The following is a true account of my family’s complicated recent history. The search for my paternal grandfather, an American WWII soldier, has spanned over six decades, covering four countries. Many of those involved and affected by the events related below are no longer alive, but their actions and decisions still affect my family today.
In order to understand and appreciate my grandfather’s personal story, one must first meet my dad. For you see, my dadnever met his father; in fact, he grew up without knowing what he looked like, or what his full name was, where exactly he came from, what his profession was, or even whether he was alive or dead. There were no letters, no photographs and no memories to draw from. For most of his life (and mine), my paternal grandfather was a figure of mystery, a total blank, a question mark on my family tree which no one had been able to or even dared tackle for sixty years.
My father was born at the end of 1945 in Gloucestershire, a rural county in the south-west of England. In the years to come, for someone with an appetite for knowledge like my father, life there became claustrophobically dull, and the poverty faced by his family in post-war Britain made each day a struggle. Poverty was not the only challenge my father had to face: even in 1950’s Britain, being born illegitimate (especially to a woman of limited economic means) could and did mean social ostracism and financial damnation.
A War-time Romance
My dad may not have met his father, but he was raised with his mother. My grandmother, Elizabeth (known to her closest acquaintances as Betty), had been brought up in a small village up in the Malvern Hills; she belonged to a respectable, working class family; her father owned several properties in the area, a fact which helped them secure the family’s well-being and local social standing.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939, twenty-two year-old Betty (perhaps to escape the drudgery of a life in service) decided to marry a Canadian-born British aircraft engineer called James Arthur Smith. James Arthur, a Roman Catholic, came from a middle-class, respectable family with roots in Lincolnshire and Herefordshire.
After the wedding, the couple moved to the outskirts of Gloucester, and had two children (my aunt and uncle) in quick succession. James Arthur’s job allowed him to live a comfortable existence in the company of his wife and children, but family lore leads me to believe that it was not the happy family life which Betty had expected. Perhaps the solitary existence of suburban life bored her, as the war work would have kept her husband away from home for hours on end; maybe she did not find motherhood all that fulfilling; or perhaps she was simply not satisfied with the decision she had made, at just twenty-two years of age.
Whatever the case, the marriage was to be short-lived, as James Arthur contracted tuberculosis and died aged twenty-eight, only four years after the wedding; Betty, being two years younger, was left a very young widow with two small children to care for, and with little experience of looking after herself, let alone a young family.
But despite the challenges, the uncertainty and the shortages of war, as well as the loneliness and privations of widowhood, Betty was soon to find a new zest for life. In 1943 huge numbers of American soldiers began arriving in England to prepare for the invasion of Nazi-occupied mainland Europe. Plain but moderately good-looking, and with the benefit of youth still on her side, Betty -who loved dancing- probably cut an attractive figure to the somewhat preying eyes of the many American GIs who had been stationed in the area. Just about a year after losing her husband, Betty met an American soldier -a man who would change her life- and the two struck up a passionate affair.
In early 1945, mother-of-two Betty realised that she was pregnant for the third time in her life, only this time there was no husband by her side who could support her. She coud not hide the fact that she was pregnant, nor could she pretend that the baby was her late husband’s. It became clear that, unless she and the American GI married, the child would be born illegitimate (an antiquated term, like base-born or bastard, used to designate children born to unmarried parents). Even at the time, the stigma of illegitimacy was immense, so much so that a cousin of Betty’s (who had also become pregnant at roughly the same time and in very similar circumstances) decided to (illegally) have an abortion, according to a story which has only recently been shared with me.
What thoughts must have gone through Betty’s mind at the time one can only dare to imagine. I have heard it said that she used to claim that the American GI was the love of her life. Personally I am not totally convinced by this explanation, and I beg to differ from her romanticised vision of her love affair, in light of the events that unfolded during the year 1945 and after.
In any case, and whatever the true nature of their mutual feelings, my research has shown me that the soldier’s Unit was moved from that part of the country to London in March 1945 – in other words, very shortly after Betty could have discovered that she was expecting, and just within weeks of the end of the war. This begs the question whether she even informed the man of her state, or whether they met at a later date to discuss a possible future together. By all accounts, the soldier was well aware that his girlfriend was carrying his baby by the time he left Europe.
