All Write, Columns

Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Footlocker Found

Oh, the stories it could tell.

The battered standard-issue World War II footlocker was covered in dust, but a flash of bright red paint caught Rhonda Earley’s eye. She brushed off the grime and read, “Lt. Col. Nick Gaynos, U.S. Air Force. If lost notify the Air Anj. General.”

A few weeks ago, Earley had been helping a friend clean out her deceased parents’ home and garage in Santa Rosa, California. They’d unearthed the battered footlocker in the garage. It was empty, but the word “ivory” had been scrawled in a corner.

“My friend had no idea where the chest had come from,” Earley said. “I took photos to help her sell some of the stuff.”

And there was a lot of stuff, but the footlocker nagged at Earley.

“I decided to do some research to see what I could find out,” she said.

It was Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day.

Soon a message from Earley appeared in my inbox from my website contact form.

“I have a chest that I believe may belong to Lt. Nick Gaynos whom you wrote about in your book. I’d love to find a family member.”

Then my phone pinged with a Facebook message.

“This is a far reach, but I have a chest that may belong to Nick Gaynos who you wrote about.”

Earley’s Google search had led her to my book, “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation,” as well as to newspaper articles I’d written about Gaynos.

“I got chills,” she said. “It was Veteran’s Day, and it just touched my heart. I knew there was a story behind this.”

It’s a story we may never fully know. I was able to connect Earley and her friend with Gaynos’ daughter, Nikki Arana.

She confirmed the footlocker had definitely belonged to Gaynos, who’d lived in Northern California for many years, before retiring to Post Falls to be near Nikki and her children. But Arana had no idea how, or why, the footlocker had been left behind.

“I’d never seen it before,” she said. “I can’t imagine what series of events led to this.”

Arana passed on reclaiming the footlocker, and said like many WWII veterans, her father refused to discuss his battlefield memories for most of his life.

By the time I first interviewed him in 2010, he was ready to talk about what happened to him on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I’d been up until 4 a.m. at my radio station,” Gaynos had told me.

As a young private, he was in charge of air-ground communications at Hickam Air Field.

He was asleep in his bunk when the earsplitting scream of airplane engines and the rat-a-tat sound of bullets strafing the barracks woke him. Grabbing his pants and his helmet, he scrambled out the door.

As he ran down the beach toward his duty station, a Japanese Zero spattered the sand around him. Gaynos hit the ground and covered his head. He said he felt a hot breeze and heard a whistling sound inches from his ears. He looked up and saw the face of the pilot as he flew alongside him. The pilot grinned.

When Gaynos got up he discovered a large piece of shrapnel next to him. “I grabbed it,” he said. “It was still hot from the explosion.”

Nick Gaynos, 1945

One month before his death, Gaynos attended a reading of “War Bonds,” at the Coeur d’Alene Public library.

He brought that shrapnel with him.

But there was so much he didn’t say, like what it was like to gather the mutilated body of a dying friend in his arms. Perhaps there aren’t any words for something like that.

After Pearl Harbor, Gaynos attended Officer Candidate School. He made the military his career, quickly rising through the ranks, before retiring as a colonel.

As per his wishes, in 2015, Gaynos was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, alongside his beautiful bride, Tex.

“I’m going to be buried with my buddies,” he told his daughter.

It’s likely that footlocker had traveled the world with him from Japan, to Newfoundland, and points in between.

How it ended up in a dusty garage in Santa Rosa is a mystery.

If only footlockers could talk.

Columns, War Bonds

Column: Grateful to have told WWII veteran’s story

The fading late afternoon sun, blurred by the haze of wildfires, fell softly across the foot of his bed. A smoke-tinged breeze wafted through the open French doors.

His once-commanding frame seemed frail against the stark whiteness of crisp sheets and rumpled pillows. I stood quietly beside him, a writer at a loss for words.

Nick Gaynos was dying.

The World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor had endured many things, but the loss of his beloved wife, Tex, was proving too much for his heart to bear. After more than 70 years with her, he doesn’t want to be here without her.

I met Nick and Tex in 2010 when I shared their Love Story with newspaper readers. His regal military bearing and her gorgeous red hair and sense of style made them one of the most elegant couples I’ve interviewed.

They laughed and bantered throughout the afternoon, recalling how they met in the Bamboo Room of the Hotel Californian in Fresno. Nick spotted Tex through some bamboo fronds and was immediately smitten. He told his friend, “See that redhead? I’m going to marry her!” His buddy replied, “No way!” Gaynos said, “I’ll bet ya $10.”

Six weeks later he collected that $10 as he walked down the aisle to marry Tex.

His smile faded when he recalled the horror of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The young private was in charge of air/ground communications at Hickam Air Field on Dec. 7, 1941.

He was asleep in his bunk when the earsplitting scream of airplane engines and the rat-a-tat sound of bullets strafing the barracks woke him. Grabbing his pants, he scrambled out the door.

As he ran down the beach back toward his duty station, a Japanese Zero strafed the sand around him. He hit the ground and covered his head. Gaynos said he felt a hot breeze and heard a whistling sound inches from his ears. He looked up and saw the face of the pilot as he flew alongside him. The pilot grinned.

When Gaynos got up he discovered a large piece of shrapnel next to him. “I grabbed it,” he said. “It was still hot from the explosion.”

After Pearl Harbor he was sent to Officer Candidate School and quickly moved up through the ranks. He married Tex in 1943 and enjoyed a long military career followed by a successful second career in real estate.

On a recent day, I came to tell him that their story will be included in a book I’m working on and to collect photos for the project. His daughter warned me that his health was fading and he wasn’t expected to live much longer.

His caregiver greeted me at the door and Gaynos opened his eyes briefly when I entered the room, then he sighed and turned away.

I sorted through the photos, selecting the ones I needed, and when his caregiver went to photocopy them, I approached his bed.

“Nick,” I said.

His eyes fluttered and he slowly raised his hand. I took it and he wrapped his fingers around mine. His eyes fell shut, but his grip on my hand was firm.

I told how I admired Tex, and how much I appreciated that after talking about the awfulness of war, we were able to laugh together at the silly jokes and stories they shared.

“I’ve never forgotten that you told me that a sense of humor is vital to a marriage,” I said. “Thank you, Nick. Thank you for serving your country, for loving your wife, for sharing your memories with me.”

He sighed and released my fingers.

I heard his caregiver returning to the room, so I bent down and kissed his brow – taking a liberty I’m sure Tex wouldn’t mind.

According to recent statistics, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 555 a day. Time is running out to tell their stories. But in this case, not only did I get to share this hero’s story, I also got to say goodbye.

As I drove away, my eyes blurred and the tears that had threatened all afternoon fell.

The tears weren’t of grief, but of gratitude.

This column originally appeared July 31, 2014 in the Spokesman-Review.