BY PHILIP WHEELER
On Dec. 20, 1967, the Gruters family was informed that one of their own, Capt. Guy Gruters, had been shot down over Vietnam and was a prisoner of war. He and Col. Robert R. Craner were captured and would be imprisoned in the Hòa Lò Prison, notoriously known as Hanoi Hilton, and other camps for over five years.
Gruters will bring his harrowing story to Port Clinton as the keynote speaker at the Ottawa County Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner on Thursday, March 19 at the Catawba Island Club. The dinner is sold out.
Gruters was born in 1942 in Sarasota, Fla., but raised in New Jersey, where he spent his childhood trapping muskrat, camping, hunting and being active in the Boy Scouts.
He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and completed a Master of Science degree in Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University in 1965. Sent to flight school, he quickly got his wings in March 1966, and completed F-100 Super Sabre Combat Crew Training and O-1 Bird Dog Forward Air Controller Training.
The Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s, and angry skies over Southeast Asia took a mounting toll on American aircraft. Propeller-driven “slow movers” like the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and O-2 Skymaster, were particularly vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, so the Air Force formed a small volunteer unit of combat-seasoned aviators, nicknamed “Mistys,” giving them the task of developing groundbreaking Fast FAC tactics.
The unit’s first commander, Major George “Bud” Day, loved Johnny Mathis’ rendition of the song “Misty,” so pilots adopted it as their radio call sign.
The Commando Sabre experiment began with 16 pilots and four aircraft at Phu Cat Air Base in South Vietnam on June 15, 1967. Gruters flew more than 400 combat missions, first for the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the O-1 Bird Dog light observation aircraft, and then for the MISTY Fast FACS in the F-100F Super Sabre.
Mistys flew the North American F-100F, a two-seat version of the mighty Super Sabre. The Air Force, in true bureaucratic fashion, chose the F-100 over the more advanced McDonnell RF-4 Phantom mainly because it was less expensive. Mistys pilots stared death in the face on every sortie and suffered one of the highest loss rates of the war. The first time Gruters was shot down, a 37mm shell hit his F110F in the rear fuselage.
“It felt as if a giant grabbed the plane and shook it.” said Gruters. “The F-4 lead started yelling ‘Misty, get out. You’re on fire. You’re a ball of fire. Get out, Misty.’
“Nobody wanted to be captured, because no one who was captured was heard from again,” said Gruters, who with his co-pilot ditched about a mile off the coast of North Vietnam. “Unknown to us, about a dozen boats with 10 to 12 enemy soldiers in each were sent to retrieve or kill us.”
A fighter pilot saw the downed fliers, and the enemy boats approaching. He put his control switches in “arm all, fire all mode,” and sent all 120 rockets at the approaching boats, killing or driving away the enemy.
Gruters and his co-pilot were later picked up by Jolly Greens, the air-sea rescue choppers.
The second time, Gruters wasn’t so lucky.
“The second mission back, I was shot down again. We were under the clouds, with a low ceiling of 1,500 feet. There was an anti-aircraft location which was extremely accurate, and had almost shot us down a number of times.” said Gruters,
“This time, they got us. The plane immediately flipped over on its back. We both managed to eject upside down. A squad of North Vietnamese soldiers finally captured me after chasing me for about 45 minutes.
“All of us who were captured were imprisoned for the remainder of the war.” he said. “We suffered terribly. We were beaten. We were put in stocks and manacles in solitary confinement.”
The conditions in a POW camp were horrendous. Only bread and water, little loaves of white flour bread full of rat excrement, were provided. The bread was full of worms and weevils.
“We would bite into the bread, and the worms would bite us. Then we would bite and kill the worms and eat them.” said Gruters. It was the only nutrients they would have.
There was a bucket for a bathroom in each cell. The buckets were not big enough for the two men in the cell, so the cells constantly had raw sewage in them.
Said Gruters, “The real story is that we didn’t just survive up there. Surviving at all costs is when people are willing to do anything just to get through. ‘I’m going to live, I don’t care if I have to betray my country. I will give them what they want. I don’t care. I’m going to get out of here. I’m going to be helpful to them, and do what they say.’
Instead, Gruters and the prisoners fought them every step of the way as a well-disciplined military unit. They established contact through the walls, using a tap code to send one letter at a time through the walls.
They kept the American Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct, which put senior ranking officer in charge of every cell, of every cell-block, of every prison. We remained a fighting team. We continued the fight in hopeless conditions so we could return with honor.”
Gruters was one of the 591 surviving POWs of all military services released in 1973 during Operation Homecoming For his service, Gruters received two silver stars, two distinguished flying crosses, one bronze star for valor, two purple hearts, and over 20 air medals.
He currently lives in Minster, Ohio, and is enjoying being with a good part of his family that had settled in the area. These days, he has found time to garden, write a book and travel.