Wartime babies: Filling in the missing pieces

By Andrew Stone

Research into the children of Pacific women and wartime US servicemen has led to emotional reunions.

Last month, American Michael Burke received a book by New Zealand historians in the mail at his California home.

Leafing through the chapters, he stopped on page 179. There, in black and white, was a picture of the infant Michael in the arms of his 18-year-old mother Eleanor. The scene was captured in 1943 on Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. Eleanor is standing beside the open door of a World War II US Navy truck.

"I got very emotional," Burke remarked about seeing the memento of his childhood in a history packed with poignant accounts of war babies.

Just after the picture was taken, Burke's father, Melvin, who was serving in the United States Navy, arranged to adopt his baby son. But it didn't happen immediately and the little boy stayed in Tonga with his mother and a new stepfather.

Mike Gaeng, with a  picture of his US Marine father Kenneth Gaeng. Photo / Alan Gibson
Mike Gaeng, with a picture of his US Marine father Kenneth Gaeng. Photo / Alan Gibson

A little later they moved to Fiji until December 1947, when 4-year-old Michael was put on a plane to America, where his father was waiting. That was the last he saw of his birth mother for six decades until he reconnected with her - and a set of half-siblings - in Auckland.

Researchers with an Otago University oral history project arranged for the reunion in 2013.

Burke, who lives in Fremont, across the water from San Francisco, said meeting his mother after so many years "opened up a whole new chapter in my life". The former railway engineer says he suffered as a young man from separation anxiety

"I had a lot of nightmares. I was pretty confused as a child," Burke said. He says he was told he was born in California and when he asked about his childhood he was told it was "just all dreams".

His troubles remained until, in his early 20s, he learned the family who raised him were not all his real family.

Burke is one of at least 4000 indigenous offspring of US servicemen - posted to military bases across the Pacific - left behind after the war. The lives of some of those war babies and their mothers - for the most part absent and ignored in narratives about the conflict and its aftermath - unfold in Mothers' Darlings of the South Pacific, an absorbing human history full of love, loss and grief.

A snapshot of one of the dances held at the Auckland Town Hall, for men from the visiting United States naval squadron in 1941. Photo / NZH Archive
A snapshot of one of the dances held at the Auckland Town Hall, for men from the visiting United States naval squadron in 1941. Photo / NZH Archive

Burke's story, unlike that of many wartime babies, had a happy ending.

His mother Eleanor, now 90, lives in Auckland and Burke experienced a joyful reunion with her three years ago, meeting his six half-siblings.

His history is unusual in that he was raised in the US. Many indigenous children never met their father and had to cope with rejection, family shame and abandonment within their own community.

Historian Judith Bennett, chief investigator of the Otago project, is full of praise for individuals such as Burke and Mike Gaeng, of Matamata, who talked openly to researchers.

"Those who came forward were those who wanted to talk, to share and to learn," Bennett said.

"Some spoke in detail to me and asked not to be discussed because of others in the adopted family and I have respected that. We all have a right to speak but we also have a right to remain silent. Our aim was to do no harm, as is required ethically."

Mike Gaeng's father was in New Zealand for just five days during the war. His mother, Ina Hohaia, a single Maori woman from Taranaki, had a fleeting romance with US Marine Kenneth Gaeng in July 1943 and gave birth to triplets. Ina struggled with her boys, and they went into foster care.

Says Gaeng: "We were kicked from pillar to post. My memories as a boy are pretty damned horrific."

The idea of finding his dad never left him. Gaeng followed his father into the military, and passed the gruelling SAS selection trial.

He used his service connections to trace a family thread, but letters he sent to the US failed to shed any light on the fate of his father. In desperation he altered the spelling of his surname. Growing up, the brothers had written their surname as 'Geange'. For one last roll of the dice, Gaeng suggested to the US military records centre that they try another spelling.

A letter did come back but Gaeng felt it would be another dead end. His wife Glennis opened the envelope and out fell a small archive photo.

"It was a king hit," Gaeng recalled. " For the first time I my life I got to see my dad."

Swept away by emotion, the couple wept as they pored over the details of Sgt Gaeng's US military service, which included his last known address.

Mike Gaeng, right, with his brothers, John, left, and Graham. Photo / Supplied
Mike Gaeng, right, with his brothers, John, left, and Graham. Photo / Supplied

That night, in September 1999, Mike Gaeng called the States, and persuaded the operator to give him the unlisted number in St Louis.

