Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Mike Minguez

Real Name: Unknown
Case: Lost Heirs
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
Date: February 4, 1986


Details: During World War II, thousands of U.S. soldiers said goodbye to their loved ones and made a parting promise: to write home as often as possible. Their letters, carried by the military V-Mail (Victory Mail) service, were the only link between them and their families. Established in June 1942, the service provided free airmail privileges to servicemen. Some of these soldiers would return, but others would not. For the relatives of those soldiers lost in battle, the last letter home became a precious keepsake, a memory of lost love.
Forty-one years after the war ended, on February 4, 1986, Terminex pest exterminator Mike Minguez was spraying the attic in a ninety-year-old woman's house in Raleigh, North Carolina. In the corner, he saw some letters spilling from a laundry bag. He had, in fact, discovered a military duffel bag filled with hundreds of unopened letters written by soldiers during World War II.
The longer Mike looked, the more incredulous he became. There was something about the insignia across the letters that made him curious. He had never seen V-Mail before, but he had heard the term and knew that, generally, anything with "V" in it was World War II vintage. It soon became apparent to him that something was not right.
Mike learned that the elderly woman had a nephew who had been a crew member aboard the S.S. Caleb Strong when it left Newport News, Virginia, on May 3, 1944, bound for Oran, Algeria, in North Africa (arriving there on May 21). 92 soldiers onboard had written 235 letters home and stuffed them into the duffel bag.
The woman's nephew had vowed to mail the letters when he returned to the United States, but he had forgotten. Overcome by shame and fear when he discovered his mistake, he hid them in her attic. He died around 1980, and the woman had been too embarrassed and scared to say anything.
After promising never to reveal her name, Mike convinced the woman to release the letters to him when he visited her again in May 1986. After trying unsuccessfully to track down the letters' recipients himself, Mike contacted the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C.
Mike was initially hesitant to turn over the letters because he feared they would end up in the dead letter office. However, the Postal Service assured him that they would try to deliver the letters. On June 6, 1986, he brought them to Raleigh postmaster Ross Garluski.
Ross then sent the letters to Meg Harris, media relations officer of the Postal Service. 92 soldiers onboard the Caleb Strong had written letters to over 150 friends and family at 117 addresses in 34 states. One by one, the Postal Service delivered the letters from 89 of the soldiers. Only three could not be tracked down.
Meg was prohibited by law from opening the letters. All she had to work with was the information on the envelopes. She worked with the Veterans Administration and the National Archives and contacted postmasters and veterans groups across the country. She decided it would be easier to track down the soldiers themselves rather than the letters' recipients.
Meg had to be careful when she started telling the recipients and soldiers about the mail. She did it slowly because she did not want anyone to go into shock. She felt a lot of the closeness of family ties. She realized how much people care for each other and continue caring, even after forty years.
John Deitz was the first soldier to receive his letters, which he had written to his father and then-girlfriend. The ensuing publicity put him in contact with old friends he had not heard from in decades. He also heard from the widow of James Bowles, a fellow soldier on the Caleb Strong. While together, John and James tore a $1 bill in half and kept one half as a gesture of friendship. The two planned to get together after the war but never did. James' widow told John that she still had James' half of the $1 bill.
Several letters were delivered in a ceremony at Postal Service headquarters on July 21, 1986. POW Robert Kirsch had written to his parents and girlfriend. Manford Peins had written to his future wife. Raul Alvarez had also written to his future wife, Terry, saying, I love you with all my heart, and no one will come between us…I picture ourselves together again. Coincidentally, Raul later became a mail carrier. As a result of news stories about the letters, he was reunited with two of his war buddies.
Sadly, several of the soldiers who wrote the letters have since passed away. Private Rollin Pooler had written several letters home while on the Caleb Strong. Both before and following the war, he worked as a teacher. He died in 1966. His widow, Marwill, received the letters at a ceremony in October 1986. When she read them, she laughed and cried.
