Milliner Weaver Thomas: Grunion XO (Executive Officer – second in command)

Posted on Sunday 24 September 2006

Milliner Weaver Thomas was born on April 18, 1911 to Howard Barton and Halcyon M. Thomas, who resided in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 540 Washington Lane.
Milliner was their only child. His father was born in New York, his mother in Kansas. His father, Howard worked as chemist for a Pharmaceutical Company.


Milliner’s family moved to Coatesville when his grandfather, Dr. Thompson W. McKinney became pastor of the Olivet Methodist church on 3rd and Chestnut streets.

Milliner attended Coatesville public schools under the tutelage Miss Anna Hall.

His family later returned to Philadelphia when his grandfather moved to Germantown.

Milliner completed his public education at Germantown High School.

Milliner received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland. He entered as a Midshipman from the seventh Pennsylvania District on June25. 1929. Milliner attended the same time as Oliver Finnigan, another Coatesville youth. Milliner was nicknamed “Mim” and “Tommy”.

The 1933 Naval Academy yearbook describes him:

Fortunately, Mim has always been able to hold his own completely with the Academic Departments. While not exactly savvy, a wealth of common sense and a practical mind have kept him far from the bottom of the class.

He isn’t one of the best athletes in the class either, but class numerals have come his way in football and Track.

His particular mystery is his unfailing devotion to no less a master than Cupid. True to one girl, he spends his evenings writing letters and his money on telephone calls.

His hobby during the cold months was perching on the radiator and dreaming of “Sep” leave…

As a roommate, he is ideal, never borrowing stamps or clothes; he always has enough for himself. Possessing an intangible charm of personality, he has endeared himself to all those fortunate to have him for a friend.


In April, Milliner reported to the Submarine base in New London Connecticut for training in Submarines. The Submarine Service was an all volunteer service.

After completion of training at New London, Milliner reported for duty on his first submarine on December 1, 1936 – named R-12, designated SS-89. The “R Boats” were small submarines designed during World War I, and were 600 tons, 186 feet long and had a crew of 33.

Milliner was promoted to Lieutenant (jg) (Junior Grade), on March 3, 1937, during his deployment on the R-12. In May he was assigned to the USS Cuttlefish SS-171. The Cuttlefish was a larger ‘boat’ of the Cachalot class – 1,120 tons, 260 feet in length with a crew of 50. During his duty on the Cuttlefish, Milliner was promoted to a full Lieutenant on April 1, 1941.

Milliner was assigned to the USS Grunion SS-216, a new fleet boat of the Gato Class, which was 1,525 tons, 307 feet long, and a crew of 80. The Grunion was still under the final stages of construction and fitting out at Electric Boat Co., Groton, Connecticut. The Grunion was commissioned on April 11, 1942 with Milliner as XO (Executive Officer – second in command).
After a ‘shake down’ cruise, Milliner’s submarine transited the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean in May, and headed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After 10 days of intensive training, the Grunion left Pearl Harbor on June 10, 1942 toward the Aleutians for her first war patrol. Milliner qualified for command of submarines, and would be named captain of a submarine when he returned.

The submarines first report from patrol just north of Kiska Island, stated they had been attacked by a Japanese destroyer and fired on the enemy, but results were unknown (the sub had to dive and slip away). Milliner’s ship reported she sank two enemy patrol boats in July. On July 30th they reported intensive antisubmarine activity, and were ordered to return to Dutch Harbor.

The Grunion was never heard from again.

4 Comments for 'Milliner Weaver Thomas: Grunion XO (Executive Officer – second in command)'

    September 24, 2006 | 5:13 am

    Milliner Weaver Thomas was born on April 18, 1911

    photos of Kiska by those who served there

    \”Get Kiska Back!\”

    Most important dates in the Russian colonization of Alaska

    Japan\’s Subchaser No. 25

    Highly competent in surface warfare, naval air power and other areas of naval concern, the Imperial Japanese Navy prior to the Second World War was astonishingly remiss in the development of its antisubmarine warfare capability. This was due in part to limited resources, but also reflected a dangerous disinclination to develop such defensive weapons. This neglect was to have disastrous consequences later: during the Pacific War over 55% of all Japanese ships lost fell to submarine attack.

