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.

All Write, War Bonds

Last ‘War Bonds’-featured couple die 18 days apart

Mitson wedding photo low res

He thought she was a skinny kid, and he didn’t want to be seen with her.

She thought he was “just another boy.”

But first impressions aren’t always lasting. On July 11, Charlie and Mable Mitson would have celebrated their 78th wedding anniversary – and for all we know they did, just not here on this earth.

Mable died on June 3 and Charlie followed 18 days later on June 21. Finally, Mable got to go somewhere new before her husband. After all, she’d followed him through 22 moves, during his many years of military service.

I first met the Mitsons in 2010 when I featured them in my “Love Story” series for The Spokesman Review. I followed up with them a few years later, when I included their story in my book “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.”

Visiting them in their South Hill home was always a delight. They were both quick with a quip, finishing each other’s stories, and teasing each other when one remembered something differently.

Charlie sometimes deferred to her because he said, “she’s older than me.”

Mable was born in July 1924, Charlie in September.

They met at church in Coeur d’ Alene, and when those first impressions wore off, they quickly became a couple. They married when they were both just 17.

Charlie had landed a $40 per week job at the newly opened Farragut Naval Station and said, “I decided I could afford to get married.”

He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943, leaving his wife and infant son behind.

Charlie served with the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team. His World War II service included a grueling Italian ground fight, the invasion of Southern France, the Battle of the Bulge and the occupation of Berlin at war’s end.

Mable said, “I remember him telling me, ‘You just had to go over the dead and dying and keep moving.’”

Still, Charlie counted himself lucky. His only injury came from a piece of shrapnel that struck his leg. He shrugged. “I didn’t even know I was hit, ’til someone said, ‘You’re bleeding!’ They put a bandage on it, and I just kept going.”

He mustered out in 1945, but he didn’t stay out long. In 1949, he was accepted into the Air Force Aviation Cadet program and launched a 30-year career as a military fighter pilot. He flew 100 combat missions as an F-86 pilot during the Korean War, and 100 combat missions over North Vietnam as an F-105 pilot, before retiring as a colonel at 54.

And Mable?

“I followed him everywhere,” she said.

She did more than just follow. She was a consummate hostess, often entertaining military personnel all over the globe. And she was the ever-present centerpiece of their family, which grew to include five children.

Their retirement years were just as busy as their military years, as they deeply invested in their church, their grandchildren and in numerous volunteer activities.

Charlie credited their abiding friendship as the key to their loving marriage.

“Make sure you have a good solid friendship before you get married,” he’d advised.

Mable said having a positive attitude helped her endure their many wartime separations.

“Wherever he was I always knew he was coming home,” she said.

So, I’ve no doubt she was expecting Charlie to arrive at any moment during the 18 days that passed between their deaths.

In “War Bonds” Mable recalled how they were separated for a year and a half during World War ll. She went to meet him at the train station, wondering how the war had changed him, wondering if she’d recognize him.

“Did you spot him among all those soldiers?” I’d asked.

Her face lit up.

“I did. Oh, I did!”

And Charlie never forgot that first glimpse of her after their long separation.

Though the station must have been bustling with travelers, he said, “I saw her standing on the staircase. As I remember it, she was the only one there.”

I can’t help but wonder if that’s exactly what Charlie experienced on June 21 when once again he was reunited with his bride.

CHARLIE AND MABEL
Mabel and Charlie Mitson Nov. 16, 2010. JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com

Order your copy of War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation here. 

 

 

 

War Bonds

Nostalgia? There’s an app for that.

Hungry for history? In love with the past?
Now you can indulge that interest anytime and anywhere.
My friends at Nostalgia Magazine recently launched an app available for android and iOS devices.

They’ve also included an excerpt from War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation.

“The Luck of the Draw” can be accessed via the app or the website.

vi-shipman-and-fenton-ross-roskelley-d

Happy scrolling!

