The following is a guest post by Jane Chapman
DNA is an important addition to any genealogist’s toolbox because it adds to the body of evidence, allows us to interrogate our paper trail, and provides clues to better investigate our brick walls. However, for those of us who start with no personal documentation at all, DNA evidence is critical, and the DNA journey is a deeply personal path of discovery.
I speak from personal experience because I am a ‘war babe’. I was born in England to a British mother and an American serviceman. With the help of DNA, I found my biological father a few years ago. While I say ‘found’, he had died several years before I discovered who he was. I have some—limited and tenuous—contact with family.
The War Babes Settlement
In the 1980’s, two British organizations formed to support British adults who had been born to American servicemen during World War II and who wanted to find their GI fathers: TRACE (Trans-Atlantic Children’s Enterprise) and the War Babes organization. The term ‘war babes’ comes from the latter. At the time, the National Personnel Records Centre (NPRC) argued that the US Privacy Act prevented them from releasing information about the veterans.
In 1989, the War Babes organization sued the US government. Their lawyer, Joan S. Meier, argued that the separation of ‘war babes’ from their fathers was often the result of US military policy that “encouraged men to have a good time” then “whisked them away so that they could not be found.”
The 1990 War Babes settlement balanced the US Freedom of Information Act with the privacy law in such cases. It outlines how ‘war babes’ can request information from the NPRC and what the NPRC can divulge. If the GI being sought is still alive, the information includes the city, state, and date of each address on file. Also, if requested, the NPRC will forward a letter on the applicant’s behalf to their father by certified mail, return receipt requested. If the GI is deceased, the entire address is given.
While the class action was initially focused on those born in Britain during World War II, the provisions of the settlement are generally applied to anyone who was conceived and born somewhere other than the USA and whose biological father is/was a US serviceman who was there on military assignment at the time.
DNA Can Cut Through Red Tape
Over the years, tens of thousands of babies have been left behind, estranged from their biological fathers and their American heritage. For those seeking their GI fathers, autosomal DNA testing has made a huge difference. That is not to say that people didn’t find their GI fathers prior to the advent of genetic genealogy. Some did, but the search was often very long, tedious, and frustrating. For others, it was impossible. Prior to 1990, even once a likely father was identified, their child was unable to get confirmation or contact information from the NPRC.
As with any unknown parentage puzzle, finding the answer requires combining DNA evidence with more traditional documentation, including the likelihood that any potential father was in the right place at the right time. For ‘war babes’, the 1990 settlement is significant because it can sometimes provide that final confirmation of the father’s location at the time of conception, as well as his current city of residence.
Because of my interest, I belong to a number of forums where ‘war babes’ seek help. Occasionally, when I have the time, I offer my help. People seek help at various stages of their quest. Some have yet to DNA test. Sometimes people have DNA results but are at a loss as to what to do with them. At the other extreme are those who have done the DNA work themselves and are seeking a second pair of eyes to confirm that they are on the right track or have identified the right person.
My expertise is pretty much limited to what I have learned from working with DNA myself and from tuning into relevant forums, webinars, blog posts, etc., along the way. I don’t have a scientific background. I am very reliant on the fabulous tools and explanations that people who have a deeper knowledge provide. As a mostly self-taught volunteer, I usually operate on the principle that it is better to support people to understand and work with their DNA results themselves than simply to provide an answer for them. I have learned so much by working with the data.
“Janet” grew up as an adoptee. (“Janet” has given her permission for her story to be shared. Names have been changed for privacy.) When I ‘met’ her online, she was 75 years old and had already tested with AncestryDNA. She was in contact with a family member via Ancestry messaging and had done some work herself to pull all the information she had together. Her focus was on several DNA matches predicted to be 1st to 3rd cousins. She had gradually narrowed down her search to four brothers: Ernest, Hugh, Oscar, and Leonard, all deceased.
After considering documentary evidence and information from the family, Janet concluded that three of the four brothers were either two young and/or would not have been in England at the time in question. That left Ernest. After Janet consulted her family contact, Ernest’s sister Olive was approached to see if she was willing to DNA test. At the time, Olive was 97 years old and the only one of the siblings still living. Ernest had died in 2002.
Given the speed at which things were going with family, Janet wanted some reassurance that she had drawn the right conclusions so that she could more confidently engage with family. She was also wondering what she might expect to see in her results if Olive did agree to test. At this point, Janet posted online, and I began to help her.
