MILLENER W. THOMAS, LT, USN

From USNA Virtual Memorial Hall

Millener Thomas '33

Date of birth: April 18, 1911

Date of death: July 30, 1942

Age: 31

Lucky Bag

From the 1933 Lucky Bag:


Loss

Millener was lost when USS Grunion (SS 216) was sunk by the armed Japanese freighter Kano Maru on July 30, 1942, approximately 10 miles northeast of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. He was the boat's executive officer.

His wife was listed as next of kin.

Biography

From Veteran Tributes:

Millener Thomas was born on May 18, 1911, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy on June 24, 1929, and was commissioned an Ensign in the U.S. Navy on June 1, 1933.

His first assignment was aboard the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City (CA-25) from June 1933 to June 1935, followed by service as an Aircraft Gunnery Observer with VS-9S aboard USS Salt Lake City from June 1935 to April 1936. LTJG Thomas next attended Submarine School at Submarine Base New London, Connecticut, from June to December 1936, and then served aboard the submarine USS R-14 (SS-91) from January to July 1937.

His next assignment was aboard the submarine USS Cuttlefish (SS-171) from July 1937 to January 1942, followed by service at Groton, Connecticut, for the fitting out of the submarine USS Grunion (SS-216). LT Thomas remained aboard USS Grunion as her Executive Officer from her commissioning on April 11, 1942, until he was killed in action during a confrontation with the armed Japanese freighter Kano Maru on July 30, 1942.

On August 22, 2007, a search team organized by the three sons of CDR Mannert Abele (the Captain of the Grunion when she was sunk) used a remotely operated vehicle to find a sunken vessel 3,000 feet down in the Bering Sea north of Kiska Island at the tip of the Aleutian Islands. On October 1, 2008, the U.S. Navy announced that the sunken vessel is the World War II submarine USS Grunion (SS-216).

Remembrances

From The Morning Call on November 9, 2010:

A lost father's final honor by Daniel Patrick Sheehan

Two weeks ago, the package arrived in the mail at Peter Thomas Stephens' home in South Whitehall Township. He knew what it held, but sadness and yearning crowded his heart anyway, as they always do when he thinks about his father.

"Sixty-six years it took," Stephens said, looking over the Purple Heart medal his father, a submarine officer named Millener W. Thomas, earned at the cost of his life in battle off Alaska's Aleutian Islands.

Stephens, who is 71 and bears the surname of his mother's second husband, had the medal sitting out on the living room table when I dropped by, along with newspaper clippings and photos of his dad and a little vial of liquid.

"That's not a shot of booze," Stephens said. "That's a sample of the water from where the sub went down."

The sub was the USS Grunion, a Gato-class ship named for a fish found along the California coast. It went down in 1942. It went down so deep — 3,300 feet — that no one had any idea what had become of it. And because there was a war on, no one could really take time to figure it out. That task would fall to men and women who, at the time of the disaster, were just children longing to see their fathers again.

Lt. Thomas, a Philadelphia native, was the executive officer of the Grunion. At home he had a wife, Laura, and son, 3-year-old Peter, who had been suffering from scarlet fever when Thomas last held him. Aboard the sub, which was launched just two weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Thomas helped lead a 70-man crew through stealthy, dangerous weeks below water.

The Grunion had been hard at work since its shakedown cruise out of New London, Conn., rescuing survivors of a ship torpedoed by a German U-boat, engaging a Japanese destroyer and sinking two Japanese patrol boats called sub chasers.

Ordered back to port because of heavy antisubmarine activity, the Grunion disappeared on July 30. And Lt. Thomas, 31, a Naval Academy graduate who traced his military lineage to veterans of the Revolutionary War, had vanished into mystery.

Two years ago, my former colleague, Andrew Martel, wrote a compelling account of how that mystery was solved. The three sons of the Grunion's commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mannert Abele, spent years searching the rough seas of the Aleutians, finally honing in on their target thanks to a Japanese historian who translated wartime documents describing a battle between a sub and an armed freighter.

In late 2006, a marine survey company hired by the captain's sons took sonar images of an oblong object off the island of Kiska. Two years later, the U.S. Navy confirmed that the wreckage was the Grunion.

"We're still working on exactly what happened," said Stephens, who is part of a large network of Grunion families united by the discovery. The prevailing theory is that the sub engaged a freighter called the Kano Maru and was fatally damaged by gunfire to its conning tower.

The postscript to this story is one of those nettlesome episodes of bureaucratic ineptitude that makes you wish you could reach through the telephone and pinch someone's nose.

The crew members of the sub, as was their due, posthumously received Purple Hearts in 1944. For some unfathomable reason — a mistyped number, a wayward memo, who knows? — Thomas and the six other officers did not.

Enter Mary Bentz. The Bethesda, Md., woman, who lost an uncle on the Grunion, is one of a trio of so-called "sub ladies" who tracked down family members of the crew after the ship's discovery. It grieved her to know that the crew members, including her uncle, had received Purple Hearts but their commanders hadn't.

"It was a real hassle to get them. It was amazing," said Bentz, who traveled with her husband, Dick, to the National Archives and took 6,000 pictures of various wartime documents to build the case for the officers' awards.

"We had all the proof we needed, but there were people who would not budge," she said, recounting one of those telephone-and-paper-trail nightmares people are sometimes subjected to in dealings with government.

Finally, on the advice of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, N.Y., they appealed to the chief of naval operations, the navy's highest-ranking officer. "And that was the right person," Bentz said.

On Oct. 13, the medals were awarded to Abele, Thomas and the other officers: Warrant Officer George Earl Caldwell; Ensign William Hugh Cuthbertson Jr.; Lt. j.g. Samuel Reed Dighton Jr.; Lt. William Gregory Kornahrens; and Lt. John Merton McMahon.

Stephens, his father's final honor at last secured, summed up his feelings about all this in his understated but earnest way.

"Mary," he said warmly, "is a good person."


Class of 1933

Millener is one of 38 members of the Class of 1933 in Memorial Hall.