WWII fathers sought — and sometimes found

Monday, July 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

OVERLAND — John Wastle of Scotland has spent eight years and countless hours researching questions about the father he has never met.

The answers, he hopes, are among the millions of military records stored at a division of the National Archives and Records Administration off Page Avenue in Overland.

Wastle hopes to uncover information about his father, who he believes was an American GI.

"This is part of me I know nothing about," said Wastle, 64, who has been reviewing hundreds of Army morning reports on microfilm at the center. "I need to find out about the other half of me, so to speak."

Wastle is among thousands of "war babies" who have used the National Personnel Records Center here to search for their fathers.

Since Nov. 1, 2007, the center has made files of any service person who was discharged 62 or more years ago available to the public.

Each day, a handful of such inquiries arrive at the center, totaling 800 to 1,000 a year. The center is home to more than 57 million military records for veterans. Some are in the 2.3 million cardboard boxes stacked 10 high on shelves across 12 acres of floor space. File cabinets store the microfilm that Wastle hopes will lead him to his father or other relatives.

The records center has helped lead to family reunions for some, including Norma Jean Clarke, 62, of London.

When Clarke was 40, her aunt dropped a bombshell: A GI named Larry was probably her real father.

"It hit me like a sledgehammer, and then my mother wouldn't admit it," Clarke said.

Eventually, Clarke's mother revealed that the soldier's full name was Larry McCloud. He was stationed in France in World War II. While on furlough in England, he met Clarke's mother, who was married at the time.

"I will never really know all the story, but I know that she wrote to him in France to say she thought she was pregnant, but he never replied," Clarke said. She suspects her grandmother may have destroyed her father's letters.

Clarke wrote to the records center in Overland and got information on three Lawrence McClouds. One had returned to the United States in March 1946, as her mother had recalled.

She tracked that McCloud to Weaverville, Calif. When he failed to reply to her letters, Clarke wrote to the county government building in Weaverville. A worker there knew her father and told him that a woman in England was claiming to be his daughter, Clarke said. McCloud responded that she was right, but he didn't know how to break the news to his three other children.

That night, Clarke was awakened by a phone call at midnight. On the line was her half brother Peter. Her seven-year search was over.

"I fell to my knees. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to fling open the front door and run out and scream, 'I found him,'" Clarke said.

Three months later, she and her children met her father.

"He wanted me to call him Dad straight away," she said.

Since then, she has visited California four times and has changed her last name to Clarke McCloud.

Niels Zussblatt is the point man at the Overland center for search requests from across the world. He is somewhat of a hero among war babies searching for their soldier fathers.

"He is an absolutely amazing man who goes to great lengths, beyond his actual remit, I believe, to help people like myself," Wastle said.

So far, Wastle's hunt has been unsuccessful. It doesn't help that a fire in 1973 gutted the center's former top floor and damaged or burned an estimated 16 million files, including many for World War II Army veterans.

But Zussblatt was able to help Pippa Chapman, 64, of England.

Chapman's mother had told her nothing about her father, except that he was an American GI. She located a copy of a ledger from the home where her mother stayed after Chapman's birth. In it was the handwritten name of her father, his unit, company and battalion. Chapman went to the Web site, where someone suggested she contact Zussblatt for military information. He found nothing. Chapman thought her search was hopeless.

But Chapman's case stayed on Zussblatt's mind. He even thought about it on a day off. That's when it came to him. Chapman's father's unit number was written as "290 1st" in the ledger. He suddenly realized that could mean he was in the 291st, not in 290th records where they had been searching.

Chapman's father died in 1964. But Zussblatt's breakthrough led her to three sisters and a brother in the United States.

The connection with her siblings has been "overwhelming in the best way possible," Chapman said.

"I think we are just driven to find our roots and our heritage," she said. "Importantly, I found peace in my heart at my father's grave."

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