Retired Englishman learns father was American soldier from Louisville. After a lifetime, a Briton is shocked to learn he's Newly American!
BY BYRON CRAWFORD • BCRAWFORD@COURIER-JOURNAL.COM • MAY 25, 2008
A romantic tragedy of World War II, linked across an ocean by a single strand of DNA, is still unfolding in Kentucky this week.
On his deathbed a few years ago, the man Peter Vickery had always believed was his father disclosed that Peter was not his son -- Peter's real biological father was an American soldier.
"I felt a bit numb," said Vickery, now 63, a retired truck driver who lives in Birmingham, England.
His 88-year-old mother, who is a patient in a nursing home in England, her mind weakened by a stroke, would later admit to Vickery's younger sisters that, yes, she'd had a brief fling with an American soldier in February 1944 while her husband was serving with British forces in North Africa. She had given birth to Peter, the GI's son, in October 1944. She could no longer remember the soldier's last name only that his first name was Robert and he was over 6 feet tall and in his early 30s. She had never heard from him again after their passionate, fleeting affair in London.
"They had met as part of a foursome, but I don't know with whom, and they had gone out dancing," said Vickery. "I heard that from my sisters. I found it embarrassing to talk with my mother about it."
His mother's heartbroken parents had sent her away from their home in Cardiff to live with an older stepsister in Birmingham after learning that she was pregnant. For a while after her husband returned from the war, she had pretended that Peter was her sister's baby, but the truth finally surfaced.
Although she and her husband remained married for many years, and even had three other children, they divorced later in life.
"I was kind of glad, really, when I found out that he wasn't my father, because we hadn't gotten along that well most of my life," said Vickery.
In January 2008, Vickery sent a DNA sample to the Web site Ancestry.com, hoping that he might miraculously find some link to his real father.
About the same time, Rick McCubbin, of Bardstown, Ky. -- an avid genealogist who is the U.S. marshal for the Western District of Kentucky -- entered his DNA sample on the same site, hoping to locate McCubbin relatives in Scotland. When notified about their matching DNA a few weeks later, Vickery and McCubbin began exchanging e-mails.
Vickery shared his story with McCubbin and provided his mother's information about a soldier named Robert, over 6 feet tall and in his 30s, who had passed through England in February 1944.
"Ten minutes later, I get another e-mail back from Rick," said Vickery. "I nearly fell out of my chair."
McCubbin wrote that his great uncle Robert, who was well over 6 feet, had been in England in early 1944 when he was 32. He had been among the U.S. 29th Infantry Division troops who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. He survived the landing but died in battle several weeks later beyond St. Lo. He was never married.
Could Rick McCubbin's great-uncle have been Peter Vickery's father?
Despite the DNA and matching descriptions, McCubbin, who had been a Louisville police officer before he was named U.S. marshal, continued to look for evidence, carefully cross-checking the dates on military records and letters. He sent Vickery the last picture his family had made of Robert Elvis McCubbin, dressed in his Army uniform about 1943, and Vickery showed it to his mother.
"Yes," she was sure the soldier in the picture was Peter's father.
"Her face lit up," Vickery said. "She asked if I would leave the picture with her. She touched my face and said, 'He was a lovely man.' "
Peter Vickery, who is married but has no children, arrived in Kentucky on Tuesday to meet "an extra family" he never knew existed. "I really couldn't afford to come, but when I found out he (Robert) had two sisters alive, I thought I'd better get over here and meet some of these people," he said.
As fate would have it, Rick McCubbin, the family historian, has kept all of his great-uncle's personal effects all these years -- the flag from his coffin, his Purple Heart medal, the letters he wrote home, and his wallet containing $1 and some phone numbers, which had been found with his body on the battlefield.
Late last week, McCubbin, Vickery, McCubbin's son, Aaron, Rick's brother, Mike, and their father, Ron, visited the old family graveyard in Hart County and the home on East Kentucky Street in Louisville where Vickery's father lived before the war.
Tomorrow, Rick McCubbin, Vickery and other members of the family will visit the burial site of Robert Elvis McCubbin in Louisville's Evergreen Cemetery, where for the first time in 63 lost Memorial Days, Peter Vickery will finally place a flag on his father's grave.
"That's probably going to get to me," said Vickery. "When your life suddenly changes direction at this time in your life, it's kind of difficult. I've been an Englishman for a long time now, and now I'm newly American."