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.”
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.
– Cindy Hval can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hval is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation,” available at area bookstores and online at Amazon.