A Story of Two Heroes and the Fellowship of Barbershop
Author Dan Clark honors two of his personal heroes, Fred Wiese and John Grimshaw
In our world of Barbershop Harmony we have many heroes: Gold Medal Quartets and Choruses never fail to bring audiences to their feet; wonderful coaches, directors and Society leaders encourage and promote our great art form---but we also have silent heroes among us. This is a look at two of those silent men, my personal Barbershop Heroes.
Fred Wiese was born in 1922 in the town of Bloomfield, Nebraska. He lost his father at an early age, and his mother struggled to raise her son in the depths of the Great Depression. Fred and his mother lived with his maternal grandparents, who contributed greatly to his care and development. During his early high school years, Fred’s mother took a job in Ames, Iowa, and he continued to live with his grandparents. When he was 16 Fred’s grandmother died. In the aftermath, family friends asked him to live with them. All the while, Fred’s mother continued to send money of support from Iowa.
This tall young man had to learn quickly to rely on his own skills and knowledge to fend for himself---and fend, he did. Working at a variety of jobs, Fred successfully graduated from high school, and proceeded to enroll as an engineering student at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. While a university student, Fred lived and worked in a funeral home (which required going on ambulance calls—a common practice in many cities at the time). His college career was shortened by a severe infection of his mouth and gums, requiring the extraction of his front 4 upper teeth. Being out of classes for several weeks, he withdrew from the University, unaware of the turn of events on the horizon.
Shortly after Pearl Harbor in late 1941, Fred talked with his mother about enlisting in the army. She eventually agreed, and on December 30, 1941, he was inducted into the U. S. Army at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, and requested to be trained for ambulance work. The Army had a great need for people in all medical areas, so Fred was assigned to the Station Hospital at Fort Des Moines without going through typical basic training. There, he learned ambulance and injury management. (Almost as importantly, a friendly Sergeant took him under his wing and introduced him to the game of golf---Fred would still be chasing golf balls at age 90.)
Fred’s next stop was temporary duty at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, Colorado, where he learned to be a surgical technician. When he became certified as a surgery tech, he returned to Fort Des Moines, where he worked in the surgical area at the base hospital.
Soon Fred became interested in pharmaceutical work and requested training in that area of medical care. The Army agreed and he was back at Fitzsimmons on another temporary duty assignment. On completion of that training, he was qualified as a pharmaceutical technician and returned to Fort Des Moines to apply his new skills.
Though he modestly denies it, Fred obviously did well in every field he encountered. This tendency continued when he became interested in flying army aircraft. He was okayed to take the tests to see if he could qualify. His description of the exam?—"I passed the I.Q. test.” So in 1943, at the ripe old age of 20, he arrived at the Santa Ana Air Base in the Los Angeles area for pre-flight ground school.
His next stop was Phoenix, Arizona where he spent 2 to 3 months in primary flight training at “Thunderbird One.” He was then sent to Bakersfield, California for another 2 to 3 months for basic flight training, and finally to Marfa, Texas for advanced training where he learned to fly the “Bamboo Bomber,” the Cessna AT-17.
In February of 1944, Fred graduated from flight school, then flew training missions for a few months out of bases in Roswell, New Mexico and Lincoln, Nebraska. His final advanced flight training was at Ellis Air Base in Rapid City, South Dakota where he polished the skills needed to fly a B-17 Flying Fortress. He was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant, and was given a few days to put a crew together; in mid-September of 1944, Fred and his crew departed the United States for Peterborough, England.
Like most World War II veterans, Fred doesn’t talk much about the war. I had to coax, cajole, and twist his arm to get him to share his story. I began my inquiries by asking him how a man his size (6’4”) could squeeze himself into the narrow passageways of the B-17. He described a sort of gymnastic procedure of pulling himself through the forward, lower fuselage Escape Hatch, or “Pilots Hatch,”and swinging his legs up and in—"just part of the job,” he said.
