HOISINGTON - The mood was solemn Monday morning as students at Hoisington High School entered the auditorium. Passing through an American Legion honor guard on their way to their seats, the strains of “Forgotten Hope Theme” set the tone for what would be an opportunity to honor an accomplished man, Art Gruber, a former Hoisington High School student, a World War II veteran, and survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
Hoisington High School Principal Joel Mason welcomed students and guests, and made way at the podium for Mason Jim Morris, who presented Gruber with a 65 year service pin.
Joanna Lockwood, a Hoisington High School student, recited a suggested speech with modifications from the American Legion, comparing Americans’ reactions to both Sept. 11, 2001 and Dec. 7, 1941. She spoke of Gruber’s service in the Navy, on board the U.S.S. Tennessee during the attack by the Japanese 65 years earlier.
A video slide show depicting images of the attacks, and of present day service men and WWII veterans was featured. Touched by the images, Gruber often looked away, and out at the students that filled the auditorium.
Following the video, Mason returned to the podium, and read a brief biography of Gruber’s life and accomplishments. Born in Elkhart, In, his family later moved to the Hoisington area, where he attended Hoisington High School. He entered the Navy on Dec. 23, 1940, at the age of 17. He lied about his age in order to follow an older brother Glenn into service. Once there, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and sent his money home to his family every month. His job in the navy was to to be in charge of the No. 6 fire room, helping to power the steam engines of the battleship.
“On Dec. 7, 1941, Art was eating breakfast when the call for general quarters was sounded. Everyone was to report to their battle stations, and no one was happy. There were never drills on Sunday,” Mr. Mason told the audience. The men in the fire room depended on the smoke watch to keep them informed about what was going on up top. The smoke watch for Gruber’s men was killed by enemy fire on his way to general quarters. The men in the belly of the U.S.S. Tennessee felt the explosion of the U.S.S. Arizona. A man arrived and told of the attack by the Japanese and the death and destruction “as far as you can see,” which prompted Gruber to go up and see. “He could not believe his eyes. The destruction was extensive, and death was everywhere.”
The U.S.S. Tennessee took one hit. Later, it was sent on a mission to hunt Japanese ships, and the crew was out for nine months without ever dropping anchor. Communication only came through letters delivered by other ships delivering fuel and supplies. When they finally came to shore, the sailors had a hard time adjusting to solid ground again.
Gruber stayed in the Navy until the end of the war, until he was finally discharged. He returned home to Hoisington where he was greeted by his wife, Betty, and his 3 mos. old daughter, Cindy, who accompanied him to the ceremony Monday morning.
He went to work for the railroad using his skills with steam, but when engines converted to diesel, he held several interesting jobs until finally finding work with the oil industry. Gruber eventually found work with Carter Oil Co., where he rose up through the ranks to management, all the while feeling self-conscious of his lack of a high school diploma. This was something he only shared with a few, including his boss. He was sworn to secrecy about, because the company policy was only to promote those holding college degrees to management. Gruber excelled as a trouble shooter for offshore oil rigs, and was in charge of over a hundred men at a time. He travelled all over the world for Carter Oil, living in Venezuela, Miramar, China, Egypt, and many more. When he retired in 1985, he and Betty returned to Norman, Okla. They have been married for 71 years.
Gruber attempted several times to earn his General Equivalency Diploma, but whenever he began studying, another big job would come up, Mason said.
“Art hopes he can be an inspiration to every student here this morning to complete their high school requirement and graduate with good grades, and hopes all of you will be encouraged to go to college or trade school, and do whatever you can to fulfill your career dreams,” he said, presenting Gruber with a plaque of appreciation for his military service. “On behalf of the USD 431 Board of Education, it is my privilege to present you with this honorary diploma from Hoisington High School.”
Gruber, seemingly surprised, accepted the diploma, closing his eyes for a moment, and then looking out to the students offering a standing ovation. His daughter, Cindy Stanridge, spoke on his behalf, and of her pride in her father, and the fact she was not aware until she was an adult that he had survived Pearl Harbor.
Representatives from the Class of 2016 then came to the stage, and personally invited him to join them and walk at graduation in May.
“What an honor to me to have this offer,” Gruber said, accepting the invitation. “I will be here.”