Mystery Solved: A 54-Year-Old Letter Returned to Sender


 It’s like a letter in a bottle story, except this one, was found in a book. Through a kind gesture and quick connections made on social media, a 54-year-old letter from a Marine to his Aunt, is about to be returned to its sender.

Gilberto Luina Jr. recently found a surprise inside a book he picked up at a thrift shop 15 years ago. His wife and sister had worked at Housing Works Thrift Shop on East 17th Street in Manhattan and contacted him when a book came in about old Rockaway. “They thought of me and I paid $5 for the book and brought it home. It was in a plastic cover and I never opened it,” Luina said. For 15 years, he left it alone until boredom and curiosity recently struck. “I opened it up and was going through the pages and there was an envelope. I looked at it and realized it was addressed to someone in Rockaway and thought wow, what a coincidence,” he said.

The envelope, sent by Lance Corporal T Johnston, a U.S. Marine, was addressed to a Mrs. R Schaefer of Beach 125th Street. The envelope was postmarked March 1966. Out of respect for privacy, Luina didn’t open and read its contents. “It was an old letter and coming from military personnel, I figured they’d want to keep that private,” he said.

However, he did want to find its owners. “I thought it would be nice to return this letter to the family,” he said. So he took to Facebook, turning to the Friends of Rockaway Beach page with 31,500 followers, in hopes of someone recognizing the names. On Sunday, December 27, he posted a photo of the envelope with a message saying he hoped to return the 54-year-old letter. The post was shared more than 50 times and had over 100 comments in response, but what he did not expect was how quickly a connection would be made. By the third response, someone recognized the names and tagged Michael Light, who reached out to his Uncle Tommy to see if he had an inkling about it. Uncle Tommy turned out to be the sender—Thomas Johnston. 

Johnston, a born and raised Rockaway man, now living in Florida, was surprised to get the call. When Johnston initially heard about the letter he had sent being found, he thought the U.S. Postal Service had failed to deliver and it had arrived five decades later. “My initial thought was, why didn’t my aunt receive it?” he said. After all, the intended recipient, his Aunt Regina Schaefer, died in the ‘90s. "Here I am blaming the post office, in my mind thinking it was 54 years late.” Johnston said. That is, until he heard about its origin of being found in a book and he realized this ordeal was story-worthy itself. “This is something you would read about in a book or magazine, like those instances where someone found a message in a bottle sent 100 years ago. It’s really funny,” Johnston said.

After a connection was made with Light and Tommy’s sister, Regina Johnston Ronayne, Luina made arrangements with the family to return the letter to them the following day. But he didn’t have to go far. Luina was asked to meet up with Ronayne at her building in Dayton Towers, where he worked. On Monday, December 28, Luina met with Ronayne and Light, to reunite them with a piece of their family history. “I’m very glad that I got it back to the family and I met with them. They’re wonderful people,” Luina said. “They couldn’t believe it, after 54 years that they had this letter in their possession. Both of them were afraid to open it to read it.”

The contents of the letter remain a mystery, even to its writer. But he has a few guesses. Johnston, who served in the U.S. Marines from 1963 to 1967, says he was serving in Morocco in Africa, rather than in Vietnam at the time he wrote the letter. When Johnston had been in training in North Carolina, his Commanding Officer Jimmy Knapp happened to be the brother of a guy he grew up with, Frankie Knapp. “Jimmy called me and said, no friend of mine is going to Vietnam,” Johnston recalled. In Morocco, Johnston was safe from combat, but he believes the letter could be related to losing someone else. “My grandmother died in 1966. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m assuming that maybe it was about me sending condolences to my aunt after grandma died,” Johnston said.

However, he’ll find out for sure soon. On January 7, Ronayne plans to travel to Florida to see her brother and will be carrying the precious cargo of the letter. “I told her to mail it to me, but she insisted on bringing it. It’s been 54 years, I can wait a couple more days to read it,” Johnston said.

Sometime in the future, Johnston hopes to meet the man who thought to find the letter’s owner. “I have rocks in my head but sand in my shoes and every year, with the exception of last summer, I come back to Rockaway,” Johnston said. “If I can get back there, I’m going to look this gentleman up and give him a big hug if we’re allowed, and a bottle of whatever he likes. He could’ve thrown that letter away, but he didn’t, and he deserves something for it.”

After meeting with the family, Luina says he’s glad he made the effort to find the letter’s owner. “I feel great,” he said. “I did the right thing.” He also credits the community members of the Friends of Rockaway Beach page for helping. “Everything worked out beautifully. The whole community came together and if it wasn’t for the Friends of Rockaway, I would’ve never found the owners,” Luina said. “For all the of the problems going on this year with this pandemic, it was nice to see something positive.”