 

 

War Bonds

Eight bells, the end of Charlie’s watch

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Patriot Guard Riders

Cindy Hval, Spokesman Review, April 24, 2016

The Patriot Guard Riders stood silently, their flags held aloft as a light rain fell at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Spokane Valley on Saturday.

They’d come to honor Charles Boyer, 95, who died April 15.

As a 21-year-old sailor stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe, Boyer had earned membership into an exclusive club: the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

Though he was an aviation machinist’s mate, Boyer was assigned to service and drive the Navy’s trucks at Kaneohe. The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he’d just dropped off some sailors at church and was on his way back, when he saw several khaki-colored planes approaching fast and low.

 In newspaper interviews, Boyer shared his memories of the horrific attack.

“I said, ‘Look at the show the Army’s putting on! Then I saw the big ol’ red meatballs on the wings of the plane and I said, ‘Army, hell!’ ” he recalled. “The planes were coming over us, shooting at us and dropping bombs.”

With the truck still moving, Boyer dove out and took shelter under another truck parked a few yards away.

He stayed under that truck until the enemy planes passed, then he ran to a large tin shed that served as a garage for the trucks at Kaneohe.

“Time seemed like forever,” he said. “I was pretty scared.”

He wasn’t the only one frightened. He told of a fellow sailor on guard duty who shot at a fence post. “He swore it moved,” he recalled, grinning.

But he didn’t smile when he talked about the results of the attack. Twenty Americans died on the base at Kaneohe that day, and as for the aircraft – “they did a hell of job,” Boyer said. “They got every warplane on Kaneohe.”

Four years and one day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he married Irene Britton. They celebrated their 70th anniversary in December.

After 20 years, Boyer retired as a chief petty officer, but he couldn’t quite leave Navy life behind. He spent the next 22 years working in civil service for the Navy.

Upon moving to Spokane Valley in 1998, he joined the Lilac City Chapter of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. He was especially close to fellow survivor John (Sid) Kennedy, whom he’d met in 1941 at aviation machinist school in San Diego. Later they were both sent to Kaneohe. Kennedy died July 7, 2015, and at his funeral Boyer told a friend, “I guess he went on ahead without me.”

At one time there were 125 active members of the Lilac City Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Only one, Ray Garland, 93, remains.

Garland attended Boyer’s funeral on Saturday.

“It’s kind of a lonely feeling,” he said.

Carol Edgemon Hipperson, author of the Ray Daves biography, “Radioman: An Eyewitness Account of Pearl Harbor and World War II in the Pacific,” also feels Boyer’s loss keenly.

“Charlie was much like Ray Daves to me,” she said. “Of all the Pearl Harbor survivors those two were the ones most like my own father: kind, gentle, soft-spoken, humble, voracious readers, towering intellects.”

She admired his cheerful spirit and compassion.

“Most people get cranky when they don’t feel well or things don’t go right. Charlie never did. It was just his nature to smile and speak softly to everyone around him.”

Boyer’s son, Steve, agreed.

Three weeks ago as his father signed papers for hospice care, Steve Boyer choked up. His dad noticed his distress and said, “Don’t feel bad. I’ve had a great life – and a very, very long life.”

While many knew Charlie Boyer as a Pearl Harbor survivor, to his son, he was just Dad.

“I didn’t even know he was a Pearl Harbor survivor until he moved to Spokane Valley,” he said. “He never talked about it. He was just my dad and always will be. I’m going to miss him.”

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War Bonds

War Bonds in Wenatchee and Leavenworth

WarBonds in Wenatchee

Really looking forward to these upcoming events! Wenatchee Library, Thursday, 7 PM, Leavenworth Library, Friday, 6:30 PM and A Book For All Seasons in Leavenworth on Saturday at 1 PM.

A Book For All Seasons will be selling War Bonds at both library events. Great time to get your personalized copy.

More information here.

Hope to meet some new readers!