More than three decades after his father’s death, Jack Gradwell and his wife sifted through a box of old family photographs in his home on the edge of the Cheshire countryside in England.
One snapshot featured a curly-haired woman with big, round sunglasses sitting on the deck of a boat.
Holding up the picture, his wife asked, “Who is this?”
Gradwell said he didn’t know.
After his wife flipped it over to see the reverse, Gradwell said, they found, printed in blue ink “in a shaky version of my dad’s hand,” the words “MY DAUGHTER, LOREEN.’”
Gradwell, born in 1946, had no idea who she was.
In an instant, though, he recognized that somewhere in the world, he might have a sister he never knew. The only sibling he did know, younger brother Ernest, died of cancer.
In the seven years since he first saw the woman’s image, he has sought to find her, to discover the story behind those three piercing words.
He hasn’t gotten far.
Talking with relatives and probing his father’s background, Gradwell managed to find only some stray snippets of evidence.
One is another photograph, dated 1980, that shows a younger woman in what appears to be a backyard. She may be Loreen’s daughter, Gradwell said, and she might be named Helen.
It’s a mighty thin trail to try to follow.
Gradwell thinks the solution to the detective story he’s found himself in may be found somewhere in Maine, where his father, a seaman with the Royal Navy during World War II, may have spent some time between 1942 and early 1944.
In Gradwell’s view, it seems to be a love story mixed up in a war story, much of it hidden deep in the past.
“The poignancy of this affair brings tears to my eyes for my dad and his lover, both brought together and separated by the war, and for the family he left behind,” Gradwell said.
“It creates a void that I have had to pursue,” he said.
Jack London Gradwell
One of five children, Gradwell’s father, Jack London Gradwell, was born in September 1916 in the small city of Bolton, a little northwest of Manchester, England.
His father, an antiquarian bookseller, named him after the famed American novelist Jack London, author of “Call of the Wild.” Thomas Gradwell apparently knew the writer from his own days aboard sailing ships and pursuing gold in the Yukon.
Jack London Gradwell’s son, the man searching for the woman who might be his sister, described his father as “a wiry, good-looking and intelligent young man.” English census records indicate he was a plasterer during the Great Depression.
But the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 caused Gradwell’s life, like that of so many millions of others, to take an unexpected turn.
By 1940, he served as a seaman aboard the HMS Janus, a destroyer commissioned a year earlier to escort larger, slower vessels during wartime. They proved especially useful in fending off German submarines, a deadly nemesis in the early years of the war.
Initially serving in the North Sea, where it was deployed to disrupt German mine-layers, the Janus was dispatched in 1940 to the Mediterranean, where it played a role in a few battles.
In one, off the coast of Syria, two Vichy French destroyers managed to land a few shells on the deck of the Janus that devastated its bridge, slaughtering everyone in charge except the commanding officer.
In that action, which killed 13 and injured many more, Gradwell received shrapnel wounds to his head, legs and arms, but survived. He recovered while the ship underwent repairs in South Africa for almost a year.
He must have returned to England for a time because he married an Irish Catholic woman, Ellen Marly, early in 1941, according to local records.
In 1942 or perhaps early in 1943, Gradwell got new orders to report to the HMS Saker in the United States, which had joined the war as an English ally shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack by Japan on the U.S. military bases at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
A stone frigate in Lewiston
The English have no shortage of strange customs, starting right at the top with the Royal Family. One of those customs plays a role in Gradwell’s tale.
The Royal Navy, which ruled the seas for generations, had enough personnel in North America during World War II to require a special accounting and administrative base.
They called it the HMS Saker as if it were a ship, rather than the building full of overcrowded offices that it was. Some referred to it as a “stone frigate.”
At first, the group of offices called the HMS Saker was based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then, for reasons not entirely clear, it moved to Lewiston, Maine, from 1943 until the end of the war with Germany.
Housed at the airport in Auburn, it operated beside a training program for American and British pilots to master torpedo bombing. Future President George H.W. Bush, then a newlywed living in Auburn, was among those who honed his flying skills there.
A U.S. Navy base in Brunswick was also considered part of the HMS Saker, where Corsair squadrons trained in anti-submarine warfare. At least a few of those Corsairs crashed during training, including a midair collision in October 1943 that killed two British pilots near New Gloucester, one of them an ace who had shot down 13 German planes.
