Frank Gruber was just 4 years old when his brother William “Bill” Gruber left their home in Toston to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. Just six years later, Frank and his seven remaining siblings learned that their brother died at the Cabanatuan POW Camp after serving in World War II in the Philippines and suffering through the Bataan Death March.
Frank, now 84 and the youngest of the Gruber siblings, says he mostly remembers Bill through the stories his older brothers told him. “They said he was mechanically inclined,” Frank said. Frank remembers hearing a story of a “bullgine” the brothers cobbled together from a weathered Model T and the rare chassis of a solid rubber-tired chain drive truck.
Seventy-five years have passed since Bill’s death, but Frank and other family members never gave up hope of bringing Bill’s remains back home to Montana for a final resting place. When Bill died, his remains were buried at the Cabanatuan POW cemetery along with the remains of 10 others who died that same day.
“We visited that cemetery,” Frank said. But the exact location of Bill’s remains remained a mystery until earlier this year when his remains were positively identified through DNA testing.
In August of this year, Bill Gruber returned to Montana in a casket draped with an American flag. A memorial was held in his honor at St. Helena Cathedral before he was laid to rest, with full military honors, at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Cemetery near Boulder.
“It was a closure to us,” Frank said, “to think that he is home.”
Frank said he and his wife of 64 years, Bonnie, visit Bill’s grave in Boulder, but soon Frank and Bonnie will have a place closer to their Helena home to honor Bill’s memory. At PPLT’s Tenmile Creek Park, a trail is being constructed that will be named the William Gruber Memorial Loop. The 1.7-mile trail will begin across the street from the VA Hospital and join up with the Creek Loop trail, which is already in place.
Along the William Gruber Memorial Trail will be a plaque with these words: “William Dawson Gruber was born on January 25th, 1920, in Townsend, Montana. The third child born to Ed and Dora Gruber, he attended schools in Toston and Townsend while being raised on their ranch in the Crow Creek Valley. He enlisted in the Army Air Force in October of 1940 and was shipped out to the Philippines one year later. He survived the Bataan Death March and later died from inanition in a Japanese prison camp on September 27th, 1942. His remains were identified and returned on August 8th, 2017, and are now interred with his parents at St. John the Evangelist Cemetery in the Boulder Valley. May God grant him eternal peace.”
The Gruber family has been a great partner to PPLT. Until about six years ago, Frank owned the Head Ranch (which included what is now PPLT’s Sevenmile Creek parcel). Frank approached PPLT about a placing a conservation easement on about 400 acres of the property, but the details of the easement were never finalized and the Grubers ended up selling the ranch.
When PPLT acquired the Peaks to Creeks land, which includes Tenmile Creek Park and the Sevenmile Creek parcel, in 2016 with financing help from the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program and The Conservation Fund, Frank was paying attention.
“I read in the paper that PPLT was building a trail,” Frank said. “I thought it would be a good place to leave a memorial to my brother.”
Frank contacted PPLT Executive Director Mary Hollow and several ideas were tossed around.
“I didn’t have a specific thing in mind,” Frank said. “I was going to make a donation with the idea that something would be named after him.”
As Tenmile Creek Park evolved, Frank became instrumental in helping things come together — from securing a good deal on the decomposed granite used on the trails to planning the parking lot.
“One goal for Tenmile Park was to bring the benefits of open space and creek access to a broader number of stakeholders in the community — veterans being treated at Fort Harrison, soldiers training there, people with limited mobility, as well as school groups and families,” Mary said. “This is an incredible piece of open space — and working with the Fort, with Frank and other veterans has been a wonderful partnership in highlighting the veteran population, which is huge in Montana.”
A memorial celebration and plaque dedication is planned for the spring of 2018 for the William Gruber Memorial Trail. Frank said he is happy with the way things worked out.
“I just didn’t want him to be forgotten,” Frank said of his brother. “I just wanted to do something.”