Chapter 1: Grenier Field

By Charles Dunn

Andy Dunn
Andy Dunn
Aug 29 · 15 min read

from my dad’s book The Nurse and the Navigator, now available on Amazon

In later years Mom would tell the story of how she and Dad first met at Grenier Field Army Air Force [AAF] base in New Hampshire where she was a flight nurse and he was a recovering surgical patient. However, there are two conflicting accounts of how Dad initially acquired the injury that put him on the path to Mom’s medical ward.

Back in August of 1942, when Dad was 2nd Lieutenant Charles W. Dunn, Jr., he had arrived in England with advance units of the United States 8th AAF, in his case with the 92nd Bomb Group at Bovingdon in Hertfordshire. The original American battle plan had been to attack targets in Nazi occupied Europe in broad daylight so that the bombs could be aimed optically. However, this strategy failed to take into account the high percentage of days during which northern Europe is hidden by cloud cover, especially during the winter months. Consequently, by 1943 the 8th AAF began work on the adaptation of British H2S airborne radar — already in use by the Royal Air Force [RAF] in its own nocturnal bombing campaign — for installation on American planes. On August 20, 1943 the 482nd Bomb Group was formed for the purpose of providing “pathfinding” — that is, radar targeting — services to the other groups within the 8th AAF. A week later Dad was transferred to this new 482nd Bomb Group, specifically to its 813th Squadron. The 482nd was located at Alconbury, a village of less than 500 people located about a half hour by car from the university town of Cambridge. No doubt he was selected for this new assignment because of his strong academic background in mathematics and the physical sciences.

At the same time, the 8th AAF had a policy that bomber crewmen must complete 25 missions to finish out a combat tour and thus become eligible for rotation back to the States. In Untold Valor: Forgotten Stories of American Bomber Crews Over Europe in WWII, Rob Morris reported

In the early months of the [American bombing] war . . . the chances of a crewman completing the obligatory twenty-five missions were almost non-existent. Assuming a loss rate of four percent per mission, no aircrews would survive to complete their tours. Even at a loss rate of only two percent per mission, a man had only a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Early in 1943, aircrews over Europe were suffering losses of 8 percent per mission . . . .¹

At the end of a mission, the surviving flyers who returned to base could see for themselves only the extent of their own unit’s losses. According to what Mom later told me, the AAF was deliberately understating overall losses in the hope of misleading the aircrews within each bomb group into believing that only they had been unlucky. If so, such a cover-up could not hide the truth indefinitely. By the autumn of 1943 the entire 8th AAF was obliged to temporarily reduce operations. Dad could do the math. Fearful for his life, he volunteered to be among the three pathfinder crews from the 482nd that were being selected to return to the States to learn more about H2X. His application was approved. However, after his request was approved, but before actually returning to the States, he broke his ankle — badly. It is at this point in Dad’s account that a discrepancy exists between his own explanation for the circumstances of his injury and what was subsequently heard from other sources. According to Dad himself, he had suffered the injury during an off-duty volleyball match. However, back in the late eighties when my brother Bob conducted his own research into Dad’s military records, he exchanged correspondence with several 8th AAF veterans who had flown with Dad. At least one of these gentlemen recalled things differently. According to this alternate account, Dad had, while off duty, gotten so drunk that he inadvertently rode a bicycle off a country bridge. I am not sure what to make of this revisionist history. For one thing, I never observed him consume an excessive amount of alcohol. For another, I don’t recall him denying a shortcoming when confronted by a credible accusation to that effect. So, on the one hand, the drunken bicyclist story does not seem plausible. On the other hand, war places men under such tremendous stress that they sometimes do things they otherwise would not. Perhaps the story of booze, a bicycle, and a bridge is true.

Dad was not generally inclined to volunteer information about his past. Nor was he the sort of postwar military veteran who tries to acquire personal capital by reminding others of his service. However, I did once ask how his medical treatment came to be administered in the United States for an injury incurred in the United Kingdom. On this occasion his explanation was — by his own standard, at least — unusually lengthy. According to Dad, if the 8th AAF in England learned of his leg injury, he would have been hospitalized there. If this were the case, he would miss the opportunity to redeploy back to the States. In consequence, he tried to hide his condition. He even admitted to me that he and the 482nd Group’s flight surgeon reached an understanding to the effect that this leg injury would go unreported so that he not miss the opportunity to fly home.