For his part, we can only guess at what the American would have felt as events unfolded. On the one hand, he may well have been genuinely fond of Betty, and may have been happy at the prospect of becoming a father in his own right, but we should remember that Betty had two children from her previous, short-lived marriage to James Arthur Smith, children whom at best he would have only known superficially. Would he now, in the span of a few months, become father of not one, but three children? What would his superiors think of his conduct? And what of his own family back home in America?
Whatever the case may have been, the GI was not free to move about at his leisure or make any decision as to his own immediate future. By July 1945 (with war in Europe now finally over) the Unit to which he was attached was moved north, to the Scottish port of Gourock, where he and several other thousands boarded the Queen Mary. Five days later, he arrived in New York, never again to see Betty or their unborn child again.
Betty gave birth to my dad less than three months later. Having no father present, his birth was recorded under his mother’s married name, but the space assigned to the father’s name was left blank. Thus, my father was registered as a Smith, despite having no legal or biological link to his mother’s husband, James Arthur Smith.
My father’s childhood memories are mixed with emotions about being singled out by relatives, for unknown reasons to him at the time, and being displaced or hidden whenever visitors came to the house. We should not forget that being illegitimate was considered akin to sin and depravation. Poverty was also rife in post-war England, and my grandmother’s house, subjected to Betty’s additional carelessness and personal frivolities, made daily life very difficult for the children.
The Post-War Years
For years the subject of the American GI was not mentioned in my grandmother’s household. As my dad grew up, his curiosity was piqued by the need to know who his father really was. Unfortunately, Betty’s usual response was to sob and avoid the topic at all cost. The whole matter was left dormant for the best part of the next three decades.
Strangely, a half-torn letter addressed to my grandmother, which we found years ago amongst her possessions, clearly proves that on at least one occasion Betty did try to contact her son’s father via the American Red Cross. The sender of the letter, whoever it may have been, writes of their continued efforts to track the GI down, but offer Betty little more than prayers and words of comfort, and not many clues about his existence or whereabouts. From that day on, the American soldier would become a figment of the past.
In 1948, three years after the episode above took place, Betty once again found herself pregnant, this time by a local Gloucestershire man of whom I know little else other than his name, Leonard Parsons. A boy, my uncle, was born that same year and, once again, given Smith as a surname. Betty’s previous experiences, as well as the social convention of the day, appear to have done little to deter or to educate her in the way of family planning and contemporary “moral” conduct. She was, very probably, deeply unhappy with her own existence, but unfortunately did not or could not do much to remedy her personal situation. Having only worked, albeit very briefly, during her late teenage years, after which she was whisked off into an early marriage and into a suitably comfortable existence, where she had little reason to work or to administer her husband’s earnings, she was wholly unprepared for being alone to fend for herself. Now that the situation had changed dramatically, she found herself helpless and caring for three small children aged between six and one, plus another who, due to health reasons, had been sent to live with her parents up in the Malvern hills.
There was more to come. At the start of the 1950’s Betty had begun a somewhat intermittent affair with a single, newly-arrived Lithuanian refugee. This heavy-accented man, called Domininkas Velicka (known to his friends as Domas), worked as a coach engineer in Gloucester, and appears to have become something of a father figure, at least momentarily, to Betty’s elder children during those brief months. By late 1952 a son was born, followed by a daughter three-and-a-half years later. Both of them were given the surname Smith, as had happened in the case of her elder children.
In little over twelve years, Betty had given birth to six children born from her relationships with four different men. By the mid-1950’s the relationship with the Lithuanian man was essentially over, and other men, whom she referred to as “uncles” in the presence of her children, came by the house with uncomfortable frequency. My father remembers those as the bleakest years of his life, not necessarily because of his mother’s conduct, but because of the dire poverty he and his siblings had to endure while Betty found time and ways to go out to dances and indulge herself at her young family’s expense. When the time came for my dad, going to university was essentially the only means of escape, and so he moved to London in the 60’s, thus beginning what could be described as the start of a new chapter in his life.
The search for the American GI
Fast-forward a couple of decades and my father, by then living in Spain, found himself married and with two sons of his own. Occasionally he would tell me snippets of his family history, but was cautious as to how he would explain each little detail so as to avoid offending anyone (my grandmother, being alive at the time, was always very tender towards me, and I felt genuine affection for the woman who, unbeknown to me, had led such an unconventional and troubled existence). It was not until I reached my teens that I started asking more “complicated” questions. For instance, I always knew that the unmarried Irishman who lived with my grandmother during my youth was not my biological grandfather, but he was the closest thing I ever had to a grandfather, and one of the best men that ever drew breath.
