In the northwest corner of Minnesota sits the small town of Stephen where Rodney Martin Grim was born in 1922. When he was around nine years old his family moved to Opheim, Montana. After graduating from Opheim High School, Rodney enlisted in the army. On May 21, 1942, (five months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor) he graduated from flying school at Mather Field in California and signed up for overseas duty. On July 29, 1942, one month after his twentieth birthday, Sergeant Grim took off on a night flight of bombardment training planes.
Grim had two Associated Press photographers with him as part of a tour studying training methods and military installations on the West Coast. Three planes were flying in a tight formation that night with Grim in the lead. They were about six miles east of the Victorville (California) Army Flying School when, around 9:25 p.m., the plane behind and to the left of Grim veered slightly causing its right wing motor to cut through the tail of Grim’s plane. One of the photographers (Frank Filan) who was sitting near the door in Grim’s plane was knocked unconscious and fell out while the plane was spinning and plummeting to the ground. Filan regained consciousness during his free fall, opened his parachute, and saw the crashed plane burning before he blacked out again during his descent. With injuries to his ankle, chest, spine, and head, Filan wandered in a daze for seven hours and was presumed dead. His wife and family in Los Angeles had already been told that he probably died in the wreck, but a lieutenant and lieutenant colonel went out searching for him on the slim chance that he survived. They found him wrapped in his parachute trying to keep warm. Filan had been on more than 100 flights and said that was the only time he had ever worn a parachute.
Sergeant Grim and the other photographer (Clarence Block) were found with the plane wreckage near Lucerne Dry Lake in the Lucerne Valley of the Mojave Desert. The plane that cut through Grim’s tail had a badly bent right propeller, but the pilot managed to land it after his two crewman parachuted to safety.
Sergeant Grim was survived by his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters. According to a family member, when his frail-of-health younger sister, Thelma, heard a knock on the door of their house she said, “It’s Rodney–they’re coming to tell us he’s dead.” Later, the family suffered another loss when Thelma died in her teens.
The Lutheran church in Opheim, Montana, was filled to capacity and many stood outside to pay their respects during Sergeant Grim’s funeral on Tuesday, August 4, 1942. He was the first from that community to die in the service during World War 2.
In a letter to Rodney’s parents his commanding officer wrote, “Staff Sergeant Grim will always be remembered by us as being an outstanding example of the type of soldier every man in the armed forces should strive to be. He was ambitious, highly intelligent, and had a devotion to duty that was unquestionable. He was on a regularly scheduled routine flight at the time and was doing a job that required a high degree of technique. . . . [he was] a fine young man who gave one hundred percent to his country.”
A year later, on Memorial Day, salutes were given over Sergeant Grim’s grave and wreaths placed upon his misspelled gravestone in Lawndale Cemetery.
Other sources used: Fold3, The Glasgow Courier (June 3, 1943), and The Washington D.C. Evening Star (July 30, 1942).