He would later tell me that, once back in the States, he began flying training missions at an AAF base in Maryland. Meanwhile, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology near Boston, scientists in its Radiation Laboratory were hand-building a new American version of the British air-to-ground radar technology. The American version of this radar was to be called H2X. Soon, American bombers equipped with H2X were available for flight-testing at Grenier Field AAF base, located just outside Manchester in New Hampshire. No doubt the Air Force selected this particular facility to flight test the new technology both because Manchester is only about sixty miles north of Boston and because Grenier Field and was already being used for other training purposes. According to Bill Yenne in his Big Week; Six Days That Changed the Course of WWII “by the third week in September . . . the Rad[iation] Lab had installed a dozen H2X sets in a dozen Flying Fortresses [bombers]² . . . .” It was about this time that Dad himself was transferred from the Maryland base to Grenier Field.

At some point after his own arrival at Grenier, Dad’s leg injury became so painful that he could neither walk without a cane nor climb abroad the airplane without assistance. Only then did the Air Force become aware of his injury. Once it did, he was duly admitted to Grenier’s medical facility. His ankle injury was now diagnosed as a bimalleolar fracture. To repair such an injury, surgery is always required. During this procedure surgical screws are inserted to pin the anklebones back together. Dad himself described what the doctors inserted in his ankle as a bolt. Whatever is used to hold the ankle in place, it is removed after eight to twelve weeks. Even then, additional physical therapy will probably be needed for full recovery.


At the same time, Mom was 2nd Lieutenant Alva G. North of the Army Nurse Corps [ANC]. She had been assigned to the medical facility Grenier Field base beginning September 18, 1943. It was here that my parents first met. Dad was 25; Mom was 23. Because my parents’ correspondence did not begin until after Mom’s departure in early November for duty elsewhere, it is not clear whether they met prior to the initial surgery or only during Dad’s recovery. Nonetheless, both their own reminiscences in subsequent wartime correspondence and Mom’s postwar anecdotes provide peeks into this earliest stage of their relationship. In later years Mom would frequently recall that her first impression of Dad had been that of a strikingly handsome young flying officer whose arrogance made him a difficult patient. These later anecdotes add credence to a letter she wrote on February 29, 1944. In this letter she recalled . . . This [upcoming] month it will be six months since I took care of certain very saucy Lieutenant at . . . Grenier. However, like the Elizabeth Bennet character in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, Mom didn’t allow an initially negative impression prevent a relationship from developing with her Darcy. By the time of her later transfer away from Grenier Field, she and Dad clearly had connected.


From Mom’s service record, I do know that on November 6, 1943 about two months before the end of Dad’s convalescence, she was ordered away from Grenier Field. She now reported to Brooklyn in New York City for further assignment. This proved to be transfer to the 45th Evacuation Hospital of U.S. 1st Army, then stationed at Camp Kilmer near New Brunswick, New Jersey.

In the meantime, Dad remained a medical patient back at Grenier Field. Over the next our days he was able to maintain occasional telephone contact with Mom. After he could no longer reach her by phone, his correspondence to her began. Dad’s first letter is dated November 10, 1943.

Dear Gina:

Happy is the airman today for I have your address now — and your letter. Now stay right where you are until we can get a few letters back and forth.

Yesterday the bandage came off, and I couldn’t have been better. Of course some of your ‘lilac’ [perfume?] would have stood me in good stead. Now I am wrapped up again all smiles at the prospect of being released [from the medical ward] Saturday.

The first two days after you were gone were sheer gloom. My little rotund gal in the kitchen asked if I was lonely — then — ‘Jeez, you must’a been in love wit’ her.’ All in hushed tones of awe.

The date of Dad’s actual release from the surgical recovery ward is unclear. But he did continue to keep Mom updated on his medical progress. For example, in an undated letter from the base’s station hospital, he reported

He [Capt. Coughlin, the attending physician] had a nice look at my leg which does look very nice. For the first time I am sans [without] bandage. It is beautiful. Nice and dry — no ooze even if a bit scabby — yet.

In another undated letter written about this same time, Dad indicated that he had indeed been released from the hospital, but not yet returned to flight status. . . . Captain Coughlin says no flying just yet . . . . In a V-Mail to Mom dated November 19, 1943, he reported

‘Googie’ [?] had guessed at least three weeks for my leg to [illegible] itself, but in two days the goo is gone — at last — and very firm. All I have is a tiny square of gauze on each side held on by a piece of tape.

By November 30 he was complaining that he still was not cleared for a return to flying status and was getting pretty bored.

. . . the hours pass very slowly without news or orders. Had x-rays taken the 29th & they show me to be fairly normal. I’ve an [illegible] and still have a pronounced limp. I don’t dare look a flight surgeon in the eye.

On Christmas Eve he sounded more confident of his medical status.

