British War Babies Seek Their Yankee Fathers
Shirley McGlade used to stare at D-Day footage, scanning the uniformed masses for a face that looked like hers.
As a child, she carried a wallet-sized photo of American film star Jeff Chandler, telling friends it was her father. As a grown woman, she followed American tourists around Stratford-upon-Avon, eavesdropping in case they happened to mention their names.
In 1986, the void was filled: After a 14-year search, she found her father--a GI who had been stationed in England to train for the Allies’ 1944 invasion of France.
“He could have been a tramp living under the Brooklyn Bridge and I wouldn’t have cared,” McGlade says, exhibiting the humor that--along with rheumatoid arthritis and a hatred of tea--she now knows she shares with his family. “I needed to find an identity; half of me was missing.”
As the founder of the Birmingham-based War Babes, McGlade is helping fiftysomethings like herself find their American fathers.
No one knows how many babies were born of wartime affairs that ended with the American fathers shipping out from Britain. Estimates range from 10,000 to 100,000.
After learning the truth--sometimes in mothers’ deathbed revelations or letters found tucked away in boxes--about 1,100 GI babies have successfully used War Babes and the Transatlantic Children’s Enterprise, or TRACE, over the last two decades to help search for their fathers.
From a cramped guest bedroom in the former carriage house that functions as her headquarters in Surbiton, south of London, TRACE founder Pamela Winfield produces two plastic containers overflowing with scraps of paper. Her goal is for the “successes” box to be more stuffed than the “ongoing” one.
“I’m like their mothers,” she says of the advice she gives the hundreds of members who pay a one-time fee of 10 pounds, about $15. “Often they don’t listen to me because children don’t like to listen to their mothers, even in their 50s.”
The members who do listen are usually directed to the U.S. military personnel records office and a retired U.S. Army officer working with TRACE.
In the late 1980s, McGlade sued the U.S. government’s National Personnel Records Center and the Department of Defense, contending that their failure to provide identifying information on GI fathers violated the Freedom of Information Act. In 1990, the center agreed to release the city, state and date of residency from living veterans’ address records and the entire addresses of deceased GIs.
And then there’s the Internet, which was unavailable when the two organizations began in the 1980s. It resulted in the shortest TRACE search to date: two hours.
Winfield tells the story of the GI babies in three books, the latest of which--"Melancholy Baby: The Unplanned Consequences of the GIs’ Arrival in Europe for World War II,” published this summer--tries to allay fathers’ fears that their children’s searches might be motivated by money. The impetus is emotional, she says.
That’s backed up by the story of Norma Jean Clarke-McCloud of Enfield, north London, who found her father and his family in 1993 after a seven-year search.
“The last thing I wanted to do was hurt any of them,” Clarke-McCloud says. “But you need to know the other half of your genetic makeup.”
She remembers fearing that her two children would feel rejected if her father rejected her. Minutes before meeting him, after flying 11 hours across the ocean, she almost turned back.
“I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ I thought, ‘I don’t know this man and I’m supposed to stay at his house?’ ”
But it worked out better than Clarke-McCloud could have hoped--and she has even unofficially taken on his last name.
“If you want a daughter, she’s what you would want,” says her father, Lawrence McCloud of Lake Shasta, Calif. “She was everything that anybody could ask for, in every way. She was outgoing. She was a loving person. She was beautiful. You name it, and Norma Jean had it.”
It doesn’t always work out so well.
Many GI babies were reared as younger siblings or as the children of the mothers’ marriages to other men to avoid being scorned by neighbors as “Yankee leftovers.” But others--like James O’Driscoll, born to an Air Force serviceman in 1961--were put up for adoption.
O’Driscoll, one of the small group of TRACE members not conceived in wartime, says the birth mother he found will not share details about his father or allow contact with her family, for fear that her husband will learn she had a child out of wedlock.
“I’ve got a sister 45 minutes away from me and I can’t knock on her door,” he says. “It breaks my heart.”
And his father? “All I can do is look in the mirror and think he might look like me,” O’Driscoll says.
But O’Driscoll says he has found another form of family--his fellow searchers. He remembers entering a gathering of GI offspring where he knew no one but felt an instant bond.
“There’s a lot of warmth there--warmth and understanding,” he says, searching for the words to convey the sentiment. “You’ve got to be one to understand one.”
The successful searchers, no longer melancholy and no longer babies, say they find some surprising results when they meet their fathers, such as the woman in London’s high society who discovered a love for the hunting and fishing life her American father led.
Shirley McGlade at first had trouble letting go of the movie star image she had created of her father. But she learned that reality could be pretty nice.
“Before I found him, he was perfect, ideal,” she recalls. “When I met him, I had to bring him off his pedestal and realize he was just like us. I couldn’t believe that he was real and was swallowing food and had hairs on his chest and made noise when he walked. The first few days I couldn’t stop watching him walk, sit down, read and eat.”
On the Net, U.S. Embassy’s missing persons page: