Kenneth Dale Gruber – Fireman First Class, United States Navy

Kenneth D. Gruber
Fireman, First Class, U.S. Navy
Service # 9626160
United States Naval Reserve
Entered the Service from: Ohio
Died: 28-May-45
Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
Tablets of the Missing at Honolulu Memorial
Honolulu, Hawaii
Awards: Purple Heart

6 August 2006:

Pamela Clark wasn’t born when her family received the news of her grandfather’s death. But she has heard the story many times.

“His mother turned white,” Clark said. “She was in shock, she didn’t know what to do. There was nothing to do.”

Kenneth Dale Gruber had been in the Navy barely a year. World War II was grinding toward its end when he was killed in a kamikaze attack off Okinawa. He left his parents; a wife, the former Betty Green of Lima; and two sons, one a year old and the other not quite 3.

“The family was given his Purple Heart, which now my Uncle Fred has, and there was nothing else,” Clark said. “They just went on. They never had anything for him, they didn’t know what to do.”

That’s basically where the family remained for 61 years, suspended in a grieving process that was never completed.

There was no flag-draped coffin, no funeral with military honors, no grave to decorate with flowers on Memorial Day.  Now Gruber’s life is finding an appropriate conclusion with the placement of a memorial marker in Arlington National Cemetery. Among 300,000 graves at Arlington, there are 11 sections dedicated to markers for veterans whose remains were cremated or, like Gruber, whose bodies were never recovered.

Gruber’s marker, provided at no cost to the family, will be identical to other headstones at Arlington, except it will include the words, “in memory of …” Vicki Tanner, the cemetery’s supervisor of internment services, said some months still see two or three new markers for World War II casualties whose bodies were not recovered.

The marker is expected to be in place by September 1, 2006. Clark said some family members are in fragile health or are uncertain how they would finance a trip to Washington, D.C., but Gruber’s survivors — among them four sisters in their 70s and 80s and his two sons, including Kenneth Dale Gruber Jr. of Lima — hope to attend a memorial service at Arlington in October.

Clark, who grew up in Lima and how lives in Paulding County, coordinated the arrangements for her grandfather’s marker. Most of what she knows of him has been passed down from generation to generation.

He was born in Carrizo Springs, Texas, where “he was kind of a cowboy and he did the rodeo thing and all that,” she said. “Then the family moved up to Pontiac, Michigan, where he worked at a fish market.”

Assigned to the destroyer USS Drexler, Gruber carried the rank of fireman first class and served informally as a shipboard chaplain or preacher.

“I just think they accepted him as that because that was in his heart,” she said. “That was just part of who he was.”  In a letter written barely two weeks before his death, Gruber told the folks back home that Honolulu wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He was so busy that his 24th birthday had flown by without a thought. He had received word of Germany’s surrender and commented, “Hooray for our side!”

He spoke lightly of the Japanese kamikazes, whom he referred to as “Suicide Charlies.”

The Drexler was on radar picket duty off Okinawa when the kamikazes attacked on May 28, 1945. The first suicide plane struck the ship at 7 a.m., ripping her open. A second crashed minutes later, triggering a huge explosion.

Taking on tons of water, the Drexler rolled over and sank in less than a minute. One hundred fifty-eight men — nearly half the crew — were killed.

Gruber was at work in the boiler room. Clark believes he was among the first to die.

After the war, his name was placed on a memorial in Hawaii and another in a high school football stadium in Pontiac, Michigan. He will also be listed on a larger monument to be dedicated in Pontiac this fall. But the Arlington marker will be his alone.

“There’s never been a place that we could go,” Clark said. “I have no place to go for my grandpa or to remember him in any way. His body’s in the ocean and who he was is in heaven. We’ve never had any way of saying goodbye.  “This is our first opportunity, the first chance we’ve ever been offered.”

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