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Remains of Bataan Death March survivor returned to Montana

By ANGELA BRANDT AND TOM KUGLIN | Independent Record via AP | Published: August 7, 2017

HELENA, Mont. — Though he died 75 years ago, Army Air Forces Pvt. William "Bill" Gruber continues to watch over his little brother from a framed portrait in the younger man's Helena home.

Frank Gruber was a boy when his older brother went overseas during World War II. His lone personal recollection of his brother is a visit to their Townsend-area home during a leave.

"He came home from boot camp and that's all I really remember of him," Frank Gruber said, looking at a scrapbook of old letters home and photos. "I can't remember much. I just remember seeing him."

Frank Gruber's basis of knowledge of his brother comes from stories shared by his family over the years.

Bill Gruber's photo is perched atop his brother's desk, alongside a photo of their parents. The placement is fitting, as Bill Gruber was finally laid to rest next to his parents just outside of Boulder on Saturday.

"This is a pretty big thing," Frank Gruber said. "It's going to come to a close here."

Bill Gruber’s life

William Gruber was born Jan. 25, 1920 to Edward and Dora Gruber of Toston. The third eldest of nine children, Bill Gruber and his family lived on a ranch along the Missouri River and later in Clancy.

He was known as a natural mechanic, and as an adult he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. At the age of 20, Bill Gruber’s interest in aviation led him to enlist in the Army Air Corps with a desire to become a mechanic.

Bill Gruber was stationed in the Philippines and among the ranks defending the Bataan Peninsula from Japanese invaders. With supplies running low, 10,000 American soldiers and 60,000 Philippine soldiers were forced to surrender. Now in the hands of their captors, the ensuing 100-mile march to prisoner of war camps became known as the Bataan Death March. Half the Americans would not survive the march or internment, with many starving or succumbing to tropical diseases.

Bill Gruber survived the march but would later die in a POW camp on Sept. 27, 1942, finally worn down by months of mistreatment but still defiant of his captors.

Bill Gruber's family knew the 22-year-old was missing in action in the Philippines but did not learn of his death until 1943. He was buried in a mass grave. A few years later the remains were exhumed and relocated to a Manila cemetery.

His family learned where the grave was located and even visited the site years later. But, the exact placement of the airman's remains were unknown. Military officials said extensive commingling of remains and limited technology made identification impossible.

Last year, after Bill Gruber's nephew, Ken Gruber, began asking the military for assistance in bringing the airman home, there was a break in the case.

In May 2016, remains from two graves were being tested for identification. On Feb. 22, Army Air Forces Pvt. William Gruber's remains were matched to the DNA collected from his four surviving brothers. It was the news his family waited 75 years to hear.

"He's coming home," Frank Gruber said the day before his brother's remains arrived in Montana on Thursday.

Since learning of the match, Frank Gruber, 83, has lost two of his brothers. They died knowing that Bill Gruber was returning to Montana.

"They had some closure before they moved on," he said.

Returning home

On Thursday the airplane carrying Bill Gruber touched down at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport – the casket cloaked in an American flag and handled by military personnel. Family members covered their hearts to greet their long-lost uncle and brother and stood over him in prayer. The somber occasion brought a flood of emotions for some as they loaded the hearse, comforted by a knowledge that Bill was home in Montana and the realization of that 75-year journey.

Saturday morning marked the final chapter for the Gruber family and friends.

A man of Catholic faith, mourners filled the Cathedral of St. Helena in celebration of the life of Bill Gruber. Hymns were sung, scriptures were read and prayers were recited to properly lay to rest the man and the solider who died in squalor thousands of miles from home.

Monsignor Kevin O’Neill spoke with rhythmic cadence, interweaving Biblical teachings with Bill Gruber’s life and death, and what those who mourned his loss could learn.

“How many times he was hospitalized after the surrender, how long the march, how desperate the conditions and how principled he remained, even refusing to assist the occupational forces because he believed with integrity in the principles that led him to give his life to this circumstance and its possibilities,” O’Neill said. “Born into a good hardworking family, being by nature a kid at heart and an optimist, he was faced with all the darkness and yet we know his principles remained strong, his fidelity to his fraternity to those that served, his love of family always and his faith that compelled him.”

Bill Gruber’s faith must have been a source of comfort and strength as he faced the Bataan Death March and POW camp.

“What a remarkable life,” O’Neill said. “There’s nothing I can do in the remainder of my life, there’s nothing I have done in my life to this moment that can even come close to what he and his companions in service suffered, endured, lived through and lived for: God and honor and family and nation.

“It is a remarkable icon, his life and his death and his passing to fullness of life, an icon to you and to me, for our nation and even for the world. It’s not exaggeration. It’s not hyperbole. It’s God honest fact of what he did, and how he suffered and what he has become in the Lord.”

In a powerful moment, military officers presented Bill Gruber’s family with his medals, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart signifying his valor in war and ultimate sacrifice.

From the Cathedral, Bill Gruber, his family and friends made the final leg of their long journey.

They set out in a stretching processional, heading south and cresting Boulder Hill and into the valley. At St. John the Evangelist Catholic Cemetery Bill Gruber received his rite of committal and burial with full military honors.

“Unfortunately, I, and my cousins did not have the pleasure of knowing Bill,” Ken Gruber said in prepared remarks. “He died before any of us were born. Nevertheless, from our family’s fond stories about him, he lives in our hearts. And we are forever grateful for his service to his country and the thousands of others that surrendered at Bataan.

“After 75 years, we are here together today to say prayers for Bill and to say one last goodbye to Bill Gruber. May our fallen loved ones not be forgotten.”
 

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