Cpl Richard P. Grutza
By Amy Rabideau Silvers of the Journal Sentinel
Posted: Dec. 13, 2008 5:29 p.m.
For nearly 66 years, no one knew what happened to Richard P. Grutza.
His family knew that he was aboard a B-25 Mitchell bomber, lost during World War II on Dec. 5, 1942. They knew that he was missing in action and presumed dead.
Months later, on March 8, 1943, a memorial service was held at St. Helen's church on the south side.
It was not enough.
"That was the thing that Richard's mother felt so terribly badly about, that she couldn't bury him," sister-in-law Shirley Grutza said. "I saw the tears in his father's eyes when he talked about him being missing. And it really broke his mother's heart. I think she prayed every day they would get some news, that he would be found."
She did not live to see the day, but her prayers were answered. In September, word came that U.S. Army Air Force Cpl. Grutza's remains had been identified.
Those remains were escorted to Milwaukee on Saturday. "He's coming home to his family," his sister-in-law said. "The bones they're sending back to us are definitely Richard's bones. He's finally coming home."
Grutza grew up on Milwaukee's south side, the middle child of five children born to Julia and Harry Grutza Sr. He went to Pio Nono High School and then began working at Allis-Chalmers, where his father worked.
"He enlisted the day after Pearl Harbor," said Pam Knitter, his sister's daughter-in-law.
Then 19, Grutza trained as an engineer/gunner. He was 20 when the B-25 was lost, and one of seven crew members aboard the plane.
The family heard nothing more for decades.
Then in 2005, the government contacted Harry Grutza Jr., Richard's brother.
"They asked my husband all kinds of questions about Richard," Shirley said. "And the government sent somebody here and got blood. My husband knew it was for Richard. They didn't tell him anything, but he thought they had found his body."
Her husband died in 2006. A blood sample also was taken from Esther L. Knitter, the older sister who survives him. Identification was possible through the maternal DNA line.
The family has now learned that the plane crashed into a mountainside in eastern Papua New Guinea, at the southern end of the Kokoda Gap.
The plane was carrying bombs. The impact created an explosion and a crater that filled with water.
Some evidence was first found in 1943 by Australian personnel, but the site was later listed as non-recoverable, according to Air Force Lt. Col. Wayne Perry, with the Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.
Later search and recovery efforts were repeatedly hampered by the terrain, the need to drain the site and even the discovery of an unexploded bomb, Perry said.
Survey teams returned to the site in 1995, 2001, 2004 and 2005.
"It's all about the family," Perry said. "It's really why we do what we do.
"Our motto is, 'Until they are home,'" he said. "That's really what it's about for us military folks."
In the Grutza family, Richard is remembered even by those who never knew him.
Shirley Grutza never met her brother-in-law - she didn't meet and marry her husband until years after Richard was MIA - but heard the stories from her husband.
"He talked about him a lot," Shirley said. "They were 14 months apart and they were buddies, always together."
Richard was the older brother, but Harry was taller. If Richard had problems with a bully, he'd just let his bigger little brother know.
"I think my husband felt proud that his brother thought of him for that," she said.
They were a close family, sharing chores and living space.
"It was a really nice family, a loving family," Shirley said. "They always had room. They took in one of the uncles during the Depression and after he left, they took in another uncle."
The two brothers shared a bedroom and a bed upstairs at the family home.
"There wasn't much heat, and Richard would always pull the covers away," Shirley said, telling the story.
As a boy, Richard was a caddy to earn his pocket money - and even paid a sister to do his share of the dishes.
He liked playing poker and sheepshead and baseball with his brother, and belonged to the CYO at the family parish.
"He was quite the thing with the girls," Shirley said. "He was pretty cute, and the girls took to him."
A year after Richard enlisted, his brother joined the U.S. Coast Guard.
"He was only in a short time when they notified the family that Richard was missing in action," she said.
"He really loved his brother. I just wish my husband would have known his brother was found, but they're probably hanging out together right now."
In addition to his sister and sister-in-law, survivors include cousins, nieces and nephews. His parents and sisters Bernadine Trojanowski and Janet "Jane" Kacner also died earlier.
A visitation is planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Adalbert Cemetery Chapel, 3801 S. 6th St. Burial with military honors will follow at 11 a.m.