What's In A Name?
There were a lot of us kids in our little town that had different names to our mothers, brother and sisters. No one tells you why, but you know you are 'different'. Just because you are young and small do the adults who speak over your head think you are deaf as well? Comments like: "she looks like her father", "she has the same colouring as her father", "that's a Yank's kid" - I heard that many times, never actually being sure what it meant. Guess I was different somehow?
This man they say I look like, who is he and what was a 'Yank's kid' - I think it must mean I'm something special- I must be something special, and of course my dad was something special as 'they' all talked about me .
Oh, now I know what a 'Yanks kid' is - my dad was an American - so I am special, but nobody says anything to me, no explanation, nothing. The era of don't talk about unpleasant stuff and questions you don't want to answer is in vogue!
I was born in my Aunts house - my cousin had a dad, where was mine ? – but that's OK, my mum and I were together – guess other kids didn't have dads in their family either. Then we moved into a house with a man my mum married and I had 2 older kids to play with. His kids had different names to me – perhaps I would have their name one day. My mother had babies, their last name was different to mine. How come I was the only one with a different surname. As a child I had other things to occupy my mind, so no big deal – whats in a name?
I was different looking to my younger brothers and sisters. I don't look like them, so who do I look like, I used to wonder? If my dad was an American, where was his family – did they know about me, how could they not?
Even as a child you feel and know you are different - I was tolerated by my step father, but never felt fully accepted. I know I came as part of the package when my mother married – she came with 'baggage' and he never let her forget it – how many times did I hear "she's not mine – she can get out- I'm not going to keep her anymore".
All this because I didn't have the same name?
I learned at a young age to keep quiet and out of the way – my mother often gave me little treats, I think it was her way of trying to make up for some of the unpleasant ways that I was treated by my stepfather. For sure I had a roof over my head, food on the table, clothes to wear, holidays - all the family kind of stuff, but I was different I knew – I had a different last name!!
As I got into my teens the questions came more open –"how come your mum has a different name when she signs your school stuff?", "How come your brothers and sisters have a different name to you?" It wasn't a subject you talked about in our house, I never asked my mother, just made up stories, different stories depending on my mood!! But the questions even though they were asked in innocence, made me bristle, and I remember the aggressive stance I took at times, even at this early age – I replied "My dad was an American and he was killed in the war",
I knew inside of me, that he must have been killed in the war or else he would have come back for me and my mum -wouldn't he? And we would all have had the same last name – one that I wouldn't have to keep explaining! Not sure who was more surprised, them at the answer or me at my nerve to say it out loud!
I went for job interviews after leaving school and on filling out the forms that asked about parents I sometimes put 'Father unknown' – such embarrassment, such shame, or I put my step father's name, but that of course led to the ever asked question, how come you have a different name to the rest of your family?
I never wanted to hurt my mother – her life was difficult enough living with such a controlling man, so I never felt I could approach her on the issue of just who I was, what was my real dad like, did I really look like him? Where was his family in all this? Did they know about me? So I went to my Aunt and asked her. She told me that my dad was an American solder that was stationed near by our town, during the war in 1944. All she knew was that his name was John, perhaps in his mid thirties and something to do with tanks. She said my mum had a letter from John's parents in February of '45 ( I was born in April 1945) to say that he had been killed in action at the front, and they had got her address from letters that were in his effects that had been returned to them. They were interested in me and after my birth corresponded with my mum for quite a while. Bingo, I felt great, my dad's family really wanted to know about me!!
"How come...", I asked my aunt, "you don't know more – my mum lived with you, I was born here". She said that that was all she knew. Guess that had to do for now, I thought, but at least I had something. My dad's name was John.!!!!
After my second baby was born I was thinking more and more about who I was, who my father was, and those damn medical forms that wanted your father's medical history – did I lie, did I put down the truth 'unknown' and suffer the stares and shame? I approached my mother about information on my dad and got the stock answer that I had received for the last 40 years -
"I can't remember"
All through my mid life I felt I had let down my own children because they didn't know their heritage and who their other grandparents were. I felt I was a nobody and no-one cared! . My half siblings never even mentioned it - I never knew if they actually cared, weren't interested, or it never came into their mind.