U.S. Army Private Lyman Fisk had written a letter to his mother on May 14, 1944: Dear Mom: Well, today is Mother's Day. Though I know it will be quite some time before you receive this, I want you to know that I haven't forgotten you. I hope this is the last time that I am so far away from you…Love, Lyman.
Lyman died in 1976, and his mother died around 1970. His daughter, Dianne Blumberg, found out about the letter after her friend saw Lyman's name in an article about the case. Dianne was four months old when the letter was written. On Veteran's Day, 1986, she received the letter. Reading it brought back nice memories of Lyman.
Tragically, the discovery of the letters indirectly led to the death of one of the soldiers. Sailor Ken Heinrich called Army Private William Croft after reading about the discovery. Within minutes, William collapsed and died of a heart attack. Five days after his funeral, the letter he had written to his mother (also deceased) was delivered to his widow, Juanita.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Frank Rapley, a B-17 turret gunner, had written a letter to his wife, Merryll Page Rapley, whom he married on December 5, 1942. The letter read: Still at sea, May 1944. My precious wife. Darling, I sure miss you. I wish I were back with you right now. It seems so hard to write you, as all I can think of is how I love you and long to be with you. The boat is rocking, so I can't write too neatly. Merryll, darling, I love you and hope that we'll soon be together for good. From what information we can gather, I believe the big invasion of Europe is on. So I'll be stuck overseas until the war is over. I love you, my darling. Your husband, Frank.
On July 21, 1944, two months after he had written the letter, Frank was killed when his plane was shot down over Steyr, Austria. He was twenty-five. Two years later, his body was brought back to the United States for burial. Merryll, a retired teacher, never remarried. She has been a widow for over forty years.
On September 4, 1986, in a surprising and poignant moment, Merryll received Frank's last letter. She was shocked and "torn all to pieces". Reading the letter made her feel like they were still together and he was talking to her. She said it was the most wonderful letter she had ever received from him, even though all of his letters were very dear to her. She said that receiving another letter from a man she still loves after waiting for over forty years was something that only God could understand the depth of the meaning of it.
For Merryll, the short two-and-a-half years she had with Frank were equal to a lifetime for her, which is why she never remarried. She felt that nobody else could ever replace him. She has every letter he has ever written to her, but the "new" letter is the most special one.
Staff Sgt. Sumpter Grubb had written a letter to his wife, Margaret "Peggy" Kimball: Hiya sweets, just another line today, as I'm always thinking about you and may not be able to write for a few days. Haven't seen land yet, but expect to soon. There is about six hours difference in time here, so I often try to think of where you are and what you might be doing. I guess that is natural. Your ever-loving and faithful husband.
Peggy said the letter is always touching. It causes her to think back on their time together. The two had met on a blind date arranged by friends. She said he was witty, affectionate, and thoughtful. After dating for a year and a half, they married. Six years later, he left to become a gunner in the Air Force.
Sumpter wrote his last words to Peggy on May 19, 1944. Two months later, on July 7, he was killed in a plane crash in Italy while in combat. But his words would not die. They finally reached Peggy on December 12, 1986.
Merryll and Peggy are just two of the 89 people who received their special delivery from across the years. But seven letters from three servicemen on the Caleb Strong are still undelivered. Post office regulations dictate that "Unsolved Mysteries" cannot reveal the recipients of the letters. But they can reveal the names of the soldiers who wrote them.
Private John J. Thomas wrote four letters to Garfield Heights, Ohio; Lyndhurst, Ohio; Kent, Ohio; and Babson Park, Massachusetts. Sgt. C.F. Smith wrote two letters to Philadelphia and Darby, Pennsylvania. Morris Johnson wrote one letter to San Francisco, California.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the May 6, 1988 Special #6 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
  • During the filming of the show, Merryll Rapley met with Mike Minguez and thanked him for finding the letters.
  • Baseball player Walt Dropo was aboard the Caleb Strong and had written one of the letters to his mother.
