Merville Lee Grimes was born November 16, 1922, in Purdin, Linn County, Missouri, the son of William Estes Grimes and Bertie Leola (Dowell) Grimes.1 He had one younger brother, John Robert. During the 1930 U.S. Census in Chicago, Illinois, the family was listed as lodgers with William being a steelworker.2 In 1940, they moved to East Moline. Merville was 17 years of age.3 Merville graduated from East Moline High School.4
Merville registered for the draft June 30, 1942, while living in Silvis, Illinois. He was employed at A. P. Food Store in East Moline as retail manager.5 He enlisted in September that same year in Rock Island.6 He left with 17 other western Illinois boys on September 8 on the Rock Island Lines enroute to Chicago for induction.7 He attended parachute class #49 and was assigned to Co. G. 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry, Fort Benning, Georgia, from December 14, 1942, to January 2, 1943.8
He served in World War II in the 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles”. He received a Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, two Unit Presidential Citations, the Combat Infantry Badge, and Parachutist Wings. The 101st Airborne arrived in England in September 1943 and received additional training in Berkshire and Wiltshire.9 Then Merville parachuted in the D-Day Invasion.10
Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.
Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.
But this is the year of 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!
I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.
The text of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s call to the troops on D-Day, June 6, 1944
It was June 6, 1944. Merville stepped from his plane over Normandy, France, dropping silently through the dark sky. He was just 19 years old and a staff sergeant. They were to pave the way for the tens of thousands of other soldiers who would cross those famed beaches. The battalion of airborne paratroopers’ mission was to guard a bridge over the Douve River, near Carentan, to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their troops when U.S. soldiers landed on Utah Beach. As was common on D-Day, they missed their drop target by about three miles, landing in a swamp. The enemy was all around them. Half of the soldiers from Merville’s plane, as well as two thirds of the unit of 150 men, were either captured or killed; including the company commander and the battalion commander. This left Merville as the ranking officer.11 Upon arrival at the bridge, only 100 of the 600 expected men were there. Merville said, “It was the most terrifying time of my life. The military had prepared us for many things, but not for the sound of the German Automatic weapons. I grew up in that swamp, from a boy to a man.”
They faced fierce resistance, but the Division took Pouppeville, Vierville, and St. Come du Mont, and then Carentan. In July, they returned to England for rest and more training. On September 17, the 101st landed in Holland while taking part in one of the largest airborne landings. Again, they faced fierce fighting, but held their territory, forcing the Germans to withdraw. For the next month and a half, they made extensive patrols and then returned to France for more training on November 28.
On December 18, the 101st moved to Belgium to halt the Germans from breaking through. They were commanded by Brig. General Anthony C. McAuliffe. They moved into Bastogne, set up a circular defense, and held the perimeter from attacks from the enemy that completely surrounded them. They refused to surrender to the Germans.12 On December 22, the Germans sent a surrender ultimatum to McAuliffe who replied with the cryptic message, “Nuts”, which confused the Germans. On December 26, the 4th Armored Division arrived. It had taken the 4th Armored Division five days of bitter fighting to break the ring of Germans surrounding the 101st. They lost 1,000 men along the way.
But the Germans were not giving up on Bastogne. They attacked all through December. The last major German attack began on January 4. Further small actions continued until January 8. The German hold on Bastogne was finally broken by the Third Army on January 9, 1945. The fight for Bastogne was over. Bastogne lost 782 of its civilians, the Americans lost about 2,700 troops, and the Germans about 3,000.13
Merville was wounded during the battle at Bastogne in January 1945, requiring admission to a hospital. His hospital admission card listed him as being in the infantry in a parachute unit. His wound from an artillery shell was penetrated his thigh with no nerve or artery damage. His parents received a telegram from the war department on January 30th stating that Merville had been wounded in action in Belgium on January 11. They received a letter from Merville the next day telling them that although his injuries were not serious, he expected to remain hospitalized for several weeks.14 He was administered penicillin therapy and discharged to a General Hospital in February 1945.15 He had spent 32 months in the service with 27 months being spent in the European Theater. He held the rank of staff sergeant at the time of discharge.16
John, Melville’s brother, also served during WWII in the Navy and was wounded in combat in 1946. He was a corporal.17
Merville married Nona R. Martin on Sunday, June 16, 1946, in Rock Island. He was working at the A & P Market in Rock Island. They had three children, Maryann born in 1948, William “Bill” Jay, and Bruce. In 2001, they celebrated 55 years of marriage.18 Merville began working at Illinois Bell Telephone in 1948 and in 1950 he was a lineman with the company.19 In 1973, he celebrated 25 years with the company as a senior plant assigner. He held various jobs in the company’s construction and plant departments in the Quad City area.20 He worked there for 36 years, retiring in 1983. This was shortly before the AT&T antitrust suit, which accused AT&T of being a monopoly, was settled; resulting in the divesting of the Bell operating companies, including Illinois Bell Telephone, which became a subsidiary of Ameritech Corporation.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period of great economic growth in the U.S., many Americans began moving to the suburbs and having children. This created a huge demand for telephones, one so strong that in 1952 Illinois Bell installed nearly one new telephone every minute. In the mid-1950s Illinois Bell put direct distance dialing into effect, using area codes and seven-digit telephone numbers, allowing customers to make long-distance calls without operator assistance. It was available across the entire state of Illinois by 1969.21
After retiring he volunteered countless hours with the Quad City AT&T Pioneers, a network of volunteers committed to community service in their local areas. It all began in 1911 with just 734 members, including Alexander Graham Bell. Today, the organization is the world’s largest group of industry-specific employees and retirees dedicated to community service. Pioneers volunteer more than 15 million hours annually.22 Merville was a partner in the Blackhawk Life Member Club, and a member of the American Legion in Moline.23
According to family, Merville could fix just about anything and could tell the best stories and jokes in town. He died at the age of 84 at home in East Moline on October 23, 2007.