Finding Father

One Man's Journey to Discover Paternal Significance

Month: March 2015

Breakthroughs and Connections

allpres-pressofficeI love the film, “All The President’s Men,” which tells the story of Washington Post investigative reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and how they broke the Watergate story in the early 1970’s. One of the fascinating elements of the movie is the amazing way they collected their information. Without the modern methods of internet searching that we have at our disposal today, they did their work the old fashioned way – pouring over hundreds of pages of phone books, scrubbing library card catalogs, and going door to door for interviews.  With rotary phones devoid of speed dial and push buttons, they wore out their index fingers with endless calls to potential leads, and were thrilled with excitement whenever they made a breakthrough. All I had to do was submit my credit card information, and after remitting $19.95, was well on my way to finding information that would have taken Woodward and Bernstein weeks to uncover.

In his investigation, Military Police Investigator Jackie Leach obtained sworn affidavits from four men who last saw my father on that infamous day, Friday December 17, 1965: Company Sergeant Harold Hoard, Platoon Sergeant Charles Clemens, Specialist Four Gerald Whyel, one of my dad’s roommates; and Pfc. Charles Duncan, who was with my father in the hours leading up to his disappearance.

Most of the free search engines on the internet will provide some information on a person for whom one might be seeking;  more specific information can be obtained for a fee. Upon paying for the advanced search, I proceeded to conduct what I thought might be the equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. Such might be the case if one were merely searching for a random name. However, I had a pertinent piece of information on each man that would easily narrow the query – their dates of birth.

I began with the two sergeants, starting with the oldest first. Sgt. Harold Hoard was born in 1925, and at the time I conducted the search, would have been 89 years old. I found a Harold Hoard, and was able to positively identify him with the exact date of his birth. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1982 at the early age of 57.

I was also able to locate the obituary of Sgt. Charles Clemens, the platoon sergeant who loaned my dad money on the day he disappeared. He lived a long 89 years, and passed away in 2011. If only I had begun this search sooner, I may have been able to connect with him.

I moved my attention to the two younger men in the group – Gerald Whyel and Charles Duncan. With Whyel being such a unique name, I thought my chances were good at locating him, and my thoughts proved correct. The search record confirmed his date of birth, and also gave me his address and phone number in his current state of residence – Ohio.

I then searched for Charles Duncan, a little more common name, and one that I was sure would show up multiple times. However, with the DOB being a unique identifier, I was able to find a match less than 100 miles from where I live. Again, I was able to ascertain all the information I needed to make contact with him.

I wrote letters to both of these men, not really knowing what their response might be. About a week later I was driving home from church on a Sunday evening when my phone rang. The display on the phone indicated the caller was from Ohio. My heart began to beat a little faster. I answered the call and began a conversation with one of the men who roomed with my father, Gerald Whyel. He said he was totally shocked to receive my letter and expressed his desire to help me with whatever questions I might have. He confirmed that he was, indeed, stationed at the Dachau Army base in the winter of 1965, and that, although he wasn’t 100 percent sure, he thought he remembered my dad.

The statement that Gerald gave to the military investigators was definitely the shortest of the four. He had stated that the last time he saw my father was shortly before dinner on the evening of Friday December 17. The next morning when he heard that my dad was AWOL, Gerald stated that he thought dad had left out early to come to the states on his furlough.

In our first phone conversation, Gerald said he had distinct memories of a man he referred to as, “Smitty,” and wondered if this might be the man for whom I was looking. Gerald said that Smitty had thick, black hair, as well as some other features that sounded as if it could be my dad. “Smitty, “ however, did not match any part of my dad’s name, aside from the fact that they both started with the letter, “S.” He said he had a picture of the two of them that he had taken when he was in Germany . I asked if he would allow me to send a picture of my dad and call him back later to talk with him further. He agreed, and the next day I called him back to follow up on our first conversation.

Disappointingly, he said that the man in the picture was not the person he remembered as being ‘Smitty.” He said he was having a hard time remembering the man in the picture at all. By that time, I am guessing he had time to think about this peculiar query from his past, because he then asked me, “How did you find out about me?”

It was then that I told him about the dossier, and that I had a sworn statement from him saying that he was a roommate to my father, and that he had seen him the day he disappeared. Gerald struggled to recall and profusely apologized for his inability to do so. He said that in a barrack, a soldier could have several roommates, and that being so long ago, he was sorry he couldn’t place my dad. Besides that, my dad had only been at the Dachau camp for about twenty days. Attempting to remember a twenty day acquaintance some 50 years later proved to be an impossible challenge for him.

Gerald then expressed empathy for my cause and told me that he, too, had a long lost relative he was trying to locate and contact. He said that he had an older sister that his mother had put up for adoption many years ago. He said that his son was helping to locate her, and that he had discovered her name and the town where she had lived. At the time that we talked, he wasn’t sure whether or not she was alive, but he was hoping to find out and possibly reconnect with her.

