Hyrum Grant Keeler was born June 21, 1918, in Utah County, Utah to Charles Obid Keeler and Nora Ellender Johnson. He was the eighth of ten children. The Keelers had a three-bedroom house on their 40-acre farm that ran from 400 South to 800 South in what is now Orem, Utah. There were many dawn-to-dusk duties on the family’s fruit and vegetable farm which gave Grant lifelong expertise and a love of gardening. In addition to working on the farm with his nine siblings, he played on the one-lane trestle bridge that crossed the Provo River at 800 South in Orem, Utah. He and his friends would climb the bridge overlooking the road and river below, sometimes randomly throwing tomatoes at the motorists driving below them. He played football for Lincoln High School and graduated in 1937.
As a young boy, Grant caught the flying bug watching stunt pilots and aerialists, “barnstormers,” at county fairs. He loved learning about planes and aviation. At age 21, he left Provo for Southern California to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. He went to work in the aviation industry building aircraft. While there, he met and married Rayola (“Rae”) McClellan in August 1940. They were married for 63 years until her death in 2003 and had five children together.
In 1942, while watching a newsreel at the movies, Grant was struck by the words of actor and airman Jimmy Stewart: "We need pilots. Join now!” The next day, even before telling his wife Rae, Grant joined the Army Air Corps and enrolled in the Army Air Force Advanced Flying School, graduating in 1943. Following the war, he graduated from the US Army Air Force Aircraft Maintenance School in 1946.
After completing B17 crew training in June 1944, he was assigned to the 551st Squadron, 385th Bomb Group. His first mission was on July 4, 1944. Most of Grant’s missions sent him over Germany, bombing fuel refineries, railroad yards, and industrial targets. He was shot down twice. The first time was in October 1944, when he was able to make an emergency landing in Holland and was picked up the next day. After recovering from his wounds, he resumed flying missions, but in November, his plane was again hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany. This time, the crew was picked up immediately by SS troops, transported to Frankfurt, and eventually imprisoned at Stalag Luft III.
In January 1945, Grant and the other POWs heard artillery fire from the east. That evening, they were ordered to abandon the camp. They marched for three days, were crammed into railroad freight cars, and were then sent to Moosburg, Germany. For the next several months they lived in tents, and food was scarce. On April 28, General George Patton’s troops captured the town. The next day, the flamboyant general arrived at the camp’s gate with three truckloads of food. Grant would forever recall it as “fantastic—the best bread I’ve ever tasted.”
After his release, Grant was sent to Germany for the Berlin Airlift in September 1948. He later joined the 36th Fighter Wing in Germany and flew the F-80, America’s first fighter jet. Upon returning to the USA in 1951, he was assigned to the Air Defense Command (ADC) where he was able to fly more modern planes—F86, F102, and F106 at two times the speed of sound. In 1970-71 he served in Vietnam as commander of a forward air controllers’ unit. He retired in 1971 as a lieutenant colonel, and then he volunteered for more than 20 years at Hill Air Force Base, one of the country’s busiest military pharmacies.
Grant was honored repeatedly for his accomplishments in the US Air Force during his 28 ½ years of active duty. He received the Commendation Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Purple Heart. In November of 2013 at the age of 95, Grant was formally awarded the Prisoner of War (POW) Medal at a University of Utah Football game by Senator Orrin Hatch. When he turned 100 in 2018, he was honored at the Provo Freedom Festival.
Traveling the world was a grand adventure for Grant and Rae’s family. Due to his career in the military, they lived in Los Angeles, Florida, Newfoundland, Germany, Taiwan, Colorado, Maryland, and Wisconsin. He saw the world, but he also lived a century. Over the course of his long and remarkable life, Grant witnessed the modernization of America. Life as a child on his family farm did not include indoor plumbing, a telephone, the internet, a microwave oven, or television. The outhouse was stocked with a Sears Catalog to be used as toilet paper. There was no hand sanitizer or sink nearby to wash one’s hands. Clothes were washed on a washboard and hung to dry all year round. Cooking was done on a coal stove. Milk, cheese, and produce were stored in an underground root cellar. There was no sprinkler system for the 40-acre farm; the water came from the irrigation ditch. Travel was done on foot, horse, or bicycle before the family eventually bought a Model T Ford. He was born in an era of canvas biplanes. He initially learned to fly single-engine airplanes and ended up flying jets that flew at twice the speed of sound.
Following his retirement, Grant and Rae were able to spend more time together, and in 1984, they went on a mission to Ireland for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They both loved traveling throughout Ireland, meeting with Catholic priests, photographing parish records for the Family History Library, and exploring tombstones dating back 1000 years. Grant loved his family, fellow church members, and his neighbors. He treasured his retirement time with his wife of 63 years, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He enjoyed being active in his neighborhood by participating in church activities, helping with handyman projects, and taking daily dog walks with Tiger and Bubba.
Grant outlived all of his siblings, his wife, and three of his children. He was always physically active and preferred being active at work as well as his volunteer jobs. When he was assigned to a "desk job," he complained about the physical inactivity of his job. He ate healthily and avoided excessive sugar and salt much of the time. He enjoyed a lifetime of hobbies and activities that kept his brain and body active, including woodworking, gardening, hiking, traveling, skiing (up to age 90), as well as reading. Throughout his 80s and 90s, he continued to speak at events about his war experiences and volunteer at the Hill AFB pharmacy. He will be missed.
Funeral services will be held Saturday March 12, 2022 at 11:00 a.m. at the Summerwood Ward, 1410 E. Gentile St., Layton, Utah. Friends may visit with family Saturday from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the church prior to the service.
Interment, Utah Veterans Memorial Park.
Services entrusted to Lindquist’s Layton Mortuary, 1867 No. Fairfield Rd., Layton, Utah.
If you would like to learn more about Grant’s life, you can purchase a copy of his life story here: https://www.shutterfly.com/share-product/?shareid=e04fe0fd-9a90-484d-a39c-4bdfe0c672f7&cid=SHARPRDWEBORDLNK Please note that the family does not profit from the sale and prices are set by Shutterfly.
Grant Keeler was a grateful recipient of Utah Honor Flights, a 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to enable veterans to visit the war memorials in our nation's capital. In lieu of flowers, please consider helping another veteran by donating to their cause. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or visit https://www.utahhonorflight.org
Short Videos of Grant Keeler awards and honors:
1. 2018 Freedom Award https://vimeo.com/319546195
2. 2018 Stadium of Fire https://vimeo.com/684711610
3. 2013 POW Award 2013 https://vimeo.com/79013378
Services will be available to view by Zoom at the following link: https://zoom.us/j/93357878074?pwd=cVdqcjlEblJKUi95TGRmRHNWYzcvZz09
Webinar ID: 933 5787 8074 Passcode: 222548