Then he made what he considers the most important call of his life. He has never forgotten the details. "I got this American voice and I said 'Is this Kenneth Joseph Gaeng's home?' Yes. 'Was he born on March 22, 1922?' Yes.'Is your mother Rosemary?' Yes. 'I'm not sure how to put this but your father is also my father'."

The joy at finding his kith and kin half a world away was tinged with sadness when he learned his father had died six years earlier. But he was determined to meet his half-siblings, and made the journey to Missouri with his surviving brother, John. The family he had never met unfurled a banner at the airport which proudly declared "Welcome home brothers".

"I was a bag of nerves," Gaeng admitted. "I broke down and cried when we arrived. To physically see them and touch them - it blew me away."

Arthur Beren, now retired in Kerikeri, spent years searching without success for his father, a supply corps officer posted to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Beren, born in 1946, never saw his dad - Arthur snr - who returned to the US before his Cook Island sweetheart gave birth. But Arthur snr did not forget his firstborn, sending money to Beren's mother 17-year-old mother, Mere, until her relatives began to make excessive demands. As the years rolled by, Beren tried to discover his dad's fate, believing he had died in the Korean War. He knew he had a US father - he just didn't know where to find him.

In his paternal quest, Beren said he encountered a lot of obstacles. Within the US system he had been classified "Asian" which he believed counted against him. He felt American officials suspected people wanting to contact relatives were after compensation.

"I made it very clear when I wrote to them that I wasn't chasing money - I just wanted to find my father."

He followed a lead to a San Francisco shoeshop owner with the surname Beren, and was told that one line of the family had moved to Michigan.

Michael Burke in his mother Eleanor Jenning 's arms in Tonga 1943. Photo / Supplied
Michael Burke in his mother Eleanor Jenning 's arms in Tonga 1943. Photo / Supplied

He dialled a number in the midwest state a few times, but never could press the last digit.

"What was I going to say? It couldn't be my dad because he died in Korea, didn't he."

Six years ago Beren got in touch with the Otago project. Marsa Dodson, one of the researchers, offered to make the call for him.

"She rang and they said they had been waiting for this phone call for a long, long time. If I'd made the call 20 years earlier I could have talked to my father."

Even then his siblings trod carefully. Identity fraud was rife at the time, and each half-sister asked him questions about his mother and asked him to send photographs.

Since the initial contact, Beren has been with two half-sisters to his Aitutaki birthplace. The homecoming Cook Islander says he was astonished that many elderly villagers recognised him. With his siblings, Beren walked down the airstrip their father helped build in the war, tears streaming down their faces. "You walk just like dad," they told him.

Bennett said as a Pacific historian, the focus on indigenous Pacific women was deliberate.

"There is certainly another project to look at Pakeha, but that is for others to do."

The Dunedin academic says it is understandable why so few fathers returned after the war to find their children. For a start, getting back to the Pacific was costly. Racism in the US meant relationships with indigenous women were unwelcome. Immigration rules at the time blocked non-white women entering America. And, of course, some of the servicemen already had wives or girlfriends.

As the project showed, despite these obstacles many war babies yearned to know about the missing piece - a father - in their lives.

Everyone has a family, Bennett says, and "all of us need to know who we are and who our parents were. We are hard-wired to family and need one to be fully human, even if it is an adopted one."

Mothers' Darlings of the South Pacific, edited by Judith A. Bennett and Angela Wanhalla (Otago University Press, $45)

Searching sons and daughters face an onerous task

A snapshot of one of the dances held at the Auckland Town Hall, for men from the visiting United States naval squadron in 1941. Photo / NZH Archive
A snapshot of one of the dances held at the Auckland Town Hall, for men from the visiting United States naval squadron in 1941. Photo / NZH Archive

Families looking for a World War II American serviceman face daunting obstacles when hunting around in US military records.

The authors of Mothers' Darlings caution that the task can be lengthy, despite the amount of material available through the internet. They also say, however, that the sheer amount of information available online makes the task much easier.

The Otago project has a website which includes resources for tracking down veterans, of whom some two million were stationed in the Pacific. New Zealand hosted about 100,000 servicemen. The site links to US military records, databases, registers and even a gravesite locator. There are suggestions for accessing New Zealand and Pacific archives.

The history team suggests the subscription site Ancestry.com can be a valuable starting point, but say it works best with as much detail about the veteran as possible. Besides online tools, the researchers say genealogical societies can help, along with US family search groups.

For more see otago.ac.us/usfathers

- NZ Herald

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