A warm feeling came over me. Even though the breakthrough with Gerald Wheel wasn’t as productive as I had hoped, a connection had definitely been made. We were on kindred quests, hoping to find out more about our missing loved ones so that we could satisfy our souls and fill in the blanks that were missing in our lives. I thanked Gerald for sharing that with me, and for taking the time to respond to my letter.

I would now turn my attention to the last name on my list – Charles Duncan – to see if he might hold any of the answers to my questions.

Theories and Speculations

theories and speculationsThe journey on which I had embarked began with a simple dream. (See “The Dream, March 31, 2014)  In that dream, my father and I embraced and the words that instinctively rolled off of my tongue were, “I just needed you to put your arms around me and let me know everything would be all right.” In seeking to make things “all right,” I sought answers to the many questions I had concerning my father’s disappearance and death. Obtaining the dossier of official Army documents was a valuable and important occurrence in this process. In the final analysis, the dossier served to give me a concrete timeline of the events surrounding the disappearance and subsequent death of my father, however, it fell far short in providing me with any definite information as to how he died. In the summation of his investigation, Jackie Leach concluded that my father died of accidental drowning and that there was no foul play involved.

After reading the dossier, I began to deal with all the plethora of emotions that came with it. There was a sense of great gratification that came with finally knowing something. While it failed to give me all the answers I wanted, it did fill in many of the blanks. The account of my father’s demise also brought about a great deal of sadness and grief. I realized I had never properly grieved for his death, and this evening would be the start of that process.

In the days that followed, I would look back over the material to see if there was something I might have missed or overlooked. After a while, I compiled the papers and put them into binders, then packed them away in the closet. At that time, I had accepted, with some reservation, Leach’s conclusion that my dad had an accident that caused him to go into the river, and that accidental drowning was the likely cause of his death.

For many years, I held that opinion, despite the fact that there was circumstantial evidence that pointed to possible foul play. It was not until recent years that I began to rethink those earlier opinions and proceed to dig a little deeper into other possible theories.

I had an interesting conversation a few years back with an Hispanic gentleman who had been a career serviceman during the time my dad was in the Army. He listened to my story with great interest and proceeded to give me his personal opinions about what might have happened to him. He quickly arrived at the conclusion that my dad’s disappearance and death were likely the result of foul play. He told me that, given the fact that my dad was new on the base, was somewhat of a loner, and was Hispanic, he probably was branded as an easy target. Racism, the gentlemen said, was very prevalent in the 1960’s, not only against blacks, but also against Mexicans.

My dad was a Mexican-American, born and reared in Cheyenne, Wyoming to two Mexican immigrants. I was born with half of that heritage, but having been born and reared in the deep south, I always had the mentality that I was Caucasian – a “good ol’ southern redneck boy” from the mill villages of Gaston County, NC. The thought that racism may have played a part in my father’s death had not crossed my mind before, but in many ways, made sense to me.

Another good friend in my church also served in the Army for many years. He and I have had several discussions in recent years about what possibly happened to my father, and he concurred with the speculations of the Hispanic gentlemen – that racism could have played a role. However he added a whole new dimension to the story that I would have never considered.

He said that when a serviceman overseas was scheduled to go back home to the states, that usually meant that he would be in possession of a good deal of cash. It was a common practice among the more deviant enlisted men to take that particular soldier to the bar, get him drunk, and then steal the soldier’s money. My friend said that was a common occurrence; and, that he wouldn’t be surprised if that was the fate my father suffered that evening in December, 1965.

These new speculations began to resonate with me and change the way I initially viewed these events. I pulled the dossier out of storage and began to read through the material again, with these new viewpoints and filters in mind. For years, relatives on my dad’s side of the family have believed that foul play was involved. In my visits to Wyoming which I will detail in later posts, some in the family believed he was, indeed, beaten and robbed, and they even said they had heard that some of those missing traveler’s checks had been cashed here in the states. I had not heard that before, and wondered where that story may have originated. I was beginning to doubt the conclusions of the initial investigation, giving more attention to the “foul play” theory, and wondering if there were any leads I might utilize to make that determination.

In the original dossier, I had copies of sworn affidavits from four soldiers who were interviewed by Jackie Leach during his investigation – Charles Clemens, Harold Hoard, Gerald Whyel and Charles Duncan.   As I read through them a couple of years ago, I gave more attention to the details of what they had said, and greater attention to their dates of birth. One was about three years older than my dad,  who was 38 at the time; another was four years younger. Two of them were significantly younger, 18 and 22, which meant, if alive, they would be in their late 60’s and early 70’s.   I began to wonder where these men might be now and whether or not they were alive. And if they were alive, would I be able to locate them, and maybe even personally talk with them.

In 1994, the internet was in its infant stages. Google had not come on the scene yet, and there were really no sophisticated ways to search for individuals. Now, with the internet growing to more than 600 million websites and 2 billion users, my chances of locating these individuals were much better than they would have been. In 1994, I made a bold move to request my father’s service records, and it proved to be a worthwhile endeavor. Now, 20 years later, I would make an even bolder move – to search for the men whose names were on the affidavit, and attempt to make contact with the ones I might find.

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