    One type of ship brought into service to counter the submarine threat was the No. 13 class subchaser. Designed primarily for the escort of small coastal convoys, these vessels were small, slow, and almost entirely unarmored. They were nevertheless exceptionally seaworthy and were to serve throughout the war in all operational areas from the Aleutians to the Solomons. Intended to supplement rather than to replace full sized destroyers, these tiny ships increasingly found themselves the sole protectors of convoys as the chronic shortage of destroyers became more acute. Unequal to this demanding task, these ships suffered heavy losses: by the end of the war 36 of the 48 vessels of this type had been destroyed. One of those lost was Subchaser No. 25. Ironically she was sunk, along with her sister No. 27, by the submarine USS Grunion off the island of Kiska on July 15, 1942.

    US Submarines in Tokyo bay on surrender day

    Sunfish photo

    September 24, 2006 | 6:01 am

    Ch 25 (U-Jagdschiff Ch 13-Klasse) Mitsubishi Schwermetall, Yokohama

    xx.xx.xxxx Aufkiellegung
    07.10.1941 Stapellauf
    29.12.1941 Indienststellung
    xx.xx.xxxx Außerdienststellung / Streichung aus Marineliste

    15.07.1942 versenkt (52°02’N, 177°42’O) durch Torpedierung von “”USS Grunion” (SS 216) bei Kiska

    Ch 27 (U-Jagdschiff Ch 13-Klasse) Ishikawajima, Tokio

    xx.xx.xxxx Aufkiellegung
    05.11.1941 Stapellauf
    28.01.1942 Indienststellung
    xx.xx.xxxx Außerdienststellung / Streichung aus Marineliste

    15.07.1942 versenkt (52°02’N, 177°42’O) durch Torpedierung von “USS Grunion” (SS 216) bei Kiska

    September 24, 2006 | 6:08 am

    Muskallunge (SS-262) was Laid down 7 April 1942 by Electric Boat Co., Groton, Conn.; Launched 13 December; sponsored by Mrs. Merritt D. Graham, widow of Chief Torpedoman Graham who was lost in Grunion (SS-216) in July 1942, and commissioned 15 March 1943, Lt. Comdr. Willard A. Snunders in command.

    September 30, 2006 | 6:39 pm

    WWII sailor goes down with sub off Alaskan coast
    By Lorna Thackeray
    Of The Gazette Staff

    As wildfire raged in Emerald Hills during August, a woman contacted The Gazette searching for relatives of a Billings man who disappeared with a World War II submarine last reported in enemy-infested Alaskan waters.

    The sailor, Wesley Hope Blinston, went down with the USS Grunion on the remote edge of the Aleutian Islands in July 1942. In August, just days after the 64th anniversary of the Grunion’s demise, an expedition discovered what could be the Grunion in cold, deep waters off Kiska Island.

    It seemed an incredible coincidence. A month earlier, I had reported on another lost submariner with Billings connections – Lt. Robert Ruble, whose missing World War II submarine, the Lagarto, had been located recently in the Gulf of Thailand.

    Because of fires raging across Montana for the last several weeks, Wesley Blinston got shuttled to the end of the to-do list. But whenever there was a lull, I found myself thinking about him.

    I’m not sure why, but it seemed important to learn as much as possible about him – just as it had with Lt. Ruble – and to tell his story. Maybe it’s the fascinating swirl of history and the individuals who get caught in the maelstrom. Maybe it’s the mesmerizing way the past rolls and folds itself into the present. There are always soldiers, aviators and sailors in that mix, and many of them die too young.

    During the last few years, I’ve interviewed lots of men and women headed to war in Iraq. One in particular stands out – Marine Reservist Nicholas Bloem of Belgrade. His enthusiasm was boundless as he sat in a pre-deployment meeting in Billings with his large family, including his parents and most of his eight sisters and his twin brother.

    He was 19 years old in January 2005 and ready to make a career in the Marines. Eight months later, this energetic, happy and very promising young man was killed by a roadside bomb.

    Maybe it was his face I saw when I thought of Ruble and Blinston.

    Bloem has a small army of family that will hold him close for 70 or 80 more years, and his siblings’ children will keep his memory as a piece of their family history. They’ll have photographs and neatly folded newspaper accounts to remind them.

    Wesley Blinston’s ties to posterity are all but severed.

