THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

The hero they never knew

Killed on the eve of D-day, Lieutenant Walter J. Gunther Jr.’s story was largely lost to time. Tomorrow in Malden, his family celebrates his memory and sacrifice

Lieutenant Walter J. Gunther Jr. in Aldbourne, England, shortly before D-day. Lieutenant Walter J. Gunther Jr. in Aldbourne, England, shortly before D-day.
By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / June 5, 2010

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The child saw a father she had never known in the expression of her mother, an Army nurse widowed by a D-day fusillade of German bullets.

Long after World War II, long after Lieutenant Walter J. Gunther Jr. had been buried in Normandy, his only child would see her mother sitting quiet and alone, transported to another time, reading the wartime letters of the only man she had ever loved.

Mary Gunther rarely spoke of her husband, a Malden native, and her daughter stopped asking because of the tears that would follow. But tomorrow, 66 years after her father’s death, Mary Susan DiGrandi will savor D-day’s anniversary for the first time.

That anticipation is the result of the dogged detective work of a Malden police lieutenant, whose exhaustive effort has recovered the paratrooper’s story, rekindled lost relationships, and reminded later generations of long-ago sacrifice.

“Before, I would just insulate myself’’ on D-day, said DiGrandi, whose mother also lost a brother in the Pearl Harbor attack. “Now, it feels like I’ve got a father who really existed.’’

The reminders will now be permanent, etched on a black granite marker to be dedicated at 1 p.m. tomorrow, near the house Gunther left to join the parachute battalion made famous in the “Band of Brothers’’ television miniseries.

DiGrandi, who had known few details of her father’s life and death, will be joined by two of her three daughters at the ceremony overlooking the Malden Reservoir at Fellsway East and West Border Road.

“It will be an emotional weekend,’’ said DiGrandi, 66, of Palm Harbor, Fla. “I wish there was a pill that would make me numb to get me through this. But you need to experience every bit of it.’’

DiGrandi also will be joined by Kent Gunther, 55, of Roslindale, the cousin who reached out to Malden police to locate a now-vanished streetside tribute to the late paratrooper.

Malden police Lieutenant Kevin Molis, who works in the traffic division, could not recall such a sign. But what originated as a simple question from a stranger soon became a personal crusade.

Molis uncovered details of Walter Gunther’s life that piqued his interest: son of a Malden traffic officer; football standout at Boys’ Catholic High School; first paratrooper from Malden. And then this: Gunther died as he hung in a parachute caught in the trees at Sainte-Mère-Église, shot by German troops after a night-time jump that preceded the Allied landing.

“At first, I think there was a curiosity on a local level,’’ Molis said of his research. “But as the story developed, Walter became more of a remarkable figure.’’

The story was largely unknown to Gunther’s daughter and his cousin. Both knew he had been killed at age 26 in Normandy, but they knew little else. DiGrandi, who had been born two days after Gunther shipped out, never saw him. Kent Gunther, who had heard vague references to the exploits of his father’s first cousin, would adopt the role of Lieutenant Walter Gunther in childhood war games at the Arnold Arboretum.

“He’s been my hero since I was a little boy,’’ said Kent Gunther, a carpenter for the city of Boston.

Through the help of police in North Carolina, where Mary Gunther once had lived, Molis located DiGrandi and told her that Malden wanted to honor her father’s sacrifice. Suddenly, the man whose footlocker she had never opened began to assume life. Then, with the prodding of her husband, DiGrandi found the courage several weeks ago to open the lid.

Inside, she found love letters arranged in chronological order, baby pictures, photos of paratroopers, a uniform.

“It was one of the most emotional times of my life,’’ DiGrandi said. “My father’s letters are beautiful. Any woman would want her husband to write a letter like that. He’d also say: ‘Mary, I’m tired. A paratrooper’s life is very difficult. I’ve written all I can today.’ ’’

One of the letters is postmarked June 6, 1944, D-day.

Since Kent Gunther reached out to Molis, DiGrandi said, her world has welcomed relatives she never knew, old comrades of her father’s, and strangers who wish her well.

“Because I was an only child, I used to tell my husband that if I had a party or if I died, no one would come except my daughters,’’ DiGrandi said. “Now, all of a sudden in the last two months, I have a family and people who remember me.’’

One of them is Helen Dermady, 79, who has not seen DiGrandi since she pushed her in a stroller. “I’ve always prayed for Walter,’’ said Dermady, a childhood friend of the Gunther family. “I’ve prayed for Walter every day.’’

DiGrandi said she wishes that her mother, who died in 1995, were alive for the ceremony. Mary Gunther never remarried and, as far as her daughter knows, never dated again.

“My mother was a very beautiful woman, someone with a great personality, and she truly believed that hers was one of the loves of the century,’’ DiGrandi said.

A photograph of Walter Gunther, forever young, stood on her dresser until the day she died.

MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

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