"That's in the past", people would say when I brought up the subject of wanting to know who I was. Family made out they knew nothing, friends would say "No need to go there, it's in the past", everyone embarrassed that I would even bring up such a subject. Didn't I already have a father and brothers and sisters they would say? They didn't understand I was different , I had a different name and I wanted, needed to know who I was. Wasn't I entitled to that?
After my step father died I thought my mother surely would give me information about 'who I was'. She must have letters, pictures or something that she could now show me.. When approached it was “Nothing", "Can't remember", "It was a long time ago” she repeated – the stock answers I had become used to. I went back to my Aunt – she told me the same as she had done 20 years earlier. I found out that no one really want to listen to how I felt about not knowing who I was – how can they understand when they have never been in the same position. "That's in the past they would say" – "Nothing you can do about it now – your mum did her best for you" I know that, but that doesn't answer who I am. One gets deeply disturbed at times with this stranger- your dad- forever being in your thoughts, wasn't his family interested enough in me to keep in touch?.
Again I let the subject drop, but it was never far from my mind or heart – such a void, a part of me empty not knowing just who I was.
A medical event happened in 2001 and yet again the need for family, mother and father information, so I again approached my mother. Even with the need to know for medical purposes, the stock answer came back –“ I wish I could help you dear, it was so long ago, I can't remember!” I was angry at her, how dare she deny any knowledge about my father when it was so important to me. Even tho I poked and prodded her, there was no moving my mother. I think she had just closed her mind to events of the time – she had moved on, so I was expected to go along with it.
2004 and another medical issue arose with my grandson – again family medical information needed – OK I hadn't pushed hard enough for myself, but I was going to get to know who I was for my grandchild if nothing else. I used the carrot approach, the stick approach, then the baseball bat approach with my mother - Bingo! My mother suddenly remembered that his name was John, he came from Illinois, was 32, left the local base in October 1944 and he had a foreign sounding last name. Why could she not have told me this before, years ago, surely she had known? I thought that I had worn her down with my continual questions about who was my dad, so she offered me this little bit of information thinking it would keep me happy but it would be of no use to me in any kind of search,
I searched through the American war memorials to find Johns from Illinois aged 32 that were killed in action, assuming he must be buried overseas. No luck. I surfed the web like a fiend, for sure I would come up with something, anything – but nothing - where do I start, what do I need to know, how do I go about it....
At the suggestion of my daughter I joined an organisation called GITRACE. Their mandate is helping reunite and or find the families of the children born of American GI fathers. I posted information about myself and got help and advice, particularly from a researcher called Sally . I also joined AWON, again with the thought that perhaps ideas may come in to help me in this difficult search – a needle in a haystack.
Can you believe how many John's from Illinois were killed in action? Hundreds !!!!
When I visited the UK in November of 2005 I got permission to visit the Ashchurch base where I knew my dad had been. I thought this may be the nearest I ever get to being near my dad, for sure he walked these pathways. I was overcome with such emotion to think after all these years I was so close, but yet so far away from the dad I never knew, and who's name I didn't even know – his family name should have been or could have been mine !!
I posted messages all over the web, got leads and information on searches from my new family at AWON and from GITRACE. I had one lead about a company that was posted at the base near my home during the right period – June '44, left mid October of '44 – fitted perfectly, could this be the unit my dad was in? Would it really be that easy? I tried to contact the author of an article about the 346th Ordnance Company that was sent to me by an AWON sibling. 2 addresses I obtained, the letters were returned- 'not known at this address' Then, out of the blue a few weeks later I received an e-mail from the man I was trying to contact. He was 86 years old and lived in Texas – fate, god, not sure where he got my e-mail address from, but he said he was in the 346th and he had some interesting stuff, if I would like to read through it – he would put it in the mail. Included in the mail was a list of the solders in the unit – just one John from Illinois – but didn't have a foreign last name. Trauma, disappointment, anger -all those emotions..