  • Some sources state: 93 soldiers on the Caleb Strong wrote 237 letters; when the war was over, the elderly woman's nephew figured it was too late to mail the letters; and the bag was found in April 1986.

Results: Solved - In the spring of 1988, the Postal Service contacted James Althoff, president of the 781st Bombardment Squadron Association, and asked for help in searching for the final three soldiers: John Thomas, Morris Johnson, and C.F. Smith.
In May, James began a search for Morris. Members of the association canvassed San Francisco, but Morris had left no forwarding address. James contacted the Veterans Administration and learned that Morris had died in 1966.
James obtained Morris' death certificate, which listed an address in Fresno, California. He then contacted the funeral home that handled Morris' burial. An employee there knew Morris and gave James contact information for Morris' daughter, Karan Johnson.
In September 1988, James contacted Karan. He learned that Morris and his wife, Roberta, had met on a blind date in San Francisco and married in 1939. The letter Morris had written while on the Caleb Strong was addressed to Roberta. Karan said Morris was a "romantic" who always gave Roberta gifts. A master sergeant in the U.S. Army, Morris later received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. After the war, he became a pharmacist.
Sadly, Roberta died in 1984. On November 21, 1988, Morris' letter was delivered to Karan at her home in Fresno. She and her siblings opened the letter on Thanksgiving Day. She said she was interested in reading it because she misses her parents a lot.
In the fall of 1988, James contacted Walter Longacre, also of the 781st Bombardment Squadron Association, to help locate John Thomas' family. Walter had previously helped track down several veterans to inform them about reunions. He obtained a death certificate for John from the Division of Vital Statistics of Ohio (John's home state). He then wrote to the funeral home that handled John's services.
The funeral home sent Walter obituaries for John and his wife, who had died two days after him. Through the obituaries, Walter was able to locate John's closest living relative: his brother-in-law. He also located two of the women whom John had written to: Pearle Kohler Adrion and Dorothy Seckler. Both were interested in seeing the letters. The Postal Service gave the letters to John's brother-in-law, who agreed to give them to the women.
In John's letter to Pearle, he said he enjoyed the time he spent with her. Unfortunately, she did not remember him, but she believed they had gone out a few times. She was happy to receive the letter, as it helped bring back memories of her youth.
The Postal Service had the most difficulty finding C.F. Smith and delivering his letters (which he had written to his girlfriend, Ruth, and his mother) because Smith is a very common last name, and they did not have his full name. Also, some of his military records were destroyed in a fire at the Federal Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
The Postal Service sought help from veteran Pierre Kennedy, founding director of the 781st Bombardment Squadron Association. He found information about C.F. through the National Archives list of air crews reported missing during World War II.
Pierre learned that C.F.'s full name was Clarence F. Smith. Before the war, he lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a tail gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress and was killed when the plane was shot down over Verona, Italy, on July 6, 1944. He was twenty-six. He was initially buried in Italy but was later buried in Philadelphia after the war ended.
Pierre located Clarence's mother's old address in Philadelphia and, through neighbors, learned of Clarence's brother, Norman Smith of Henderson, Maryland. He also learned that their mother had died in 1981.
On February 22, 1989, Postmaster General Anthony Frank presented Clarence's letters to Norman at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., marking the completion of the deliveries. Norman thanked Mike Minguez for finding the letters and Pierre for tracking him down. He said the letters brought back many memories of Clarence.
At the ceremony, Norman read Clarence's letter to their mother: Hello mother I sure hope you are all well Today may be the last letter you will receive from me here so don't worry if you don't hear from me for a while…Well today I spent most of my time playing cards and checkers two exciting games…Boy I sure will be glad to see pay day around We haven't been paid for two months Well I'll close now I'll write as soon as I am able Take good care of yourself I sure hope there is mail by the time I land Good night all Your son I love you Buddy.
On April 13, 1990, Peggy Kimball passed away at the age of seventy-six. On August 24, Merryll Rapley passed away at the age of seventy-three.