Slowly, over the years my dad started to unravel, and shared with me the few facts he new about his father. He told me that my grandfather was actually from New York, and that he had Italian roots. He also said that for decades Betty had not mentioned the soldier, until one day, seeing me playing as a toddler, she whispered to my father: “The boy looks exactly like your father“. After that, approaching her about my grandfather became a bit easier for my father, or at least less emotional.
Betty also told my dad she seemed to remember the GI had a sister in America, and that despite all her efforts after the war, Betty had never succeeded in contacting him or his relatives. As my grandfather had vanished in 1945, needless to say we did not know whether he had married or fathered other children after the war, or even whether he was dead or alive. One thing that my father did manage to get out of his mother was the GI’s name and address, which bizarrely she had written on a piece of paper which she carried in her purse at all times: Peter Amelio, 412 W 39th Street, New York City. It was not conclusive, but it was undeniably a massive piece of evidence.
When my grandmother had first tried to contact her son’s father shortly after the war, she was faced with a huge brick-wall, as the Red Cross and the United States authorities were unable to disclose any information about their GIs. It was thanks to the Freedom of Information Act passed by Congress during the 60’s, and the arrival of the Internet some years later, that we were able to overcome these obstacles and try to find out more about my biological grandfather. In the early 2000’s my dad took the initiative, and contacted a website called “GI Trace” (http://www.gitrace.org/), where he shared the few details he had to go on about his biological father. Some months, and several e-mails later, he got a message with several attachments relating to the man he had been looking for for over six decades.
The file contained a batch of documents with personal information about my grandfather. The sender of the e-mail informed us that, although there was no record of a Peter Amelio who matched our criteria, a file relating to a Peter Ameglio seemed to hit the mark. The coincidence of address in his mobilisation record (412 W 39th Street, Manhattan) dispelled any doubts we may have had: my dad had finally found his father.
The documents my dad now beheld gave us my grandfather’s date of birth, his profession (he worked as a butcher!) and, unfortunately, his date and place of death: 15 January 1981, Albany, New York. Sadly, and very poignantly, my dad’s quest to find his own father had been left too late. Interestingly, though, we were able to corroborate that my grandfather had never been married, and had spent his last days in a nursing home in the State of New York. The sting was that, as a consequence of not having any descendants, there seemed little else to go on, and our hopes to see a photograph of my grandfather seemed dashed forever.
The Truth Will Out
Fortunately, my interest in family history was by then firmly rooted, and I asked my dad to buy me a subscription to Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.co.uk/), a well-known genealogy website. Considering the few clues we had to go on, we were amazed at the number of details we were able to learn from records as we delved deeper into the collections. The first real point of interest was the 1930 census, where my grandfather Peter was recorded living, as a young teenager, with his father Giacomo (aka Jack) and the latter’s second wife Antonietta, both of whom were Italian migrants. That and other documents (most notably passenger lists) allowed us to piece together the first years of Peter’s young life. Following his own mother’s death in 1920, Peter had been sent to his father’s hometown in Italy, and there he had remained for a good many years in the company of his grandmother, Margherita Leva, until he was called back to America when Jack decided to remarry. We also learned that Jack was originally from a place called Mombaruzzo, a small town in Piedmont, in the north-west of Italy. This family had certainly gone a long way since my great-grandfather left Mombaruzzo a century ago…
It was not long after that my dad and I decided to make a trip to Italy and visit Mombaruzzo, the place where my great-grandfather had been born, and where his son Peter, who later joined the US army, spent several years during his youth. We decided to stay in a rather swanky, refurbished villa-turned-hotel just on the edge of Casalotto, a hamlet of Mombaruzzo. One evening, an Englishman, who happened to run the hotel, asked us as to the purpose of our visit, and my father told him about our quest to find out more about the Ameglios and the Levas. Curiously, the man said, the next-door neighbour’s surname was Leva, the same name as Peter’s grandmother. We couldn’t believe the coincidence, and asked if he may introduce us. Later that evening we went back to the hotel to meet a man and a woman with whom I communicated in my pigeon Italian. It did not take us long to realise that they were our second cousins!
