She Spent Decades Trying To Find The WWII Veteran Father She Never Met. Then She Tried A DNA Kit

History

Bobi Sussman spent decades of her life knowing she had a father, somewhere, whose identity remained just out of reach.


A letter to “The Jerry Springer Show” in the 1980s was a dead end. So, too, was a request for information from her mother, who teared up and couldn’t go into specifics when Sussman was old enough to inquire about her dad. She had a name, and a job, but little else from a birth certificate filed in 1939. Privacy laws in his home state of Missouri, where Sussman moved with her own family decades later, kept her from learning his fate.

“In my heart – because things were tough, it was not a happy childhood – I always knew I had a daddy somewhere,” Sussman, 79, said from her home in Spokane Valley.

After months of coaxing from her children, Sussman submitted a DNA kit to an online service in March. She quickly discovered, through the instant connectivity of the internet, dozens of nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles and aunts who wanted to know everything about her.

And that her father, Army Cpl. Charles M. Seward, had been involved in what is believed to be the worst mistaken American attack on Allied prisoners during World War II.

The father off to war

A trifold flag hangs in the mobile home Sussman shares with her husband of 58 years, Irv. Beneath it, encased in the same shadow box, are a half-dozen replica service medals, the chevrons that would grace the shoulders of an Army corporal, and a pair of re-created dog tags.

There’s also a black-and-white enlistment photo of Charles Seward, as well as a copy of a letter discovered in a fence post near a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the 1950s.

“I am Charles Seward, a corporal in the U.S. Army,” the note, which was discovered after the war, reads. “I am in good health. … I am a prisoner of the Japanese Army. Hope to be home soon.”

Home was Senath, Missouri, a town in the state’s bootheel just a few miles from the Arkansas border. Through relatives, Sussman learned that her father was one of a dozen children, that he tired of the family’s cotton farm and headed west on a train to Los Angeles, where he met Sussman’s mother.

“He was in California, according to the birth certificate,” Sussman said. “That was gold to me, because that was the most information I had at that time.”

Seward listed his occupation as a cement worker. The story of how he and her mother met never came up, Sussman said, but she presumes that her dad was “a man of all trades” and that they met through his work.

Sussman’s mother had the child, and she’s uncertain whether Charles Seward ever knew his daughter existed before enlisting in the Army, a question that still lingers despite reconnecting with her second family. Sussman’s mother remarried twice, what the daughter called marriages of convenience, that drove Bobi Sussman out of the home and back to California when she was 17.

By that time, Sussman’s biological father had been dead for 13 years. But she didn’t know that.

‘Drawn-out sorrow’

An Army private aboard the Arisan Maru would later tell military officials the torpedoes struck the ship about 5 p.m. on Oct. 24, 1944.

“The last time I saw the boat I was about a couple miles from the boat,” said Pvt. Avery E. Wilber, one of eight men believed to have made it away from the wreckage, in an interview that December upon arriving back on U.S. soil. There were a total of about 1,800 Allied prisoners aboard, including what Wilber estimated to be about 100 American civilians. “I don’t know whether there were any other ships in the convoy sunk. I don’t believe any of the other men survived.”

The Arisan Maru carried Cpl. Charles Seward among its passengers. Bound for Taiwan from the Philippines, the ship flew no flag indicating it was transporting prisoners. These Japanese “hellships,” as they were known, took prisoners to forced labor camps on the mainland and were frequently sunk without Allied knowledge of the friendly fire. In his 2001 book, “Death on the Hellships: Prisoners at Sea in the Pacific War,” author and historian Gregory Michno (whose own father served on a submarine that sank a Japanese vessel) estimated 19,000 Allied prisoners died in attacks on unmarked Imperial ships.

Sussman learned of the hellships shortly after discovering what happened to her father. Passengers were fed a meager portion of rice every day and dirty water, according to witness accounts. Often they were crammed in holds beneath the deck, with no room to sit or lie down during the voyage. Those who complained of the conditions or rebelled against their captors were shot.

“They just crammed the boys in there,” Sussman said.

Seward is listed as having been held at Bilibid prison camp in Manila before the voyage. He’d previously been assigned to the U.S. artillery base at Corregidor, an island that protected the Bay of Manila from naval threats. The Japanese took the island in May 1942 after two days of intense fighting and weeks of artillery bombardment, a month after capturing Bataan and imprisoning thousands of American and Filipino soldiers before the forced evacuation known as the Bataan Death March. It would be three years before the Allies successfully recaptured Corregidor.

Seward’s letters home before the siege, shared now with his daughter, indicate the young Army corporal’s mind was on his hometown and putting the many members of his anxious family at ease.

“You’ll all hear about it on the news,” Seward wrote his family in one letter at the end of 1941. “But lots of it isn’t true.”

The letters stopped abruptly in 1942, the same year the Japanese overran Corregidor.

Sussman wanted to know what happened to her father once she’d found out who he was, for a sense of closure. That included the manner in which it’s reported he died, because she knew some came home with scars that never healed.

“The ones that survived were captured and put in other prisons, and their lives were horrible,” Sussman said. “After they were rescued, their lives were very shaky, and unstable. So, I don’t know if I would like to think of my dad in that situation.”

Sussman saw that in uncles who returned home after the war. One grew a beard to cover the scars of gunfire on his face.

“It was a hard time for those guys,” Sussman said. “It ruined them in so many different ways.”

In the confusion after the torpedoes landed, precious few details survived indicating what happened to the men aboard. It’s presumed many drowned after they were pushed away from Japanese destroyers that picked up the Imperial Army’s castaways.

A letter arrived for the Seward family in 1948, indicating the young corporal’s remains would not be recovered. Official records indicate he may have been shot trying to escape. By then, the family knew he was dead, Sussman said. But they didn’t learn the details until much later.

“I can’t imagine what his family must have went through,” Sussman said. “Yes, he’s missing in action, but where? Where can he be? Later, they find out what happened. It was just drawn-out sorrow.”

The gift of family

At the same time Sussman was trying to discover the hidden history of her father, Geva Phifer Roberts worked to piece together branches of her own family tree.

“I really didn’t know that there had been a child, at all,” said Roberts, 59, from her home in Tyler, Texas, last week. “I was just told that he had died in the Philippines. I had heard stories about it.”

Roberts is the granddaughter of Earl Seward, the brother Charles Seward addressed that secreted fence-post letter to in the Philippines. As luck would have it, the family is big into genealogy and Roberts was already using the same website where Sussman had sent her DNA.

Sussman wasn’t sure, originally, if the Seward family was her clan. Neither was Roberts, who was looking for cousins on her mother’s side of the family. The name was pronounced differently and misspelled on the birth certificate she’d treasured since she was a child.

“She’s the one that persisted, even though I held up the flag and said, no, that’s not the name,” Sussman said of Roberts. “She just kept at it, and kept at it.”

Roberts says she saw the features of her own aunt in Sussman’s picture. She knew there was a familial connection, one that meant a lot to her. Both Roberts’ parents – Charles Seward’s niece and nephew – died this year.

“We’re a Christian family, and this is just God’s timing,” Roberts said. “In the middle of all this, there has been joy in the fact that we found a family member.”

Sussman is also sharing that joy. The living room that’s already full of pictures of smiling, tumbling children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren now has a new feature: that shadow box, a testament to the father she knew existed, but never knew as a man.

“That’s my gift from my dad, is his family,” Sussman said. “All his family he didn’t get to see grow up, marry and have children, but here they are in my generation.”

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©2018 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

Visit The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) at www.spokesman.com

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US Navy
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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