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WWII-era dog tags returned to Timber Cove man after discovery in potted orchid. No one knows how they got there

The rediscovered dog tags of fallen WWII soldier Roger Taylor that will be presented to the Beloit Historical Society at their "Remebering Roger" memorial service Sunday Dec. 29, 2019. ( / Aaron Self/TNS)

The letter arrived at Greg Gunheim’s Timber Cove home before he returned from a few days of visiting with friends out-of-state. It was addressed to him and his wife, Midori, so she opened it first.

But she did let him read the note for himself and discover the envelope’s astonishing surprise.

Goosebumps bloomed instantly, not for the first time, as Gunheim held one of his late father’s World War II dog tags and contemplated the mystery that brought it to him.

A Windsor woman, Irene Luna, had sent it after her husband repotted an orchid and found the metal disk in the soil, tangled in the roots.

Three pieces of glass and a ceramic, hexagonal object, like some kind of bolt, were among the other found “treasures” Jim Luna discovered during the transplant process.

But no one knows how any of the items became buried in the dirt and entwined in the orchid roots — and in the lives of utter strangers — nor are they particularly hopeful of finding out.

“I wish the metal could talk to tell us how it got there,” said Gunheim, 69. “And how did he lose it?”

The Lunas can’t help.

The orchid came to them in a roundabout way that ties in two other families: Irene Luna’s brother, Fred Hernandez, and his wife, Lisa, who live northeast of Redding, in the town of Burney; and their close friends, the late Jeff Sanders and his wife, Denise, who died last year.

Jeff and Denise Sanders had lived on Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg, and after Denise died in March 2022, Irene Luna’s brother and sister-in-law were down for the service and were helping their friends’ adult kids clean out the house.

They were gifted two of the Sanders’ orchids but, with a long drive home ahead, decided to leave them at the Lunas’ Windsor home.

One of those orchids, 13 months later, would yield Gunnar Glenn Gunheim’s dog tag, on April 23.

Irene Luna didn’t know how to find the owner at first and took a day or two to start Googling.

“My husband was in the military,” she said, “so I knew it was precious to them.”

She found lots of references to Gunnar Gunheim, and many other Gunheims, including a Greg Gunheim. That name was associated with someone named “Midori” — a rare name in the area.

Luna, a retired office staffer at Cali Calmécac Language Academy in Windsor, remembered a teacher there named Midori, and, speaking with a former principal, learned the two women might be one and the same.

She made phone calls, left messages and was out of town when Midori Gunheim tried to call back. Finally, they connected by phone and verified that Luna had found the right family.

“Thank goodness for Google,” Luna said.

Gunnar Glenn Gunheim, born in Eureka in 1925, had lived most of his life south of Windsor, growing up on a chicken farm in Petaluma, and probably joining the Navy from there, his son said.

His parents later moved to Santa Rosa, and Gunnar Gunheim may have lived with them briefly after the war. He met his wife as a young parole officer in San Francisco, and it was there he started his family of seven. He later passed the state bar exam, launching his career as an attorney, “fighting for the underdog,” Greg Gunheim said.

He moved in the late 1960s to Novato, where he lived until his death in December 1996.

His son, Greg, an Army veteran himself, knew something of his father’s Navy service, mainly aboard the USS Bassett during the rescue of 154 sailors who survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. The ship sank in only 12 minutes after a torpedo attack by the Japanese near the Philippines. Only 316 of 1,195 people on board survived.

Greg Gunheim had attended a 1995 reunion of survivors with his father and had experienced the emotion in the room all those decades later. Survivors and rescuers alike told stories, with some accusing leadership on both vessels of contributing to the suffering and trauma of those who endured days in the water, exposed to the elements and to ravenous sharks, which were responsible for many, many deaths.

Greg Gunheim had talked about the rescue, about one man who dove into the water over and over, pulling men out. He talked, also, about fear and suspicion among the Bassett crew that they might have been ordered to respond to a setup, an ambush, rather than a rescue, resulting in an uprising among some of the sailors.

But though Greg Gunheim and his father were close, they didn’t talk much about his war experience.

Greg Gunheim never saw his father’s dog tags.

When he pulled one out of the envelope last week, “I just filled with goosebumps,” he said.

He was emotional retelling the story of his dad and his history, as well, and said the dog tag eventually will go to his own son, “who said when I told him about it, ‘I guess I’d like to have that some day.'”

Irene Luna said when she first got Greg Gunheim’s voicemail, after he opened the letter, she coudn’t respond at first, “because I knew I would cry. His voice was so emotional.”

Now they have talked, and they and their spouses plan to have dinner soon to celebrate the find.

“It’s just amazing,” Irene Luna said. “How it ended up in that little pot, we’ll never know. … But I’m just so happy that he ended up with Dad’s dog tag, and the grandson will eventually receive them. That’s more important than us knowing how he actually got it.”


(c) 2023 The Press Democrat

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