Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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The Shoeless Hillbilly – Podcast #81

Peter Grainger was born into a life that I bet was very different from probably just about anyone that you have ever met.  He grew up in a thatched-roof, one-room cabin located in a remote mountain location in northern New Mexico.

His mother, who he could hardly recall, died when he was just five years of age.  That left his father, a prospector, as the sole caregiver for the young boy.  Dad, with the help of another prospector, did what he could to provide his son with the best education possible in a world with such limited resources. Over the years, his dad somehow amassed a library of about 200 math, geography, spelling and general school books.  From early on it was clear that Peter had a thirst for knowledge and feverishly learned all that he could from these texts.

The first contact that Peter had with the outside world was at the age of seventeen when the two men travelled for four or five days to the small town of Beaverhead.  While in town, he encountered a woman for only the second time in his life.  He had not seen a woman since his mother passed away twelve years earlier.

Then, at the age of twenty-six, the worst thing that could possibly happen to Peter did occur.  His father died in May of 1951.  After burying him, Peter realized that he was alone and that it was time to get off of the mountain.  He packed his mule with food, two guns, and other goods and began his descent down into the real world.  His destination was the US Army.  He had read about the Army in his books and concluded that his best option for a future would be to enlist.

Sadly, his mule died along the way and Peter had to continue on foot.  He saw a car coming down the road and somehow he mustered up enough courage to flag it down.  That’s when two men stopped and offered to take him the recruiting station in San Antonio, Texas.  Now this was a momentous event for Peter.  While he had seen cars from the top of the mountain, he had never rode in one before.

Along the way, the two men provided Peter with the first store-bought clothing that he had ever owned.  That included a pair of shoes, pants, and a flannel shirt.  They then treated him to a haircut and a shave.

After dropping him off at the recruiting station, Peter learned a few new things about the US military.  First, there was a process known as selective service – aka the draft – that he had never heard about before.  Second, the Army recruiters refused to believe his story, but Peter stuck to it, never changing a detail.

But, let’s face it, the Army probably didn’t have a lot of volunteers at this time.  In 1951 the Second World War was still fresh in people’s memory and now the US was involved in the Korean conflict.  They had nothing to lose by allowing him to join up.  They administered the Armed Forces qualification test and Peter scored a 93.  The newspapers of the day claimed that the average high school graduate scored a 35 on the test and one only needed a 10 to gain entrance.

Peter Grainger, the Shoeless Hillbilly
Peter Grainger, the Shoeless Hillbilly. The image appeared on page 5 of the November 6, 1951 issue of Public Opinion.

Peter Grainger – Welcome to the United States Army!

In early November, they shipped him off from Fort Sam Houston in Texas to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.  Peter, along with thirteen other men who made the journey with him, was checked in at 12:20 PM on November 12th.

Shortly after that, Peter told some soldiers that he wanted to go for a walk to see what the town had to offer.  And that was the last that the US Army ever saw of Peter Grainger.  Officials at Fort Sam Houston claimed to have sent nearly 40,000 soldiers to other military facilities.  Peter was the first one that they had ever lost.

The next thing you know, he is spotted on November 16th in not-so-nearby Waukesha, (Walk-eh-sha) Wisconsin.  His reason for going there was simple – he went to meet a 17-year-old girl named Carol Amidon and go on his first date ever.  The two had been writing back-and-forth to each other ever since Peter’s story broke in the national news.  I guess that having met just one other woman in addition to your mom makes one do desperate things, including going AWOL from the Army.

No idea how the date went, but Peter was back on the road the next day.  He said that he had to leave to go back to Aberdeen, since he was expected to be there on November 19th.

Peter got on the bus out of town, but once again, he never arrived in Aberdeen.

So where in the world did he go?  No one knew for ten days until he was spotted by a tourist camp owner walking alongside a snow-lined road 185 miles (about 300 Kilometers) north of the US border.  Sudbury, Ontario police arrested him for vagrancy on November 28th.  The next day they identified as Peter Grainger, who was a former northern Ontario forest ranger.

Yes, the whole sob story of being raised in the mountains with no contact with the outside world was totally untrue.  At least it was untrue to the rest of the world.  In the mind of Peter Grainger, it just may have been his reality at that moment.

Let me explain.

Grainger was really a British Eight Army veteran who had served in Italy, France, Germany, Holland, and North Africa during the war.  He was eventually nabbed by the Germans, sent to a prisoner of war camp, and repeatedly had his head clubbed with the butt end of a rifle as punishment.   This caused damage to his brain and memory loss.

After his escape from the prison camp, he was barefoot and lacking resources.  He was able to secure a mule that allowed him passage to the mountains.  Grainger was then befriended by an old man who allowed him to stay in his remote cabin.

Sort of sound familiar?

He lived mostly on goat’s milk and eventually joined up to fight with Italian partisans.

Grainger contracted gangrene in one of his fingers and was forced to give up fighting with these men.  He hooked up with an American Army unit and one of their surgeons recommended that his arm be amputated up to the shoulder.  Grainger opted not to have that done and ended up in a British hospital.  They were able to save his arm.

After the war was over, Grainger left his wife and two children behind in their London home.  He headed to North America to try and establish a better life for his family.

That’s how he ended up in Canada.  He applied for a job with the Ontario lands and forest department on August 21st and was appointed to be a forest ranger.  Then, he suddenly disappeared from his post.  No one had any clue where he had gone until a few weeks later when the story of the shoeless hillbilly made the local newspaper.  Many of the locals recognized Grainger in the article’s photograph and knew instantly that the story was pure fiction.

After his arrest in Sudbury, a psychiatrist recommended that he immediately be admitted for treatment of head injuries and memory loss at the Sunnybrook Military Hospital.

In regards to the shoeless hillbilly story, Grainger told a reporter “I thought at first it must be somebody else.”  He added, “They asked me if I remembered all that and I couldn’t decide whether I remembered it or had just read it.  It was just as if I had read about it.”
He continued, “All I can remember was doing an awful lot of walking.  It’s happened before to me.  I seem to get the urge to escape every once in a while, like when I escaped from the Italian prisoner-of-war camp.”

It was his wife Helen back in London who realized that this was mostly him reliving his war experiences over and over again.

According to Helen, he apparently had overheard a conversation that they were going to fire him from his ranger position because he was mentally unfit.

“It was quite obvious to me that the shock of having been deported made him lose all sense of the present.  He went to America and relived his experiences.”

“People mourn for the dead, but it is for men like my husband that they should mourn.  His head wound resulted in his losing his memory.”

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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