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A daughter of war finds the hero she never knew

Sue DiGrandi, 66, of Palm Harbor was 7 months old when her father, Lt. Walter J. Gunther Jr., was killed in the Normandy invasion on D-Day.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Sue DiGrandi, 66, of Palm Harbor was 7 months old when her father, Lt. Walter J. Gunther Jr., was killed in the Normandy invasion on D-Day.

Sue DiGrandi never could bring herself to go through the military footlocker that belonged to the father she never knew.

It sat on a shelf in the garage of her Palm Harbor home next to one that was her mother's when she was an Army nurse. She had peeked over the years, glimpsed at a few things inside the heavy military box of Lt. Walter J. Gunther Jr., the father who was shipping out when she was born, the U.S. Army paratrooper who carried her baby picture in his wallet when he was killed on D-day, June 6, 1944.

Nearly 66 years later, a determined cop from her father's hometown near Boston tracked down Sue in Florida. When I wrote a column about it and a Times photographer came to take pictures, Sue's daughter suggested they bring out the footlocker. Afterward, there it sat, next to the TV stand. Finally, Sue's husband said: Aren't you going to open that?

She told me her father had always been someone not quite real, like something out of a story they tell you, like Santa Claus. He was a face with her own blue eyes in the military photograph her mother kept out until the day she died.

Sue took a breath, turned on the TV for moral support and reached for the footlocker. The first thing she saw atop the love letters and old pictures and scrapbooks was a medal: her father's Purple Heart. It would turn out to be a time capsule of the life of a father she never knew.

So much happened after a stranger, a police lieutenant from Malden, Mass., named Kevin Molis, called her and also me. What a story he told: how a relative of Lt. Gunther's called the police station to ask about a memorial he remembered somewhere in Malden to honor the hometown boy killed in the Normandy invasion. How the cop could not find it. How he dug and dug and talked to everyone he could anyway, determined that Gunther's sacrifice would not be forgotten. How he found an old Florida connection to Gunther's widow and baby daughter, Mary Susan. How on shoe leather and a wing and a prayer, he found Sue, now a 66-year-old wife, mom and business owner.

After the story ran, her world went a little crazy. So many people reached out to her, a half-dozen relatives she had not known from as far away as Ireland, people touched by the story, people who had actually known the man she never would. A 79-year-old woman who had been her babysitter and pushed her baby carriage had a letter from Lt. Gunther telling her she was the only one he trusted to do so. "Little Susan," the woman called her.

Sue is about to meet her, to meet as many of them as she can.

On Sunday, the anniversary of D-day, the town of Malden will dedicate a granite marker and a brass plaque to honor Lt. Gunther, one of more than 200 from the town to be killed in World War II. The mayor, Richard Howard, will be there ("I'm looking forward to meeting his daughter," he said) and of course Molis, the cop who made it happen, and people who knew Sue's father, and relatives she never met.

"This has been the most unbelievable event in my whole life," she told me this week.

Inside the footlocker, she found his love letters to her mother in careful chronological order, first addressed to Miss Mary Farley, then to Mrs. Lt. Walter J. Gunther.

She found a picture of a big beloved family car, a Ford her parents nicknamed Honeybunch. She found a letter written on the day of her birth, her father saying, "Mary, take it easy," because he knew the baby was coming soon. Another was postmarked the day he died.

She touched his uniform jacket. She cried a fair amount as she read a love story in his words to Mary. "Get Honeybunch ready," he wrote, "because I'll be there."

And he felt real to her. Here was this person, this man, this father. For the first time in her life, she looks forward to D-day. Even with the sadness and the loss, she looks forward to remembering all he was.

A daughter of war finds the hero she never knew 06/01/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 12:23am]
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