But HMS Saker included more than just Lewiston and nearby Brunswick. Its reach encompassed Royal Navy personnel elsewhere in the country, from shipyards churning out future English vessels to runways where other British pilots trained. They moved around as military necessity dictated.
Among those assigned to the HMS Saker was Gradwell, now considered a leading seaman.
His son discovered that Gradwell was standing by as the HMS Bahamas, a frigate, was constructed in Providence, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1943 by the Walsch-Kaiser Co. It was commissioned that December.
Gradwell served on the HMS Bahamas as it escorted convoys through the U-boat-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean, helping men and equipment flow from the U.S. to Europe in the months before and after the D-Day invasion.
The ship also logged at least one journey to Murmansk, helping protect convoys sending material to the Soviet Union through a long route that took ships well into the Arctic Ocean as they went around the northern part of Nazi-occupied Norway.
In the late fall of 1944, a German submarine’s torpedo blew the bow off a nearby British destroyer, forcing the HMS Bahamas to tow it by the stern through the freezing waters until a Soviet tug boat could haul it the rest of the way to the Kola Inlet.
After the war
By the time the war ended, Jack London Gradwell had seen half the world, from Murmansk to America.
It must have satisfied the wanderlust of a young man named for an adventurer because he returned home to Bolton after his 1946 discharge from the Royal Navy and worked the rest of his career as a plasterer. He had two sons with his wife, Ellen: Jack, the eldest, born in 1946, and Ernest, born in 1951.
His son Jack remembers his father showing him “how to move about bits of shrapnel still in his leg, beneath the skin” in the years that followed, a permanent remnant of his years in the service.
He also recalls visiting the Isle of Man in the 1950s where a shipmate from the Janus owned a small hotel on the Douglas promenade.
Generally, though, Jack London Gradwell lived quietly in a Victorian-era rowhouse on Park Road across from a lovely park in Bolton.
He died there on Dec. 8, 1981, English records show, with an estate worth less than 25,000 pounds.
His wife, whom everyone called Nellie, lived until 1995, leaving behind many family photographs and papers that Jack and his wife, Bronwen, have slowly pored through.
A secret affair?
They heard a lot of stories over the years, including the possibility that Thomas Gradwell might have had a second family in North America, but there was one tale that Jack London Gradwell never told: Who was Loreen?
Despite his search for information, his son hasn’t found much to explain why his father identified a woman as his daughter.
From other family members, he said, he gleaned that “an American lady called Aunty May used to write to Dad on a regular basis and send Christmas cards.”
“She was last heard of in the mid-1980s, by then having seemingly moved to Florida,” Gradwell said, but where she lived before that is unknown.
Gradwell said it is possible his father lived in her home as a boarder during the war, but it’s just a guess.
And who was the woman with whom he had the affair? There’s not a trace of her so far.
Gradwell said he thinks his sister was born in 1944, but that’s not a certainty either.
The few women named Loreen born in America in that general time period who show up in genealogical sources or old newspapers don’t have any obvious connection to the places Gradwell’s father probably lived in the United States.
But in those difficult days, it’s certainly possible someone moved far away before the birth of a daughter and never came back.
When you come down to it, a picture and that one handwritten line are the only evidence of Loreen’s existence.
It’s hard to discern much from the photograph, which has a 1970s vibe to it.
Loreen is staring off to the left, almost expressionless. Behind her are some dockyards that don’t carry any obvious sign of their locale.
Gradwell’s son thinks perhaps it’s a scene in Maine. He speculated it could be she was on a boat on the Androscoggin River.
But the cranes in the background point toward somewhere else, perhaps a spot not far from Lewiston such as Bath or Portland.
It’s just as likely, though, that the picture was snapped somewhere more distant, perhaps not even in the United States. There is a vaguely European look to the scene.
The other photograph, which might show Loreen’s daughter at age 17, looks like it was taken in an English backyard, with a brick wall behind her and a greenhouse on the other side of a wooden fence, the sort of row house scene uncommon in the United States but easily found in England.
Unfortunately, the resolution on both pictures is paltry, making it tough to see anything small that might offer a helpful clue.
At this point, Gradwell is running out of options to penetrate the past deeply enough to find the connection he craves.
He doesn’t want to take a DNA test that might provide a connection to some stranger.
“I know who I am, who we are and where we came from,” he said.
Instead, he is looking for help from America, where somebody might know something.
“I can now go no further without your acquiescence and cooperation,” he told the Sun Journal.
Now it’s up to readers to see if anything in this story strikes a chord.
Loreen, are you out there?