July 12, 2020

Navy sword returned to owner’s daughter from Cayman Islands


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Frances TauberA final momento

From Newsleader.com

TALLAHASSEE, FLA — . Frances Wentz Taber said she’s heard of people returning wedding rings many years after they were lost. But Wentz, a Florida resident who recently moved from Staunton, said she never heard of anyone returning a sword.

Until two weeks ago, when a businessman from the Cayman Islands mailed her the military sword that belonged to her father, U.S. Navy Lt. Ned James Wentz — who died at sea 70 years ago.

The sword was salvaged in 1942 from the wreckage of her father’s ship, the USS Erie, shortly after the ship was sunk by a German submarine near Venezuela during World War II. The salvage diver who found the sword, and later his son, spent decades trying to find Wentz’ survivors — before succeeding April 8 when the sword arrived at Taber’s home.

“I had chill bumps,” Taber said. “It was as if my father said, ‘I want to give you one more thing of mine.’ ”

Taber, 72, was only two years old when her father died; her mother died in 1994. Born at a Navy base in the Panama Canal Zone, she was raised in West Virginia and Jacksonville, and graduated from Mary Baldwin College in 1962 with a major in history.

Before she received the sword, mementos of her father consisted of a cache of letters, a couple photos and a few of his childhood possessions.

She was married three times, most memorably for 34 years to her third husband, Robert “Bo” Taber, a mining company executive and real estate developer. She had two children, became a real estate broker and spent 24 years living in Amelia Island.

When Bo Taber turned 90, he told his wife he needed an adventure and wanted to move somewhere else. The couple looked in Florida and throughout the east coast before Frances Taber persuaded her husband to move to the small city she loved as a college undergraduate. They lived in the Old Y Building, and they did not sit still in retirement, she said.

“I know that area. It’s a good spot to launch for day trips,” Taber said. “We covered every back road in Virginia in the five years we were there.”

Two years ago, she and her husband moved to Tallahassee to be close to her two children, son Francis Gibbs, and daughter Elizabeth McAuliffe. Last September, Taber’s husband, 95, died — an unfortunate fact that nonetheless was key to the return of her father’s sword.

“I feel my late husband had a major hand in my having this sword today,” Taber said.

Taber’s father received the sword in 1933 upon graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. Though midshipmen still receive such swords, they are no longer part of their official dress uniform as they were in Wentz’ time. The sword has Wentz’ initials at the hilt and his full name inscribed on the shaft.

The sword has rusted into its leather scabbard. Taber is trying to extricate it with daily doses of WD-40. Kent Eldermire, son of the diver who salvaged the sword, said his family purposely never tried to remove the scabbard.

“We never repaired it because that’s the way my dad found it and we thought that was the way (his family) should get it back,” said Eldermire, a developer and tour company owner in George Town, Grand Cayman.

The USS Erie was officially a patrol gunboat, though it was the size of a Navy destroyer and had a crew of 180 men. It escorted Navy vessels in the Caribbean and patrolled the Panama Canal Zone.

On Nov. 12, 1942, the Erie had just escorted ships to Curacao, a then-Dutch-owned island off the coast of Venezuela, when a German submarine fired a torpedo at the ship. The torpedo tore into the officers’ quarters, killing a Filipino dining steward and six U.S. Navy officers — including Wentz.

The remainder of the 180-man crew managed to swim to shore. But the torpedo caused the ship to sink, blocking the Curacao harbor. The Navy hired a Jamaican rescue vessel to help salvage and remove the vessel.

The senior salvage diver on the Jamaican ship was Enos Eldermire — whose own father had died at sea just before his birth. Eldermire found Lt. Wentz’ sword in the wreckage. Seeing the owner’s name inscribed on the sword, Eldermire attempted to return it to the U.S. Navy without success.

“It was wartime; I assume there was a certain amount of secrecy being practiced,” said Kent Eldermire.

Over the ensuing years, Enos Eldermire made attempts to find Wentz’ family and return the sword. He wrote letters to the U.S. Navy, the Naval Academy and other agencies. No one responded.

“I never asked him why (he tried to return the sword),” said Kent Eldermire. “But knowing his personality, I’m sure he felt that sword belonged to someone’s father and would be a beautiful memento to give back to the family.”

In 1977, Enos Eldermire died. With the arrival of the Internet, Kent Eldermire made sporadic attempts to find the Wentz family, calling people he found named Wentz but not finding the sword’s owner.

Then two months ago, Kent Eldermire had a dream in which he heard the name Ned James Wentz.

“I’m not one of those guys who (believes in) dreams. I can’t answer why that name was in my mind,” Eldermire said. “But after the dream, I tried again (on the Internet).”

This time, Eldermire came across an obituary of Robert “Bo” Taber, who had died in Tallahassee in September. The obit included the full name of Taber’s widow, Frances Wentz Taber. Eldermire called Beggs Funeral Home in Tallahassee and explained the story of the sword and asked the funeral home to contact Frances Taber.

She looked up Eldermire on the Internet, found he was a successful businessman about her age, and decided to contact him.

“I told him, ‘I was not aware of the sword, but everything else you tell me (about the USS Erie) is completely accurate,’ ” Taber said. “I didn’t figure it was a hoax. Nobody could dream this up.”

Within days, Eldermire shipped the tube containing the sword to Taber.

“Now that it’s back in its rightful ownership, we’re just over the moon,” Eldermire said. “Things like this don’t happen in life.”

A friend showed Taber the News Leader article in April in which a Staunton woman received her late husband’s long-lost World War II-era dog tag.

Bo Taber was also a veteran of the war, and Frances Taber believes the country is experiencing more interest in the era because the last of its veterans are dying.

“We feel a lot of nostalgia for that period and for the greatest generation,” she said. “For that reason, I think the story really has universal appeal.”

Experts at Florida Department of State’s conservation lab plan to remove the scabbard and clean the sword, Wentz said.

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