“Words cannot express how I feel because no matter what department I am in, I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for these people.”
While those may seem like pretty strong sentiments, when it comes from a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran who was shot three times in two separate combat incidents during the Korean War, it quickly becomes crystal clear that Gruber means what he says.
It’s safe to say that Rex Gruber never expected to fight in a war.
Born in the tiny Union, Nebraska, in the early part of the 20th Century, Gruber grew up in nearby Nebraska City, living the life of a typical Nebraska boy in the southeastern section of the Cornhusker State. However, by the time he was 17 and newly graduated from high school, the itch to do something different began to take hold. Gruber decided to enlist into the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I went in in 1948,” said Gruber. “I was just 17 years old. My mother had to sign for me.”
Following basic training in San Diego, Gruber was sent to nearby Barstow, California, where he served as a security guard at the Marine Corps’ Logistics Base Barstow for the next two years.
“And then the Korean War broke out,” said Gruber.
“They sent me to Camp Pendleton where I became part of Dog Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division,” Gruber said, smiling. “They gave me the biggest weapon in the Marines because I was the smallest guy in the Marines…I was given the Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR.”
Following a few short weeks of training and organizing, Gruber and the rest of his unit were moved to San Diego and loaded onto a U.S. transport ship for the 21-day voyage to the Korean Peninsula. Gruber and the members of the 1st Marine Division were headed to war.
As Gruber’s unit arrived off the coast of Korea, the war was already in its second month and things were not going well for the American forces and their allies. Since the start of fighting in June 1950, the North Korean army had methodically forced the American, South Koreans and newly arriving United Nations forces back into a small perimeter surrounding the strategically important port city of Pusan. Surrounded by enemy forces, the coalition troops were desperately attempting to hold on until reinforcements could arrive.
“When we landed in Pusan, the North Koreans had backed the Army all the way back to the border of Pusan,” Gruber said.
Despite the grimness of the situation ashore, Gruber and his fellow Marines were surprised by the reception they received. “The Army had a band out playing for us when we arrived. We were like, ‘Is there a war going on here?’ Them band guys were just really happy to see us.”
Gruber and his unit soon joined the frontlines around Pusan. The fighting took Gruber through South Korean villages recently decimated by the fighting as the allies began to push the perimeter around Pusan outward. “As we went through the villages, you had to keep a constant lookout. You never knew who the enemy was.”
By Aug.17, 1950, Gruber’s unit had reached the Nakdong River. There, Gruber and his fellow Marines were assigned with the task of taking and holding a hill that overlooked the river and a nearby village.
“As we moved up the hill, the North Koreans were throwing hand grenades over at us,” Gruber recalled. “(My) sergeant told me – I was the one holding the BAR as we lay on the side of the hill – to take those people out by the village because they’re firing at us.”
“So, I swung my BAR around to take them out,” he said.
Suddenly, Gruber recalled, “I can see these bullet holes coming up the hill.”
Before he was able to put his gun into action, Gruber was struck by a pair of bullets. “(One) went through my leg and another caught me at the front of the leg.”
Stunned and bleeding, Gruber was directed to move back down the hill toward a casualty collection point set up by the unit medics. Once at the aid station, Gruber lay down beneath the hot, 100-degree sun, waiting for his turn to be looked at.
And then another stunning thing happened.
“I’m lying there, profusely bleeding from my leg. A war correspondent – a woman – looked over at me and asked, ‘Soldier, are you hurt?’”
Despite the pain and the heat, Gruber responded with his characteristic sense of humor. “No,” said Gruber, laughing as he recalled saying, “I’m just resting.”
Gruber was soon evacuated to an Army hospital in Japan where he received medical treatment and physical therapy on his wounded leg. Recovery came slowly, but methodically.
“It got to where I could stand and even walk a little bit,” Gruber said.
One day, a medical officer asked to see him. “How are you doing?” the officer asked. “Well,” Gruber answered, “it’s getting better.”
“He said, ‘Good, because you’re on the next ship to go back to Korea,’” Gruber recalled.
Within days, Gruber found himself aboard an American troop ship heading back to the Korean peninsula.
Now a member of F Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Gruber’s unit was assigned to participate in the X Corps’ October 1950 landings at Wanson, an important port city on the eastern coast of North Korea. Seizing the port, the Marines were then ordered to push northward into North Korea in pursuit of the retreating enemy forces. At that point, despite the winter and mountainous conditions, the war seemed all but over. The North Korean army appeared demoralized. Many began to speculate that the war might be over by Christmas.
Those hopes, however, would soon be dashed.
The Chinese, alarmed at the North Koreans shocking change of battlefield fortunes and subsequent retreat, decided to intervene. Chinese “volunteer” troops soon began crossing the border. By late November 1950, significant portions of those Chinese forces met up with Gruber’s unit near the Chosin Reservoir in northeastern North Korea.
There, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur had hoped to pivot the U.S. X Corps and strike the Chinese People’s Volunteers Force corps that were engaging American and U.N. forces to the west. The plan was risky and relied on the U.S.’s ability to supply forces over a single mountainous road during treacherous winter weather. It wouldn’t take long to realize how dangerous this decision was.
On the evening of Nov. 27, Chinese divisions launched multiple attacks upon the 1st Marine Division. Suddenly, Gruber and his fellow Marines found themselves cut off as MacArthur’s planned offensive now became a deadly defensive operation.
“They had us surrounded,” Gruber recalled, adding that the fighting was difficult, especially at night. “We were located in a bowl-like valley. The Chinese were wearing white camouflage, so by the next morning it looked like a big rice bowl with all of the dead that had been killed the night before.”
Because of their precarious situation, Gruber and his fellow Marines were ordered to walk out into the valley each morning in search of enemy ammunition and weapons. “We would move out and collect the dead’s’ weapons,” he said.
One morning, as they went about their task, Gruber said he suddenly experienced a sudden hammer-like pain in his leg. Looking down, he realized he’d been shot again.
“I had a bullet go in the side of my foot that shattered the heal bone out of my foot,” he said. “I remembered saying, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I knew I couldn’t walk… I just fell down to the ground.”
Fortunately, Gruber’s buddies were able to drag him back to their makeshift camp. There, lying in minus 30-degree temperatures and fearful of removing the boot from his stricken leg, Gruber did the best that he could for the next 10 days.
“I had morphine ampules that I would use to give myself a morphine shot in the wrist whenever the pain got too bad,” he said. “I lay like that there for 10 days until another division was able to fight their way in and reopen our way out.”
Back to the United States
After being evacuated from the Chosin Reservoir, Gruber once again underwent medical treatment and rehabilitation. Over the next year, he received medical treatment in Japan, Wake Island, Honolulu, California, and North Carolina before finally being medically discharged from the Marine Corps in February 1952.
Following the Marines, Gruber settled back in Omaha where he eventually took a job with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department where he retired as a captain in the department’s Administrative Bureau. He soon got married, bought a house, and raised a family in the Omaha area near the present-day Omaha VA Medical Center.
Despite his injuries, Gruber’s experience with the local VA Medical Center hospital didn’t begin until 1960 when he severely injured his head while setting up a rink at the Omaha Civic Auditorium.
“They brought me here to the VA hospital,” he said. “I didn’t leave for another 10 weeks.”
Since then, Gruber has been seen numerous times at the Omaha VA Medical Center. Over the course of that time, he’s witnessed many changes to hospital, including the construction of new patient rooms, outpatient clinics and the new Ambulatory Care Center that was completed in August 2020. That clinic, which was built through a novel partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and local donors, now serves as home to many of the clinics that Gruber visits on a regular basis.
“The changes here have been incredible,” he said.
Gruber also became well-known by the staff of the VA Medical Center.
“Mr. Gruber is absolutely the sweetest,” said Dr. Valerie Prescher-Buman, an internal medicine doctor who has worked in the “Red” primary care clinic at the Omaha VAMC for the past five years. Gruber is one of her patients. “He brings us gifts all of the time.”
According to Gruber, the feeling of appreciation he has for the VA medical staff is hard to describe. What he does say, however, is that he is convinced “they have saved my life several times.”
Those feeling are so strong, in fact, that during the height of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic as he read and watched daily news stories about the life-saving work being done by front-line medical providers, Gruber said he decided he wanted to do something for the VA staff members who had made a difference in his life.
At first, he tried to donate his first COVID-19 stimulus check to the Omaha VAMC so that the organization could buy whatever the frontline staff needed. When told by the VA NWIHCS director that VA staff members already had everything they needed and that his check – while incredibly thoughtful and heartfelt – wasn’t needed, Gruber said he remained undeterred.
“I really wanted to recognize these people for the work they’re doing,” he said.
So, Gruber used his money to have a special plaque created. That plaque read: “This Award is given to the Entire Staff of United States Veterans Hospital Omaha, Nebr. Especially to the Primary Care Unit, The Red Clinic and the Amazing Dr. Prescher, doctors, nurses and staff for their expert medical care of me and all veterans. I am proud to call them my doctors and personal friends. Rex Gruber Always a Marine; Korean War – Frozen Chosen; God Bless You and America.”
On Sept. 28, Gruber, his family, and a member of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department formally presented the award to Prescher-Buman and the Red Clinic staff.
Prescher-Buman said the presentation was extremely touching.
“This isn’t surprising coming from him,” she said. “He always shows his appreciation, whether it’s through cookies or candy.”
“But this is certainly above and beyond,” Prescher-Buman added. “It means a great deal to be appreciated. And we absolutely appreciate him and love caring for him.”