Clinton Gruber '47: Missing in Action Over Germany

Clinton Gruber '47 (Heart of Oak yearbook 1946)

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.

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Fumbling in the subzero darkness he somehow found and pulled the emergency lever. The big doors slowly rolled open, revealing solid white cloud far below. Looking up into the cockpit he saw Ketch grab his chute. Then he pushed off into empty sky.

The 160-mph slipstream slammed him hard. He pulled the D-ring and the chute opened, knocking the wind out of him. Suddenly, all was quiet. Gone were the roaring engines, screaming on the intercom and blasting guns. He hung suspended in space over a cloud deck three miles down.

The crippled bomber, propellers on two of its four engines still turning, began the long, slow fall into Germany, harried by the pursuing fighters. Then it disappeared.

As Gruber came out beneath the clouds, a snowy landscape rushed up to meet him. He hit with tremendous impact, fracturing an ankle. Though hobbled, he managed to escape capture until climbing a ridge he emerged into an open field, face-to-face with a civilian who aimed a shotgun at him. The “hands-up!” order in German needed no translation.

Gruber’s flight mates were also captured and the group was sent to Stalag 1, a bleak compound of barracks surrounded by barbed-wire fences and towers. Finally, in the last days of the war, they were “liberated” by Russian troops who kept them prisoner until a U.S. Army medical team arrived with news that they would be airlifted out in U.S. aircraft. A month later, after a slow transatlantic crossing on a Victory ship, the freed prisoners saw an unforgettable sight loom on the horizon - the Statue of Liberty!

World War II ended with the Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. The nation rejoiced. Soon afterward Gruber was discharged from the Army Air Force and reenrolled at Pacific on the GI Bill, graduating in the spring of 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Though the postwar job market was tight, Gruber landed a job with KOAC radio in Corvallis. Over the next five decades he would work as a staff announcer at KOIN, a top Portland station, as executive director of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and as deputy director of the Oregon Department of Veteran’s Affairs. While holding down civilian jobs he served in the Air Force Reserve and Oregon Air National Guard, retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

As the years rolled by, the rest of the crew of Iron Ass passed away one by one. In the autumn of his life now well into retirement, Gruber was the last survivor. He still sometimes thought about the plane in which they had flown their final mission, but with the others gone he had mostly laid it to rest, until… one day in 1998. Gruber was on the Internet reading the B-24 Veterans’ Group website. As he casually scanned the postings he stopped suddenly at one that read: “Hello to all. Does anyone have some information about the B-24D, nickname ‘Iron Ass”, Serial 42-40-769, lost the 1st of December, 1943? Thank you.”

The cryptic message was from Phil Dufresne in Brussels, Belgium, a history buff, one of many private citizens in Europe who volunteer their time to locate and document World War II aircraft crash sites. Stunned, Gruber tapped out a reply: “Hello Phil. I was the co-pilot on Iron Ass, shot down 1 December, 1943. Target Solingen. What is your interest? Do you know the crash location?...”