Spokane Valley woman discovers World War II veteran father, far-flung family from DNA kit
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.
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.”