While stationed at Wright Field in 1945, Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Ira M. Gross and wife sent packages of food, clothing and baby items to Dinah Gatland in war-ravaged England.
This September, Dinah Gatland’s baby, Roger, now 67, drove to Crystal Lakes, where the Grosses had lived, hoping to find their children and tell them what fine parents they’d had.
With help from Gross’ longevity and one of Crystal Lakes’ true characters, Roger Gatland was on the phone three weeks later to Fort Worth, Texas, thanking Gross himself.
“I would love it to be known nationwide just what incredible people (the Grosses) are,” Roger Gatland said in a phone interview from Richmond, Ind., where he has been visiting one of his sons.
“In spite of everything that was happening, he still had time to write and wrap up parcels and send things to my mother.”
His 45-minute conversation with Roger Gatland “surely bucked me up,” said 90-year-old Gross, who had been awaiting word on impending surgery to repair a leaky aortic valve. “It brought back a lot of memories, and they were all good.”
Originally part of a troop carrier group, Gross was in France during World War II when he was reassigned to what he described as “a secret intelligence gathering outfit with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.”
An aeronautical engineering graduate from the University of Alabama, the New York-born Gross was with a team that went to German aircraft plants as they were captured and interrogated the employees. The purpose was to find out how the Allies could further cripple the industry.
The experience sent Gross 1,400 feet down into a salt mine, where Germans were using machinery built in Saginaw, Mich., to produce their first jets. It also exposed him to the depths of inhumanity when he witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, near Wiemar, Germany.
“That was the only time I ever got sick in my life overseas,” said Gross. “When I saw those bodies and talked to the people there, I just got sick. The smell … ”
Gross came down with hepatitis in Leipzig, Germany, and was recovering in a London hospital just before the war ended in Europe when Dinah Gatland visited his room with a group of volunteer well-wishers.
Weeks later, Gross was seeing London’s sites with Dinah Gatland and her friends, who teasingly called the friendly Yank “Roger” because he always used the military affirmative “Roger” when he meant “yes” or “OK.”
Married and with a daughter he’d not yet met at home, Gross soon found out his good friend Dinah Gatland was pregnant and that her G.I. lover had returned home to Richmond, Ind., leaving her future in doubt.
The friendship was so strong, that when Gross was stationed at Wright Field, he sent packages to her from his cottage in Crystal Lakes, a far better residence than the cramped Dayton apartment he had wife, Rose, had first called home.
“You couldn’t get anything in London,” Gross recalled. “Everything was rationed. Food was rationed. Clothes were rationed.”
Gross also agreed to visit Richmond, Ind., to look up Dinah Gatland’s former lover.
An Aug. 6, 1945, letter — one of many saved by Roger Gatland — describes what Gross discovered.
“Rose and I drove over Saturday … and saw Jimmy Everman,” he wrote. “I’m sorry to say, Dinah, that Jimmy is married. He was married about a month after he returned overseas … I hope he explains all this in his letter to you, and I’m really sorry that things had to turn out this way.”
When her son was born Dec. 24, 1945, she named him Roger, after her nickname for Gross.
For their part, Gross said he and his wife, “were gald to be able to send baby clothes to her.”
But not long after, Dinah Gatland stopped writing.
Roger Gatland said his mother would never disclose his father’s name, which he found through records at the children’s home where he eventually was raised.
At age 18, he reached his father in Richmond, Ind.
“For two characters that never spent a moment in each other’s lives, we were so alike,” Roger Gatland said. “It was really uncanny.”
That relationship eventually led Roger Gatland’s children to visit their grandfather in Richmond, which led to two of his sons living in the country, one as a citizen.
His mother died in 1997 and his father in 1999.
“But it always intrigued me, this ‘Roger’ Gross, whom she named me after,” Roger Gatland said.
So on his latest visit to his son in Richmond, Roger Gatland made the trip to Crystal Lakes.
At the home of Bonnie Luis, his first stop, he was referred to 81-year-old Dixie Gergal, an experienced genealogist and bona fide character.
Gergal described the challenge Roger Gatland put to her as “rather formidable.”
For one, there was Gross’ handwriting.
“This man is an engineer, he ought to have been a doctor,” she said.
In addition, the elapsed time had Gergal asking herself, “Am I going to find somebody that’s still vertical?” — meaning alive.
To her surprise, the bigger issue involved return addresses that said “Roger I.M. Gross.” Roger was, of course, a nickname, not his real name.
An Internet search yielded several Roger Grosses, but none the right age.
A listing for a 90-year-old in Fort Worth and a gut feeling eventually led Gergal to the telephone.
“I’m calling these people, they probably think I’m nuts,” Gergal said. “But it won’t be the first time.”
When Rose Gross answered, Gergal asked if her husband’s name was Roger.
“No,” Mrs. Gross said, “It’s Ira.”
The I in Ira at least matched one of the initials, and when Gross came to the phone, said Gergal, “I had a Bingo.”
Gross, it turns out, was a career Air Force officer, who retired as a major, worked at Bell Helicopter, and even did the weekend weather for 20 years at a Fort Worth television station.
Gergal is overjoyed at having helped connect two men who are part of what she calls a “sad and bittersweet and wonderful” story.
“I don’t have to do anything good the rest of the year,” Gergal said.
She knows at least one man in London and another in Fort Worth who are willing to say “Roger, that.”
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