    Chances are he enlisted in the surge of national outrage after Pearl Harbor. Seven months later, he was dead. Only his mother and middle-aged stepsiblings he may never have met would have been listed as survivors in an obituary I have not been able to find. Given that he was missing and merely presumed dead, there might not have been one.

    I did not want Wesley Blinston to be merely a dead-end on a genealogy chart. Actually, he isn’t even that. Online genealogy charts stop at his father.

    The quest for Blinston didn’t produce much. I called a couple of classmates pictured with him in the 1936 Billings High School yearbook. After the passage of 70 years, they had no recollection of a boy who was not in Honor Society nor on the football team. He wasn’t in choir or orchestra, and his name was not among the class officers.

    The caption beside his senior picture said, “Men of few words are the best.”

    His only school-related activity seems to have been sophomore and junior membership in Radio Club. According to the yearbook, the objective of the club was to help members construct one- and two-tube radio receivers and other equipment and to learn Morse code. Blinston was one of eight licensed ham radio operators at Billings High School. His experience put him aboard the Grunion as a radio man.

    Maybe one of the reasons his name doesn’t appear among membership of school teams and clubs is that he had more responsibilities at home than most teenagers.

    His father, Walter Hope Blinston, had a stroke when Wesley was a sophomore and remained an invalid until his death three years later, on May 24, 1936, about the time Wesley graduated. Walter Blinston, who was much older than his wife, died at 77.

    According to Walter’s obituary in The Gazette, he had come to Montana from Sparta, Wis., in 1909, trying his luck homesteading at several places in southeastern Montana. His first wife had died in 1900 after 20 years of marriage and two children. Wesley’s half siblings may never have set foot in Montana. They lived in Chicago and Minneapolis and grew up in Wisconsin. Walter married Wesley’s mother, Sophye, in Billings in 1917. He and the new Mrs. Blinston moved to Billings in 1921, probably when Wesley was a toddler. Walter Blinston worked as a building contractor.

    City directories show them residing at 38 Grand Ave. in 1925; 15 Alderson Ave. in 1932, and at 17 Alderson in 1935 and ’37. Wesley makes his first appearance in the directory in 1935, where he is listed as a student. Two years later, his occupation is listed as a clerk.

    Wesley and his mother were still living in Billings when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. He would have been about 23 years old then.

    Because of privacy laws, only family members have access to most military records. I was unable to learn when Wesley enlisted or even his date of birth. The last city directory listing for his mother was in 1943. She was living at 6 Alderson Ave. then.

    Sophye probably spent the rest of her life wondering what happened to her son.

    The USS Grunion, on her maiden voyage patrolling in the Aleutian Island chain, sent her last message July 30, 1942, reporting dangerous antisubmarine activity. That final message could have been sent by Blinston, radioman 3rd class.

    Since captured Japanese records did not report the sinking of a sub and aerial reconnaissance found no sign of the Grunion, her fate remained a mystery.

    Last month, a crew searching the Bering Sea with side sonar found what could be the final resting place of the Grunion. An image of an oblong object with features that could identify it as a submarine popped up on a screen during an operation financed by billionaire John Abele, who is one of three sons of the Grunion’s skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Mannert L. Abele.

    The Navy has not confirmed that the object is the Grunion. The Abele family may undertake further efforts at making a positive identification next summer.

    Although there is little to tell about Wesley, the short and heroic life of the Grunion is well documented right up to her final radio message.

    She was named for a small fish indigenous to the West Coast when laid down in Groton, Conn., in the months before the U.S. entered the war. Launched a week after Pearl Harbor, she headed for the Pacific in May 1942. A week into her voyage to the Panama Canal, she rescued 16 survivors from the U.S. Army transport Jack that had been torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Caribbean.

    After dropping the Jack’s survivors at Coco Solo, the U.S. submarine base in Panama, the Grunion sailed to Hawaii for training. It’s likely that Wesley and the other 69 sailors on the Grunion got a firsthand look at the devastation at Pearl Harbor. Initially, the Grunion deployed to Midway Atoll in the mid Pacific, where Japanese sea supremacy was broken in a costly battle June 4-7, 1942.

    Sailors on the Grunion arrived in the aftermath of the Battle of Midway. They probably were elated by the victory and eager to play their part. The Grunion’s first patrol assignment would give them their chance.