Luigi and Luisella, as these two new cousins are called, told us a bit more about the family we had never known, and helped us piece together the missing branches of my Italian family tree. Unfortunately, they were not even aware that a cousin had emigrated to America, and they were too young to have even met my grandfather during his years in Mombaruzzo. Once again, our hopes to find out more about my grandfather, or even see a picture of him, were dashed, but at least we took away a few more branches to add to the family tree.
Some years went by and my search for Italian ancestors seemed to progress painfully slowly. My grandfather, having died unmarried, seemed to be the end of the line, and without anyone who knew him to ask questions, our research went dormant.
It was not until some time later, over the Christmas period, that my dad began looking at family records on the same website where I had dug up the census and the passenger lists. He found an additional document which showed the 1938 application for naturalisation for Antonietta Ameglio, Jack’s second wife and my grandfather’s stepmother. Upon closer inspection, my dad found a piece of information which probably made his heart skip a beat: there it was, in black and white, Rita – Jack and Antonietta’s daughter, and my grandfather’s half-sister. My grandmother’s recollection of the GI having a sister back home was not far from accurate!
I soon got in touch with a distant cousin of mine in England who, like me, takes an interest in family history. I told her of our recent discovery, and asked her to help me in tracing this woman (who by now, if alive, would have been in her early 80’s), and of whom I only knew her maiden name and her date of birth. My prayers were answered when she got back to me a few days later, saying that she had found one possible match: the woman in question had since married and changed her name, but was still living in the state of New York. She added a telephone number and an address, and told me she had taken the liberty of contacting the lady to “pave the way” for our phone call and to make doubly sure that she was, indeed, my father’s aunt.
My father plucked up the courage, and dialled the long list of digits. An elderly voice picked up on the other end of the line, thousands of miles away. He asked a few simple questions, the answers to which confirmed that she was Jack’s daughter and Peter’s half-sister. It was, needless to say, a very emotional moment for my father, this being the first and only time he had spoken to anyone on that side of the family who had actually known his father. The conversation drifted into a heartfelt exchange of words, on how Rita had always wanted to find out more about the boy she knew her half-brother had fathered during the war. She told my dad of how Jack and Antonietta had been disappointed at the fact that young Peter had not taken responsibility of the child’s well-being, and in vain pressured him to contact Betty. Perhaps the most touching part of the phone conversation between Rita and my dad came when she very kindly told him that he could address her as “Aunty Rita”, and she agreed to send him a letter.
A few weeks went by, which must have seemed eternal, and then, at long last, my dad received an envelope from New York. It contained a letter from Rita in which she reiterated her warm feelings for my dad and the family she had always known she had somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic. Perhaps even more importantly, the envelope also enclosed a few photographs of her brother: at long last, and after over 60 years of searching and wondering, my dad got a glimpse of what his father looked like.
Perhaps sensing that he had got a second chance, and knowing Rita’s time in this world could only be limited, my parents decided to cross the Atlantic and meet the only person left alive who could paint an accurate portrait of my grandfather. It was to be a short visit, for Rita’s home was not easily accessible and my parents’ time there was constrained, but they passed a delightful afternoon meeting Rita and her family, and talking about the past. Rita told my dad that, after returning to America, her half-brother had told his family that he had left a girl pregnant in England. Jack was particularly hurt by his son’s actions, and urged him to “do the right thing” and go back. Peter, who by all accounts was quite a rebel, did nothing of the kind, and not long after was thrown out of the family home due to various disagreements with his father. Theirs was a difficult relationship, which may have stemmed from the loss of Peter’s mother at such a young age, and also because of his being brought up in Italy, so far away from his father. Rita must have been about 18 at the time she last spoke to her brother, and never saw Peter again. In fact, thanks to the information we had received through GI Trace, it was my dad who informed her that her brother had passed away.
With meeting Rita we really felt like we had come full circle, and I’m sure she felt the same way when she was finally able to behold her only nephew upon their first and only encounter. Sadly, Rita passed away only weeks after meeting my father, but words cannot describe how lucky we were to find and meet her. With her side of the story, not only did we manage to piece together an important part of my grandfather’s life; my father was also able to discover a side of his own story which had been kept away from him forever. Indeed, we had come full circle.