New Ulm man survives WWII German POW camp Elmer Grams shot down over Italy

A 95-year-old former New Ulm implement dealer owner who bailed out of his B17 over Italy during World War II and survived a German POW camp.

Elmer Grams of New Ulm was working as a clerk for the Allis-Chalmers company in Minneapolis when he was drafted into the U.S. Army infantry at age 22 in January 1941. He earned $21 a month for the first six months of his military service before he decided to apply for Army Air Corps. Cadet training program and become an aviator.

Graduating from aviation training May 2, 1943, Grams said he was afraid the war would end before he could deploy so he volunteered to become a B17 co-pilot, something the Army Air Corps. needed badly at the time.

Several months later, he found himself bombing rail yards in Rome. “It was scary with lots of flak,” Grams said. “We were flying in tight formation when all the sudden, flak hit a B17 right in front of us and its front end disappeared and the plane crashed. We were flying low, at about 18,000 feet so our bombs would be more accurate.”

On Sept. 30, 1943, he was on another mission bombing German supply lines in Northern Italy. “The flak was so heavy, you could almost land on it,” Grams said. “We lost an engine and our tail gunner was wounded, but we landed safely at the air base. You usually get a couple days rest after a mission like that, but the next morning, I was ordered to fly again before I could eat breakfast or get a mission briefing since another co-pilot was sick.”

Grams flew the B17 over the Mediterranean Sea before hitting a weather front that forced the plane out of tight formation. “Then about 10 German fighters came up and hit us. We lost two engines. I was hit by shrapnel in my thigh, but I bailed out, but not very well, hitting the plane’s fuselage, breaking my nose and cutting some teeth,” he added. “I don’t know if I was knocked out or not, but I remember trying to stop spinning around my parachute before I landed in a soft pasture near Lucca, Italy. I saw German soldiers nearby, but they may have been more scared than I was. I later ate lunch at the German base with the ace aviator Kurt “Kuddel” Ubben, who actually shot our plane down.”

Grams said Ubben later died while flying over Holland and bailing out of his plane but his parachute didn’t open.

Grams spent the next 19 months in a German POW camp. “We were often hungry,” Grams said. He later received an Air Medal with three Oak Leaf clusters, among other medals and awards for his military service.

Four years ago, Grams received a letter from an Italian man, Giorgio Puliti, who lived near where his plane was shot down. Puliti explained that he was a member of the Romagna Air Finders, who reunite people with passion for aircraft and history, researching WWII plane crashes.

“I was really amazed to hear from this man after all that time,” Grams said. “I didn’t return to Italy. I’m taking too many pills.”

After the war, Grams came home, got married to Muriel Vangstad of Osakis and worked for Allis-Chalmers as a sales manager before they moved to New Ulm and bought an implement dealer out in 1967.

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