The adjutant called yesterday afternoon and told me to return [to his duties on the Grenier Field flight line] and with good cause. The word is at last here that I must leave, and the days between us [before being reunited] may not be long or many. I’m to take a flight physical when I arrive; and I am now on duty, free from the hospital and ready.

However, a bit further on in the same letter he did admit . . . In fact, right now it’s a little sore. ‘Specially in the left area [of his injured ankle]. As late as New Year’s Eve, Dad’s medical status remained in doubt.

Today is a big one for one and all — not the least of whom is me. To begin with, a few people, including me, have been concerned about my having an uncompromising case of osteo — nice eh? But it is all a mistake says Capt. Coughlin. He came today. I shall have another X-ray Monday, but I guess I’ll pass.


From Dad’s very first letter to Mom, his salutation was always Dear Gina, or some variation thereof. This originated from Mom’s middle name of Georgina. For the rest of his life, Gina remained the name he called her.

For her part, during all the time I knew them, Mom always called Dad Charles. So it came as a surprise to read in her wartime letters that, back then, she virtually never did. Instead, most of her correspondence addresses him as either Ricky, or Gallagher, or even Rico Gallagher. I have no idea how the ersatz surname Gallagher got started. But regarding the first name of Rico, an undated letter that Dad drafted on stationary monogrammed as being from the “Officer’s Club; Grenier Field, Manchester, N.H.” does provide a clue. Dad’s original ambition had been to become an operatic performer. His

favorite was the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Indeed, when I knew him, one of his few hobbies was collecting new releases of old Caruso recordings. In this particular letter to Mom from the officers’ club at Grenier, he wrote . . . So now I am ‘Rico.’ That is what Caruso’s wife called him.


Of all of Mom’s subsequent letters to Dad — at least among those that are in my possession — the one that reveals the most about their time together at Grenier Field was written on December 23, 1943, about six weeks after her departure from that base.

Dear Gallager [sic],

This afternoon I received your letter . . . . To think that you tried to call me the night before I left [the U.S.], now it’s my turn to say damnation!

It all seems so very long ago. I remember dashing like mad to the mailroom [at Camp Kilmer] 15 minutes before we left to see if there was one last letter from you. When there was none, I thought you had reasoned that I had left already. And here is that letter now, for Christmas.

O Gallager, even now I miss you so. I’m glad I’m not adjusting to missing you. Each day I review the time we had together so that nothing can possibly intervene; it is so sweet to be able to keep those days apart from all others. Remember —

The day I knew you sang before you told me.

The first evening I cam down to see you.

The W.A.C.’s [Women’s Auxiliary Corps] pie.

Your singing in the bathroom.

The whistling in the corridor which herald[ed] your visit. (remember when you came in daily to see Capt. Coughlin and would stop on my ward?)

The evening you came to the Nurses’ Quarters with cane instead of your crutches like a naughty boy — and how very, very wonderful you looked in your uniform that night.

The first morning I saw you in your overseas hat and leather jacket. It impressed me so much in your uniform I think.

Our walk that first evening and our wish to see England together — or any place else for that matter.

The first night I rode in a brand new shiny, green Ford — the Wheat Field and you!
Staples
[?] catching us on the steps.

Our fried eggs as an evening snack.

The movies (corny pictures), then a club, then the Wheat Field again.

The afternoons we had ice cream in town.

Our first and only dinner at the club one afternoon.

Our only evening at the club.

The first night after your 2nd surgery, you held my hand and didn’t want me to go. You should have known I’d never leave you alone.

Each morning the suspense about what Capt. Coughlin would say about your leg — the knowledge that I was to blame. ‘Give me strength Lord, give me strength.’

The meaning of this last paragraph is unclear. Had Mom made some nursing error that necessitated a second surgery? Or had Dad somehow re-injured his leg while away from the hospital and together with Mom on an off-duty tryst? The two references to a Wheat Field do imply that they were already enjoying occasional private moments. Whatever the explanation, neither Dad nor Mom ever said anything to me about her having been responsible for aggravating his original injury. Mom’s letter continues.

The afternoon you wrote ‘may I always be as close to you as I am now,’ and I tore it up because I was afraid of (or for) the future.

The afternoon you gave me the wings [from Dad’s uniform].

The afternoon of the three pence, now do you know why I was so happy with the three pence?

The afternoon your mother [Mrs. Helen Dunn, who was visiting from nearby Massachusetts] sat with us on the porch and I was afraid she’d see the wings. I didn’t want to upset her, if only I could have known her then.

The ‘maple walnut’ ice cream.

Listening to the records — ‘If I Could Tell You,’ Caruso, YOU, Crooks, Bjoerling [three tenors who Dad admired].

