing but water.”
During the battle, Grasselli flew missions taking ammunition in and wounded out, and witnessed the devastation. Every one of the SB2Us he had previously navigated in had been shot down or destroyed.
“When we landed on the island several times, there was just chaos. There were carrier planes coming in on fire. There was an Air Corps B-17…” Grasselli said, trailing off.
The vast majority of U.S. planes in the battle were obsolete and ended up being destroyed. Capt. James Roosevelt, son of the president, wrote a letter to his father about the situation and boarded Grasselli’s plane for the trip back from Midway after the battle.
“We took him with the letter and he went on to Washington and gave it to his father,” Grasselli said. “We got a lot better airplanes after that.”
After Midway, the need for pilots outweighed any eyesight or height restrictions on pilots, and Grasselli, already an experienced navigator, was discharged from the Marine Corps in December 1942 and assigned to naval flight school. In November 1943, nearly 20 years after first seeing those biplanes, Grasselli fulfilled his dream.
“It was the greatest moment of my life and the gold wings pinned to my blouse that day might as well have been the Croix de Guerre,” he wrote in his memoir.
In 1944, Grasselli returned to Ewa Marine Air Base, this time as a pilot. He soon flew on one of his most memorable missions, transporting Charles Lindbergh and several new planes to a remote island in the Pacific.
“The first night was at Palmyra,” he said. “Lindbergh and I went outside after we had dinner, and because I had been a navigator, we started talking about stars. Palmyra was quite a ways out—the stars were very vivid. He knew more about stars than I did, but we had a good time talking.”
Grasselli spent the remainder of the war stationed at Oahu, acting as an aide to General Walter Farrell, and using the rest of his time flying dozens of aircraft around the islands and across the Pacific. As the war ended, Grasselli returned to the United States where he served as a test pilot flying rebuilt aircraft that were not always in the best condition.
“With time, the control tower became accustomed to my frantic screams to clear the runways,” he wrote.
Later assigned to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, he requested a transfer to a fighter squadron bound for Korea. In August 1950, he was assigned to VMF-212 “Devil Cats” and left for Korea where he flew close air support missions for the 1st Marine Division ground troops, including missions around Chosin Reservoir.
The fighting took its toll on the Devil Cats. “By early December, VMF-212 was down to about five operating aircraft and our tents were being infiltrated by the enemy,” he recalled in his memoir. “It was time to leave.”
VMF-212 evacuated to Itami, Japan, and continued flying missions off the carrier USS Bataan. As seasoned flying veterans from World War II dwindled, new replacements fresh out of flight school came in 1951. Within weeks, more than half were killed.
Of the pilots of VMF-212 he went to Korea with, 18 were lost in combat, and time has slowly claimed the rest except for Grasselli, the last of the original Devil Cats.
Grasselli flew 86 combat missions and several reconnaissance flights before leaving Korea and heading back to the states. He went on to fly as the personal pilot for the Marine Corps commandant at Naval Air Station Anacostia in Washington, D.C. and later transferred to U.S. European Command in Paris.
Looking back now, Grasselli said the flying adventures and years in the Corps have formed a unifying thread in his life. As for the darker side of his time at war, Grasselli hopes younger generations may avoid what he went through.
“I wouldn’t want them to remember my experiences, but just remember that there was a war,” he said, eschewing any glorification of combat.
He instead prefers to offer memories of the men with whom he flew and shared time with: Lindbergh, Marine aces Marion Carl and Joe Foss, former commander Lt. Col. L.G. Merritt, and the many pilots in World War II and Korea among others, as well as his time in the skies.
Still sipping his martini, Grasselli smiled as he recalled flights in a Corsair nicknamed “Slick Chick,” a favorite among the dozens he piloted since a few biplanes 90 years ago inspired a long career. “I have fond memories of flying every airplane I flew.”
Editor’s note: Naval District Washington will celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Midway with a ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial, June 4 at 9 a.m.