Clinton "Clint" Gruber '47 flew numerous missions over Europe and North Africa with his mates in a B-24D heavy bomber nicknamed "Iron Ass" - until Dec. 1, 1943.By Sig Unander '87
The last time Gruber saw his B-24 bomber he was falling away from it, 18,000 feet above Germany. But not until 35 years later, through a chance encounter on the Internet and the kindness of strangers in two distant countries, would he learn the complete story of the incident that nearly took his life that fateful day of Dec. 1, 1943.
Gruber came to the tiny town of Silver Lake, a remote outpost in the sage-dotted Oregon high desert, at the age of nine with his mother and father during the early years of the Great Depression. There his parents eked out a modest living operating the general store and after it burned down, a small restaurant.
The principal of the town’s high school, Walter Sherman, was a Pacific graduate. Taking an interest in Gruber, he helped arrange a scholarship to his alma mater, and in the fall of 1938 the young man came to Forest Grove. After undergoing the usual embarrassing initiation rituals inflicted on incoming “rooks” (freshmen) by upperclassmen, he adjusted quickly to the “huge” university. At Pacific Gruber studied under Professor “Hap” Hingston, whose speech, drama and writing classes in Marsh Hall intrigued him. Assigned by Hingston to write short stories, he found he was good at it. It was the beginning of a passion for the communications arts.
Another interest was aviation. In those prewar years, Pacific participated in a government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training program. Ground school curriculum was taught on campus; flight instruction was given at Hillsboro Airport. Gruber enrolled and soon found himself in a little Piper J5 Cub soaring over scenic Washington County farmland under the expert guidance of legendary pilot and air show star “Swede” Ralston.
Fellow student Maurice “Maurie” Druhl, a cocky, strapping guard on the varsity football team, was taking flight training too. Strikingly different in personality and academic interests, Druhl nonetheless became one of Gruber’s pals, a friendship that would deepen during the war years and endure until Druhl’s death.
Late on a Sunday morning in December 1941, Gruber was walking down the stairs in Mac Hall when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor came over the dorm radio. Gruber was not particularly surprised because the war had been a subject of much debate with many students ardently opposed to America’s entry into a European or Asian conflict. That isolationism died with the first reports of Pearl Harbor. The next day, many students left to enlist.
With an attack on the West Coast now a distinct possibility, air raid drills and campus blackouts became the order of the day. Gruber signed on with the Aircraft Warning Program and spent many nights atop the First National Bank (now U.S. Bank) building in Forest Grove watching for Japanese aircraft.
Soon orders came and he was processed into the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. After a rigorous and relentless air and ground curriculum he was assigned as a copilot in a B-24 “Liberator,” a huge four-engined heavy bomber, part of a ten-man crew lead by 2nd. Lt. Horace “Ketch” Ketchum, of San Saba, Texas. “Our crew were all great people and we got along well. Ketch was a good pilot and was my teacher in flying the B-24,” Gruber recalled.