I had the service number for this John from Illinois and asked Sally from GI TRACE to just check him out. I had found his enlistment record and he was 32 – but the name wasn't foreign sounding as my mother had insisted it was.
Surprise, surprise – Sally comes back with this John's obituary – and no, he wasn't killed in action – he died in 1973 – guess this wasn't the right John – but wait more interesting stuff that should be followed up she said – his family name was foreign sounding – seems that he may for some reason have changed his last name. Sally found the obits of his brother and parents, and yes he was there – could this be the right man, could this be my dad, was this my other family?
In the meantime my Texas buddy had sent pictures of his unit and pointed out the John from Illinois. Sally found that John had a sister that was still living and suggested a 'fishing' letter be sent, trying to get a photo of this John, that for some reason had different last names.
The letter was sent, and I waited with apprehension – after all this time, this seemed to be so easy and the puzzle was coming together. Despite all the wrong information I had been told and believed for years and I had spent months searching through records – was I getting warmer?
A few days after I mailed the 'fishing' letter, I had an e-mail from John's sister, Clara. She was intrigued and interested, so would put pictures of their John in the mail for me. What a nice lady I thought, how trusting. Little did I know at that time that her daughters had already started putting 2 and 2 together.
The pictures came – I scanned them and e-mailed them for my mother to see. She recognised him right away -that was her John with the foreign sounding name. How could I know for sure when he was known all these years by a different surname. He misled my mother!! Sally from GITRACE suggested I send pictures to a GI TRACE member, Bob who did picture overlays to see if there were facial similarities. So I sent pictures I had from Clara, a picture I got from friend Bobby in Texas and pictures of me when I was 5/6 and a recent one.
In the meantime Clara had included with her letter a picture of herself taken last year – "Spooky" my daughter said, "she looks a lot like you mum" My heart was pumping and each day I sat on the computer for hours waiting for an e-mail to come through. Bob came through in spades – the pictures from the 2 different sources were of the same man – and guess what – the overlays of my dad John and me fitted perfectly – Bob saying he had never had such a perfect match – this was my father !!! Wow – the excitement in my family – could it be true, after all this mis-information and wrong pathways taken in my search, was this possible? Yes, it was. I knew who I looked like, I had a name, who cares if it's foreign sounding!!! I have found my dad!!!! Questions, questions -if he wasn't killed in the war, why did he not come back for me?, Did he ever think of me growing up?, Did he ever think about if he had grandchildren? All questions that went through my mind – I will never know the answer, but I can go forward with what I have knowing who I am, who I look like and my new family.
I contacted my new Aunt Clara with the information – it was a shock for her as she said she didn't know her brother John that well, being so much younger than him, but her daughters had already worked it out and they were so excited about their new family member coming out of the woodwork so to speak.
I am in contact with my new side of the family, my Aunt Clara and cousins Pat and Sharon and they are already making plans for us to get together later this year. What a warm and secure feeling. Now I do feel like a whole person, I know who I am, my heritage, my background, my medical history, but most of all I know what my real name should be..
Daughter of S/Sergent John Chermack-Powell
9th US Army, 346 Ordnance Company
passed away never knowing his daughter or grandchildren in 1973.
The reunion with her dad's family took place when Lesley and her husband went to Joliet, Illinois in June. The family were so welcoming and thrilled that Lesley had worked so hard so find them - it made Lesley truly feel that she had come home! They went to her dad's grave which was very emotional, but she did feel that he knew she was there. Her new cousin Patty and her husband will be visiting Lesley in Canada in September. They all say now that Lesley has found them, they will never let her go!! How lucky I was.
Lesley would like to send special thanks to Sally and her new friend Bobby (86) from Texas who's son was surfing the web and found one of the many messages she had left on one of the many message boards of US units, army, legion boards, that helped bring the puzzle together !!!