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World War II mystery rests on ocean floor

The U.S. submarine Grunion vanished in 1942, leaving relatives to wonder about sailors' fate -- until the wreck was found.

May 11, 2008|Andrew C. Martel | The Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, PA. — Peter Thomas Stephens was 3 and America had just entered World War II when his father, a naval officer, last held him.

"I had scarlet fever," remembered Stephens, 69. "He was at the door and I was in his arms."

His father, Lt. Millener W. Thomas, left to serve on the U.S. submarine Grunion. Months later, it vanished in the Pacific.

For the next six decades, the fate of Thomas, who was the Grunion's executive officer, and 69 other crewmen was a mystery.

Then, in late 2006, Stephens got a letter from a stranger. It said the Grunion had been found, 3,000 feet below the surface, on the ocean floor off the coast of Alaska. A marine survey company hired by the captain's sons had discovered the wreckage.

The stranger who wrote Thomas had lost her great-uncle on the sub. She and other volunteers had searched the Internet and public records to contact at least one relative of each member of the Grunion's crew.

Imelda Giglio received her letter a few weeks earlier. Her older brother, William T. Devaney Jr., went down with the Grunion.

"It was troubling to hear about it," said Giglio, 65, "but thrilling to know that, in that vast ocean, they could actually find a submarine."

Stephens said the news of the Grunion's discovery had put him on "an emotional roller coaster."

He and Giglio have joined a network of families who lost someone on the sub. In October, they will get together on Columbus Day weekend for a memorial service in Cleveland, where a similar sub is docked.

Among the crew who will be honored are Stephens' father and Giglio's brother, who had little in common but their fate.

Thomas, 31, was a Naval Academy graduate, part of Philadelphia society and from a family line of military veterans dating to the Revolutionary War. As executive officer of the Grunion, he was second in command.

Seaman Devaney, from Queens, N.Y., was 11 years younger. He joined the Navy to earn money for his family and dreamed of becoming a New York City police officer.

Both men were last known to be alive on July 30, 1942. The War Department declared the sub and its crew missing two weeks later. In 1943, families were told their loved ones were presumed dead.

Thomas and his wife, Laura, had been married seven years and Stephens was their only child. Laura remarried a few years after her husband was declared dead, and the boy took his stepfather's surname.

Stephens always questioned how his life would have turned out if his father had made it through the war.

"I got through it all, but your mind just [wonders]: Where would I be? What would I be doing if he was here?" he said.

Stephens planned to follow in his dad's path and attend the Naval Academy, but learned too late that he had taken the wrong classes in high school. He enrolled in business school instead and joined the Navy after graduation, serving from 1962 to 1964 and then four years in the Reserve. He married and worked at Air Products and Chemicals in Trexlertown, Pa., for 40 years.

Whenever he saw a Navy uniform, Stephens was reminded of his father. He even thought of him when he supervised a construction project with some Seabees on the workforce.

On Thanksgiving Day 2006, Stephens got a letter from Vickie Rodgers, a farmer's wife in Kentucky and the great-niece of a Grunion sailor. Rodgers was one of three so-called sub ladies, a group of women who volunteered to track down family members of the Grunion's dead.

Stephens' legs shook as he read: The Grunion had been found.

Stephens was one of the last relatives contacted, Rodgers said. He was tough to find because his surname had changed from one common name to another.

Before she found Stephens, Rodgers wondered whether she should tell him the news. Maybe his mother never mentioned a father lost at sea. But, deciding that Stephens probably knew about his dad, she wrote to everyone named Peter Stephens in the United States. One of those letters reached its mark.

Giglio and her twin sister were born a year after the Grunion went down, but their family kept their brother's memory alive for them. Her parents and older sisters talked about Billy as if he were still alive. Giglio said she grew up with the impression that her brother was caring, mature for his age, and kind, treating strangers like friends.

"He wrote home to his parents, grandparents, the neighbors, his teachers," she said. "He would write to people he didn't know and tell them to join the service."

The Devaneys refused to believe that Billy was dead. His father would scan newspaper photos of returning prisoners of war with a magnifying glass, looking for Billy's face. They did not celebrate the end of the war.

Giglio knew her parents hid a lot of pain. She never saw her mom cry until nearly 20 years later, when she saw the memorial the family had ultimately bought for Billy and placed in a Long Island cemetery.

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