I 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.