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Special Report: Loved Ones Lost, Letters Found

Maarja Anderson
November 10, 2014 10:37 PM

As a mother and businesswoman, Kathy Bennett has seen a lot of interesting things in her day, but this layout in her kitchen is not an ordinary find.

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On the kitchen table laid out in front of her, are more than 200 letters, all from World War II. Kathy had found the letters in a shoebox while remodeling her basement years ago.

"Up in kind of the rafters tucked in this big corner, that you really had to dig to get back there, was this box," explained Kathy.

Kathy knew what the letters would mean to the family who's loved ones stories were inside.

"Somewhere in the family we lost the love letters my grandfather had written to my grandmother during the war and she would give anything to have those," said Kathy of her own family's letters.

So, where does Kathy start with these letters? She noted the last name on all the envelopes, Lanthier. She also found an old newspaper clipping.

"It's the Canyon Town Hall News. July and August 1945. And on the back it says, 'very fitting and impressive memorial services were held for Canyon's only casualty of the war, Robert Marion Lanthier.'"

After a few phone calls, Kathy quickly found out the Northland had a lot of Lanthiers and a lot of dead ends. That's when she called Eyewitness News and we dug right in.

Not wanting to invade the family's privacy by reading all the letters, we chose a few and started with the names on the outside of the envelopes.

The letters were from three Lanthier boys.

Paul, an Army sergeant, lead a unit laying wire through Europe, opening up lines of communication at the war front.

Francis was in the Navy and traveled the world as a gunner's mate.

And Robert, was also a sailor, serving as a motor machinist's mate.

While searches for Paul and Francis didn't turn up much, Robert's name was a different story. His unit was torpedoed June 9, 1944, just three days after D-Day.

We now had some idea of who these young brothers were, but did they have a family, a living relative?

We had exhausted our own resources, so it was time to call in the experts.

Joanne Sher is a professional genealogist and volunteers at the St. Louis County Courthouse every Thursday.

"This was a little different because usually with genealogy you are working totally backwards," she explained.

In no time, Joanne had names and dates.

"With this project, you were coming forward because you were trying to find a living relative," said Joanne.

All the letters were addressed to a Mrs. E.J. Lanthier, so that's where we started.

From there, we got details on the whole Lanthier family, not just Paul, Francis, and Robert, but their nine brothers and sisters, too.

Joanne found death certificates and obituary information, which she says can often be the key to finding a living relative.

Then, we headed to the Duluth Public Library where we met David Ouse. David walked us through the microfilms, showing us how to search through the old Duluth papers and printed obituaries.

Armed now with a dozen obituaries, we were able to go through the list of living relatives to try and track down any still around. In spite of all the old letters and microfilm, eventually, it was Facebook that lead to a connection, and finally a reunion.

Evonne "Bunny" Kangas was a younger sister to Paul, Francis, and Robert.

"This is a miracle day! I'm going to get emotional."

She was just 8 years old when her brothers went off to serve in World War Two.

"This is heaven sent. Oh my gosh."

Looking through the shoebox of letters, Bunny finds a flag with three blue stars, which mothers would have displayed, showing how many children they had in the war.

"And then we had a gold star, [because] we did lose one," said Bunny.

Bunny is referring to Robert, who was just 22 when he died. She calls him her guardian angel.

"He was 'lost at sea' on June 9th, after D-Day. They were on their second trip across when they were torpedoed," she remembers.

The memory of his memorial service, has stuck with her for decades.

"I was young, I was only 11 years old and they put this table out and they put the flag on it and that's a lasting impression on me."

Reading one of his letters for the first time, it brings it all back.

"Dear folks, I haven't heard from anyone in a while but I thought I got to try," Bunny read from a 1942 letter from Bobby.

The end of the letter, tugged on a heartstring.

"I hope this finds you people all well and happy. As for me, I'm okay so don't worry. Love, Bobby."

While Bobby died before he could return, his two brothers survived and came home to start families.

Francis spent years as a bus driver, traveling the country and ended up in the state of Wyoming. He died four years ago.

Another surviving sister, Jean Swenson, remembers him and his war stories.

"We always called Francis Swede because he was such a little blondie," she explained.

Jean said Francis' ship was also torpedoed, but unlike Bobby, he was able to jump overboard and get picked up by a lifeboat.

Jean remembers him home on survivor's leave.

"I remember him saying, 'I have to go out and buy a knife, what I wouldn't have done to have a knife that night to cut ropes to get the life rafts down,'" she remembered.

Jean was also just a little girl when the brothers left for war so the letters offered a little more insight, especially with Bobby.

"He was getting letters from a gal in Chicago!" said Jean.

Those letters from a gal shocked Bunny, too.

"I'm a little surprised by this girl business! I'm surprised about that because letters to my mother never mentioned too much about that!" said Bunny.

While Jean and Bunny got to know about their brothers in a different way, the next generation got to meet them for the first time.

After the war, Paul came home to Duluth and worked at Minnesota Power for three decades. He died in 1977.

His middle daughter, Lynn Persons, says the letters allow her kids to know a grandpa who died before they were grown.

"Now they'll have some connections there and know how he was like."

Lynn said she knew a little bit about her dad's time in the Army, but not as much as she would have liked.

"That's the one thing I really regret. I was just in my late 20s when my dad died. He didn't talk much about it and I wish now that I would have asked him more about it," said Lynn.

But now, she has that history in her hands and some of her dad's humor, too.

"'The piles of manure, ma, were right in the front yard!'"Lynn read from a letter.

The letters also showed a lot of compassion and concern for his mother.

"He said to her, 'you did such a good job of bringing us kids up. If everyone had a mom like you, there wouldn't be any war,'" she read.

That compassion is something the family saw in all the letters. In return, Mrs. Lanthier hung on to those letters and kept them safe.

As for the mystery of how the letters came to be in Kathy Bennett's house, Bunny did a little investigating. 

"From what I know is my sister sold her home back in the nineties on Drake Road to a Bennett," said Bunny.

Turns out, that's exactly what happened. Kathy did move from a house on Drake Road to the home where she found the letters. She said she must have grabbed the leftover box in the confusion of moving.

However it happened, the family is happy the letters ended up with Kathy, and not a different stranger.

"I would just thank her, it's just incredible," said Lynn.

"Somebody else could have just thrown them away," added Bunny.

The letters have offered the family a new snapshot of their Lanthier history, and at the same time, it's brought them together to remember these three men- three brothers- who served their country.


Credits

Maarja Anderson

Copyright 2016 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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