The trunk in the basement held mysteries for a man who never knew his father

John Kelly
Columnist August 26, 2014

Some of the trunk's contents, including Lt. Grear's watch and dog tag, along with German booty and a souvenir program from Paris. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

In 1961, Dan Grear Jr. was 17 and living in a little town in northwest Illinois called Stockton. When it came time to pick a destination for the senior class trip, most of the students wanted to go to the Ozarks. They’d heard it was easy to get beer there.

Dan wanted to go to Washington — not to soak up the capital’s history, but to find the father he hardly knew and find out a little about his own.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

It was not long after Dan Sr. returned from fighting in World War II that his marriage to Dan Jr.’s mother, Elinor, ended.

“I had a feeling something must have happened,” Dan told me on the phone from Madison, Wis., where he lives now. “A lot of soldiers must have left their marriages when they got back.”

Dan Jr. didn’t see much of his father growing up. But his high school did decide to go to Washington, and one evening during the trip, Dan Sr. showed up at the motel where the students were staying. He invited his son to visit him and his second wife in their Woodley Park apartment.

Later that summer, Dan Sr. flew his son and his son’s friend Quentin Ryder to Washington. Among the highlights: a trip to New York City, where they stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria and had front row seats for “Camelot.”

Dan Jr. didn’t ask a lot of questions. He didn’t ask about the war. He didn’t ask why his parents got divorced. He didn’t ask why his father was selling cars — Cadillacs, Dan thinks — even though he had a law degree.


Photographs found inside a World War II Army trunk found in a D.C. apartment basement. The trunk belonged to Lt. Daniel H Grear Sr. In addition to photos of a German prisoner of war and the cremation ovens at Buchenwald, there is a photo of Grear's infant son, Dan Jr. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

After the summer of 1961, father and son exchanged letters for a while. Then “the letters just sort of faded away,” Dan said. “It’s just one of those things. I’ve always thought about him.”

Dan’s mother remarried — “a jerk,” Dan said of the man, who left in a cloud of infidelity. Eventually, Elinor moved to the Florida Keys, where she sat on the porch watching the ocean and the birds. Last year, she died of a stroke at 92.

After high school, Dan Jr. dabbled with college, then served in the Peace Corps in India. When that was over, he was drafted but stayed out of Vietnam after qualifying for missile school. After the Army, Dan did factory work, then went back to college and got a teaching degree.

In 2004, he retired from a career spent as a teacher and computer coordinator in a Wisconsin school district. He’s divorced from his wife. They have a 35-year-old son, also named Daniel.

“I wish Dad coulda met him,” Dan Jr. said. “Dad would have enjoyed the heck out of him.” There’s a granddaughter, too, 6-month-old Adelaide.


Photographs found inside a World War II Army trunk found in a DC apartment basement. The trunk belonged to Lt. Daniel H Grear Sr. In addition to photos of a German prisoner of war and the cremation ovens at Buchenwald, there is a photo of Grear's infant son, Dan Jr. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Ten years ago, Dan Jr. started poking around online to find out about his father. He discovered Dan Sr. had died in 1981.

“I felt bad that I just let it go for all those years,” Dan said. “He was worth more than that. I should have contacted him even though he wasn’t contacting me.”

And then two weeks ago, Dan got an e-mail from Quentin, the high school friend who met Dan’s dad 53 summers ago. Quentin lives in Indiana and had seen a story in his local paper, the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. It was my Washington Post column about two old Army trunks found in the basement of a D.C. apartment building. One had been returned to the children of its late owner.

The other one was marked “Lt. Daniel Grear.”

“That’s your father,” Quentin told Dan.

The trunk

The trunk is open, and I am gingerly removing some of its contents in the Alexandria living room of Jaime Steve, the man who found it in the basement of the building Dan Grear Sr. once lived in, 2800 Woodley Ave. NW.


Jaime Steve of Alexandria found Lt. Daniel H. Grear Sr.'s World War II Army trunk while clearing out a basement storage area in a DC apartment building. Thanks to John Kelly's column, Lt. Grear's son has been found. (John Kelly/TWP)

There is a dog tag, an ammunition belt, a can of anti-mold treatment for combat boots. A bazooka round as hefty as a baseball bat. Wire-bound notebooks written in a careful hand: how to move on a battlefield, how to set up fields of fire.

There is the compass Lieutenant Grear used to guide his unit, part of the 87th Infantry, across Europe. There is his wristwatch. There is a list of members of Company L killed in action: 10 typewritten names followed by eight handwritten ones, as if death was outpacing bureaucracy.

There is a German soldier’s belt buckle with the legend “Gott mit Uns” — “God with us” — and two swastika-bedecked Nazi flags, a little moth eaten but no less sinister for that.


A photo of Daniel Grear Sr. and unidentified children. Dan Sr. divorced wife Elinor after returning from World War II and didn't have much contact with his son. (Courtesy of Dan Grear Jr. )

And there are black-and-white photographs: handsome landscapes, shattered towns. One is of a German prisoner of war sitting on the hood of a Jeep. Written on the back is: “A sad-sack at Theuma, Germany.” Another shows what look like bread ovens. “Interior of crematory,” reads the caption. “Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany — June 1945. Box of human ashes in door of furnace.”

Among the war souvenirs is a torn photograph of a baby in a bonnet gazing out of the frame. On the back is written “2 mos. See the birdie.”

It’s Dan Jr.

Dan, now 70, has been overwhelmed by the discovery of the trunk. He plans to come to Washington next month to collect it.

“It’s like a short story or a novel or a biography,” Dan says of the trunk. “It’s a life that I didn’t know anything about. All I knew was, he was in the Army.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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