The first night I really heard you sing. . . . Oh I was thrilled beyond expectation.

Our chats —

Our last day — a hectic afternoon and a most peaceful lonely night.

How could I ever forget those wonderful weeks?

I do love you so

Goodnight —

Gina

Later in the War Dad, too, occasionally reminisced about those early days at Grenier Field. In February of 1944 he made his own reference to a second surgery. Specifically, on February 21 he wrote

I’ve been thinking about the night you sat up with me after my second ops — I can hardly remember it. But I shall never forget your telling of it or my imagination of it.

By November of 1944 they were moving toward considering themselves formally engaged. On November 14 Dad — now a captain — sent Mom the lieutenant’s bars that he had worn back at Grenier Field. He then reminded her of that first occasion in which she had seen him wearing his officer’s uniform, complete with those bars, rather than the hospital attire of a surgical patient.

These are the ones [bars] I wore on my [military] blouse . . . remember the first time you saw me in my blouse? And how we ‘walked’ [Dad was on crutches] from the nurses quarters down the road and back. It almost brings tears thinking of just that. You held my arm and it swept right over me: ‘Why, this is the first time you’ve [Dad himself] ever known anything as clear and wonderful as this.’ It was a brand new emotion. Somewhere I had subconsciously decided long before that girls just thought you were nice or they didn’t. But this! — I was awed — even had to push it back to arm’s length so as not to be completely dazed. And there isn’t any of that that has disappeared except being more grown and full.

Did you feel that wonderful surge that night too? Can you wonder why I think myself blessed when I can remember one such evening? Do[es] all of this tell you how much I love you and that we are one?

Ricky

On November 29 Mom responded.

Yes, I remember our walk at Grenier, the way you looked in your blouse. At that time I don’t know if I was conscious of love, perhaps because it wasn’t like me to admit to myself recognition of love — but remember when I did — I was awed, too. I almost ran away, or did I? But you came to England!

On December 11 Dad again reminisced about those idyllic early days at Grenier Field.

I wish I were your patient again. Remember how you used to stand on the foot of my bed against the wall? Thinking of things like that drives away all care — except for you.


During his convalescence, Dad also continued to keep track of the air war over Europe. On November 10, 1943, just three days after Mom’s departure from Grenier Field, he was still confined to the base’s station hospital. On that date, in his very first letter to Mom, he was already lamenting the loss of some flying colleagues. He had learned of their deaths from a magazine article.

I read an article in the Cosmopolitan today and learned of the death of my closest friends in the old group & and an enlisted man I was ‘pal’ to. I wonder how many more there are I know nothing about.

He understood that this temporary redeployment back to the United States — plus the delayed return to England on account of his hospitalization — had probably saved his life. By not being on one of those first H2X-equipped B-17s that departed for England back in September, he missed going on bombing raids in which the 8th AAF sustained some of its highest loss rates of the war. On October 2, 1944 months after he had returned to England he wrote

I didn’t want to stay behind the sq[uadron] when they left Grenier [to return to England] because I was in a pretty up & coming spot at the time. I might possible be a major now. But I might equally well be a dead major . . . .


In his remaining days at Grenier, Dad’s letters began providing hints of his impending return to duty. He ended his New Year’s Eve letter with an enigmatic postscript: Leaving Grenier Monday [January 3, 1944], you ponder on that. Regarding his return to England, it is doubtful that Dad would have been given any advance information. When Mom had boarded a troop ship New York Harbor on November 16, 1943, her unit was not informed of the ship’s destination until after it sailed Presumably, Dad now found himself in the same position.


[1]: Rob Morris, Untold Valor: Forgotten Stories of American Bomber Crews Over Europe in WW II, Kindle ed. [Washington, D.C: Potomac Books Inc., 2006], location 41.

[2] Bill Yenne, Big Week; Six Days That Changed the Course of WWII, Kindle ed. [New York: Berkley Caliber, 2013], location 1844.

The Nurse and the Navigator

A memoir by my father, Charles Dunn, about the World War II romance of his parents. After they passed, my dad discovered 900 love letters they exchanged on the European front. This, in my dad’s words, and with excerpts directly from my grandparents’ love letters, is their story.

Andy Dunn

Written by

Andy Dunn

Student of primates @bonobos. I love cilantro but love even more the people that hate it

The Nurse and the Navigator

A memoir by my father, Charles Dunn, about the World War II romance of his parents. After they passed, my dad discovered 900 love letters they exchanged on the European front. This, in my dad’s words, and with excerpts directly from my grandparents’ love letters, is their story.

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