Boulder soldier's remains to be returned decades later

by Jan Anderson – Boulder Monitor

More than 75 years after William Gruber died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the Philippines, his remains have been positively identified and are slated for return to Montana.

For decades his family tried to get him back home. An empty grave next to the final resting places of his parents awaited him at St. John’s Catholic Church in the Boulder Valley.

Soon Gruber will join them, his family has been notified.

“The family was informed yesterday that William Gruber’s remains have been identified … and will be returned to Montana in about six to eight weeks,” the soldier’s nephew reported to the Monitor last week.

Gruber was one of six brothers, four of whom served in the war and are now in or near their 90s. They knew where he died after surviving the infamous Bataan Death March and they knew efforts to identify his remains from among others at the POW camp had been abandoned in the 1950s.

With new genetic information available, the brothers provided DNA and asked again and again for the remains to be tested in the decades since.

In 2013 and 2015, the four surviving Gruber brothers who served in WWII formally asked for the disinterment and in August 2015 the Army told the family “the affair is now in the hands of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), and only when the DPAA makes their recommendation to the Secretary of the Army can a final decision be made.”

When efforts seemed to be at a standstill, and with fears that the aging brothers would not live to see the return of their beloved brother, the family contacted the Boulder Monitor in September 2015.

At the suggestion and with the assistance of the Monitor, one of the brothers, Frank Gruber of Helena, met with a representative from the office of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. The Monitor published an article about the situation and the meeting.

On Jan. 18, 2016, Tester stopped into the Monitor office for a visit and Monitor editor Jan Anderson asked about progress on the case. Nine days later, Tester sent a letter to the acting secretary of the U.S. Army.

“Due to the sacrifice the Gruber family made during WWII, and their advancing age, I believe that we must honor their service and sacrifices and bring their brother home for proper burial,” said the senator’s letter.

Three months later the family got word that the bodies in a couple of graves that might hold William Gruber were to be disinterred.

No timeline was provided and months went by.

Then last week came the word the family has long awaited.

“Once again the Gruber family thanks you for your great newspaper article, which I believe helped break the log jam, along with Sen. Tester’s letter,” said Ken Gruber, one of the soldier’s nephews.

The family plans a celebration of William’s return to include full military honors and a color guard once he is back in Montana, he said.