My first priority was to review her work so that I could either reassure her that it was likely correct and explain why or steer her in another direction if needed. I reviewed Janet’s match list and built a What Are The Odds (WATO) tree at DNA Painter using matches who shared from 106 cM to 372 cM of DNA. This was important to help me visualize the relationship probabilities and to make it easier to explain to Janet what her results were saying. I wanted to have confidence in the result.
The WATO tool generates hypotheses based on DNA matches, but not all are realistic for contextual reasons, like gender or age. After removing some hypotheses it was clear that, of the prospective fathers left, the most probable were Ernest and Hugh, two of the brothers Janet had identified. Leonard was also possible but less likely than his brothers and, in any event, we knew him to be too young. The fourth brother could not have been Janet’s father according to WATO. Again, we knew he was too young anyway.
Under normal circumstances, Janet could have written to the NPRC under the War Babes settlement process for the records of both Ernest and Hugh. This may have confirmed that Ernest was in England at the time and that Hugh was not. However, the office was closed because of Covid-19; it has only recently begun accepting applications again. Fortunately for Janet, it wasn’t entirely necessary because her family was confident that Hugh had not been in England during the War while Ernest had been. Ernest was in England in 1944 and 1945 to recover from injuries. Janet was born in 1946 so the timing worked. At this point, it seemed that Janet’s conclusion that Ernest was her father was correct.
As things turned out, Olive was more than happy to DNA test for Janet. She was just as eager to know the outcome. To help Janet understand what she might expect to see when Olive’s results came through, I drew her attention to the Shared cM tool, also at DNA Painter. Ernest and Olive are full siblings, so if Ernest was Janet’s father, Olive is her aunt. The shared cM Tool indicates that an aunt–niece relationship is likely to share 1201–2282 cM with an average of 1741 cM.
When Olive did appear on Janet’s match list, she shared 1835 cM. That amount could, of course, also indicate other relationships, like grandparent–grandchild, half sibling, or niece, in addition to aunt. However, those other possibilities could be excluded by context.
By this time, the family had become quite excited at the prospect of Janet being Ernest’s daughter. She was told that Ernest and his wife could not have children together and that he would likely have welcomed her with open arms. Soon there were phone and Skype calls across the Atlantic between Janet and her family. This was followed by a trip to Florida to visit her aunt. Other members of her family flew into Florida from other parts of the US to meet her as well. Janet now has pictures of her father and other family members and remains in regular contact with her American family.
Not all Experiences Are the Same
I chose Janet’s story because it was a relatively easy search that ended with a successful connection to family. All roads seemed to point to Ernest, and it was a bonus when Olive tested to add further weight to this. However, for many people it is not so straightforward.
Some searches are much more protracted. They entail either a waiting game for closer DNA matches to pop up or a careful and sensitive attempt to get potential family members to DNA test. With time and persistence, these searches too can be successful.
For others, the challenge is getting documentary evidence to sit alongside their DNA results. Some much needed information is not available from the NPRC because the records were lost in the fire there on 12 July 1973. Millions of Official Military Personnel Files were lost in that fire.
Not everyone gets a positive response from family like Janet did. While some people are content to know who their GI father is without need for contact, others want to build a relationship. Relationships are two-way things. We can’t expect them as a right. They require willing and active engagement from both sides. Sometimes, for a whole variety of reasons, that just doesn’t happen.
Everyone’s experience is different. For this reason, it can be scary commencing a search for a GI father. There is uncertainty about what will be found and about what reaction there will be if contact is made with family. However, if you don’t try, you will never know. In my view, it is a chance worth taking.
Where to Get Help
The following resources were set up specifically for the benefit of people who are trying to trace their American GI fathers, grandfathers, or other family members. They offer support, help, and information free of charge, including information about how to apply to the NPRC under the War Babes settlement:
- The Find My GI Father website will refer you to the private Facebook group of the same name where information and support can be found.
- The GI TRACE website has a lot of information as well as a forum where you can seek help.
Thanks to Leah ‘The DNA Geek’ Larkin for this opportunity to tell readers about ‘war babes’ and to relate the very personal DNA story of one of them.
Guest Author Bio
Jane Chapman has been researching her own and her husband’s family history since the 1990’s. She incorporated autosomal DNA-related information into her research after first testing in 2013. While her own family history research occupies most of her spare time, she also takes an active interest in the GI Trace community and is a volunteer admin at Ancestorian.com. She writes about her own family history research in her personal blog at https://bjnlsgenealogy.blogspot.com/.