Fred flew 35 missions over Europe as a B-17 Pilot and Crew Commander. He repeatedly mentioned the tragic loss of one buddy after another. Remarkably, Fred came home all in one piece.
30 years later, Fred was one of the small group of men who organized the formation of the Rocky Mountain District of the BHS in the mid-1970’s. He was one of the early district presidents, and later served on the International Board. He sang bass with the Denver Mile High Chorus, and continued with the Sound of the Rockies after Mile High and Denver Tech merged. In 2007, Fred realized a decades-old dream when Sound of the Rockies won the first-ever RMD Chorus Medal at our International Convention, held that year in Denver. Fred also had an active quartet for many years, and still sings harmony with friends in his Retirement Center in the southwest Denver area. Fred’s tenacity in not only helping create and grow the Rocky Mountain District indirectly influenced my Barbershop involvement and the formation of my own quartet in the 1970’s.
My quartet, the Chordial Celebration, had the good fortune to sing as guests on barbershop chapter shows for 35 years, mostly in Rocky Mountain District. On one of those fun-filled Friday night/Saturday night weekend gigs in Salt Lake City, our host was a great gentleman named John Grimshaw. As we pulled away from the airport curbside pick-up, I noticed a P-38 Fighter emblem on the dash of John’s SUV.
My interest piqued, and I asked John to tell me about flying the P-38. He gradually warmed to the idea, and told me some of his WWII experiences, first flying P-38s and then P-51s. As a fighter pilot he flew attack missions on specific targets such as trains and bridges, but he also frequently flew cover for American bombers on their missions over Europe. Our chat culminated in a visit to John’s home where he showed us some combat film taken by his aircraft camera which activated when he pulled the trigger on his machine guns. It was an awesome experience to see what this gentle man had been through in 1944, at age 20.
I had known Fred Wiese for several years before I met John Grimshaw, but I did not realize that John and Fred had served on the Rocky Mountain District Board of Directors a few years prior. So when I asked John if he had gotten to know Fred, he chuckled and said they’d been friends for several years since becoming Barbershoppers, John in Utah and Fred in Colorado.
Being only two of the 16 million who shipped overseas during World War II, it wasn’t surprising that these two men never saw each other while they were risking their lives in the air over Europe in 1944 & 1945. But when they began singing barbershop, and became friends who ended up living in the same District, they eventually traded war stories. They were both pilots, one flying bombers, the other flying fighters. They both flew their combat missions in 1944 and 1945 during the same months. They both flew their missions out of England over central Europe. Upon this realization, they returned home to check their old mission logs and discovered that John Grimshaw had flown fighter cover for Fred Wiese on at least 5 missions.
A World War, dozens of sorties over Europe, 47,000 casualties in the 8th Air Force alone, countless friends lost, tens of thousands of miles traveled across the globe, careers and families taking them across the country, settling down in two different states….. and 30 years later Fred and John discover their shared past through the fellowship of Barbershop.
When I first heard this remarkable story from each of these World War II pilots, I was stunned. Fred and John, like all the WW II vets I have known, both took a quiet attitude-- “No big deal.” In my opinion, it was a huge deal. I still get a lump in my throat when I share this story with friends,
I have found several barbershop heroes in my 43 years as a Barbershopper—great guys, great singers. But Fred Wiese and John Grimshaw have a special place in my heart as two of the Greatest Generation Heroes of WW II…and they both love that same barbershop harmony which is so special to me. I have been asking Fred to share his story with our Society for at least 20 years, but his modesty prevailed. This year he finally agreed to let me put it on paper, so we had several enjoyable consultations about his eventful life. I regret that I did not get this published before John Grimshaw left us. Fred is still going strong at age 96. I have cherished my friendship with this hero for many years, and will continue to cherish until we’re both gone.
About the Author
Dan Clark, music director of Sugar Valley Singers, Scottsbluff Chapter, for the past 30 years, on the RMD Ops Team for 15 years, long-time friend and admirer of Fred Wiese.