    The Grunion was dispatched to the Aleutians, the vulnerable Alaskan island chain that stretches across the Bering Sea toward Russia. In an attempt to divert attention from plans to attack Midway, Japan captured two American-owned islands at the west end of the chain, Attu and Kiska. It was the first invasion of American soil since 1812.

    Possession of the inhospitable islands had little strategic importance, but the idea that the Japanese had taken a piece of U.S. territory did not sit well with a nervous population wondering whether this was the first step to an invasion of the mainland.

    Victory in the war was by no means certain when the Grunion sailed north in July 1942 into waters peppered with enemy vessels. Weeks earlier, in its second and final attack on American soil, Japanese aircraft had battered Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, the primary U.S. military installation in the Aleutians. The base was just 100 miles from the mainland and 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.

    Blinston and the rest of the Grunion crew likely felt trepidation mixed with exhilaration as they entered the frigid and treacherous waters of the Aleutian Theater. In her first message to Dutch Harbor, the Grunion reported she had sunk three destroyer-type ships on July 15. Japanese records indicate her torpedoes sank two 300-ton patrol boats and damaged a third.

    Four days later, the Grunion, her crew confident after success in its first taste of battle, was ordered to join other Navy vessels in the waters near Kiska, where a large numbers of Japanese ships were congregated. American ships were planning to bombard the island on July 22.

    The bombardment didn’t go off as scheduled, but the Grunion remained near the island for an assault planned six days later. On July 28, the Grunion attacked an enemy ship, firing two torpedoes that missed their target. The Japanese responded with a depth charge that probably shook the crew, but caused no damage.

    On what may have been her last day, July 30, the Grunion noted antisubmarine activity near Kiska, and mentioned that she had 10 torpedoes left. She was ordered back to Dutch Harbor.

    The Grunion failed to return. She was reported lost with all hands on Aug. 16, 1942.

    For the next six decades, the Grunion’s fate remained a mystery. The first inkling of what happened to her came in 2002, when a military officer who had been aboard an armed World War II Japanese freighter, the Kano Maru, wrote an article in an obscure journal.

    In the article, he recalled the Kano Maru’s battle to the death with an American submarine in the Aleutian Islands. The article was translated by a man named Yutaka Iwasaki and was posted on a Web site about the Grunion.

    According to the article, the Kano Maru was drifting in the sea north of Kiska early on July 31 when a torpedo from the Grunion struck her starboard, disabling her engine and generator. Ten minutes later, the Grunion fired a second torpedo that passed below the Kano Maru. Grunion’s third and fourth torpedoes hit the freighter. But both torpedoes were duds.

    The Kano Maru, however, was doomed. The Grunion started to surface about 400 meters from the Japanese ship. Kano Maru gunners fired at the Grunion’s periscope. Before the sub could surface completely, another shot blasted the submarine’s conning tower.

    How long the Grunion’s crew survived after the fatal shot may never be known. If the Navy officially identifies the image on sonar as the Grunion, it will be considered a gravesite and no one will be allowed to enter the tomb.

    Survivors of the Kano Maru were rescued by other Japanese ships in the area.

    The 2002 report from the Kano Maru officer spurred the three sons of Grunion Skipper Mannert Abele to launch a search for their father’s resting place. The Abele brothers, Bruce, Brad and John, spent four years researching before deciding to undertake an expedition to the waters off Kiska. After about two weeks scanning the ocean floor, the sonar image of what may be the Grunion appeared.

    There is lots of information on the Grunion, and on World War II ships generally, on the Internet. Perhaps one of Blinston’s great-grandnieces and grand-nephews will check out one of the sites and get in touch with groups trying to locate relatives of the missing men. I hope so. It would be nice to think he could be rescued from obscurity by a family that would surely be proud of him.

    Wesley Blinston has been an interesting quest for me. I picture him as a quiet, friendly man who wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. He had a technical mind and maybe was bored with employment as a clerk. The war may have seemed a ticket to a more exciting life, and the Navy an opportunity to use his skills.

    His mother got the news sometime in late summer. It appears she left Billings soon after.

    The only reminder of Wesley Blinston’s life in Billings is his name on a list of war dead on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn. Even there, he is given the wrong middle initial.

    Contact Lorna Thackeray at or 657-1314.

    Published on Monday, September 25, 2006

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