Search for Marine father
Family tie spans globe
Growing up, all Michael Gaeng knew of his father was that he had been a US Marine and had fought in World War II.
Positioned in the Pacific, he had met Michael’s mother on a short visit to New Zealand shores.
Little did they know, that their fleeting romance would result in not just one son, but three. Triplets.
Michael and his brothers John and Graham were born on December 9, 1943 – just three of many babies born to Maori mothers and US soldiers during the war.
Their story will feature in the documentary Born of Conflict to air on Maori Television at 9am this Anzac Day.
Michael, now 70, moved to Matamata almost a year ago and last week spoke to the Chronicle about the father he never knew.
He and his brothers had a tough upbringing, their mother was young and had little support so, at age five, they were placed into foster care.
They bounced between a few homes before ending up with Mr and Mrs Tom Whiteley of Te Ko, Bay of Plenty, with whom they stayed until they left home.
In 1962, shortly before their 19th birthday, Graham, Michael’s identical twin, died after a short illness.
I became pretty mixed Michael.
‘‘I have always strived to be like my father so I volunteered for the army. I signed up for the SAS selection course. Only seven of us passed.’’
He served his time in New Zealand from 1965 to 1970 and
said later took up a trade as a fitterwelder.
On March 20, 1971, he married Glennis, who had two young sons, and the couple had a third son together.
‘‘I never ever had the chance to do the things that sons do with their fathers – play rugby, play sports, go fishing, all those sorts of things.
‘‘So I spent a lot of time with my own sons and do as much as I possibly can to help them,’’ said Michael.
He still often wondered about his father and what had happened to him after he left our shores and, eventually, he decided to try and find him.
‘‘I knew his last name and that he was an American Marine, and that was it.
‘‘We started sending letters to America to try and find more information.
‘‘I had a lot of rejections. I didn’t know his regiment number for a start, I never knew anything about that. So I had all these letters sent to me that said, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you.’’’
The New Zealand Returned Services Association put him in touch with a forwarding address for all US personnel in St Louis, Missouri and after more rejections he sent one last letter.
‘‘We had always spelt our last name Geange but in the last letter I sent over, I said to them it could be spelt Gaeng and bingo!
‘‘I got this letter back and it was all very, very official looking.
‘‘At the time, I was kind of used to, ‘ We can’t help’, so I wasn’t particularly interested at first.
‘‘Anyway, Glenn made a cup of tea and we opened this letter and the first thing that popped out was a little three inch photo with two holes punched in it, and it was my father.’’
‘‘ I just looked at it and I started to cry because I knew we had found him,’’ said Glennis.
‘‘He was the image of our son.’’
The letter included his father’s full name, Kenneth Joseph Gaeng, his date of birth, and his last known address.
Michael was so eager to speak to his father he made a phone call that evening, not realising it was the early hours of the morning in Missouri.
‘‘We were petrified, we didn’t want to hurt anyone,’’ said Glennis.
‘‘We didn’t know if he had been married or if he had other children.’’
He was put through to Dan Gaeng and after first speaking to his wife, knew he had found his brother.
‘‘ Dan came on the phone and I said, ‘I don’t know how to put this but your father is also my father,’ and there was absolute silence on the phone and I said to him, ‘ Now that I have said this, is my father still alive?’.’’
The answer was not what he was hoping for – his father had died five years previously, in 1994.
It turned out his father had married after the war and had raised eight children in St Louis, just a few miles from the US personnel site Michael had been writing to.
He told Dan he was simply interested in finding out more about his father and promised to send photos of himself and his brothers.
‘‘I told him, ‘If you don’t want to have anything more to do with us after that, I will understand.
‘‘He saw the photos and he said, ‘ There’s no doubt you boys are my brothers, you look more like my dad than I do’.’’
For the following year, Michael stayed in touch with his new family in the US and in 2000, decided to make the trip to Missouri with his brother John, now living in Australia.
‘‘We flew to LA then to Denver. I was a bag of nerves, I didn’t know how they would accept me,’’ said Michael.
‘‘We got into St Louis and there was this huge sign up in the airport with balloons and everything saying, ‘ Welcome home brothers’.’’
‘‘That blew me away. There was no shakes of the hand. It was hugs.’’
‘‘It was like we had known them forever,’’ said Glennis.
Dan had organised for them to stay in the family home in St Anne so Michael could see where his siblings had grown up.
‘‘We drove in and we got to the front door and Dave [ another brother] said, ‘For all the years you put in and tried to find us, you will be sleeping in your father’s bed’.
‘‘ That put a shiver right up my spine. It’s something I will never forget.’’
They spent two and a half weeks in St Louis and celebrated a midyear Christmas with the family.
‘‘There were a lot of laughs and a lot of tears,’’ said Michael.
His siblings were often stunned at how similar he was to their father, he said.
‘‘We were sitting at the table one night and Dave was standing there with his arms folded, tears streaming down his cheeks, and a grin from ear said Glennis.
‘‘He said it was like his dad was home from vacation.’’
While there, Michael was able to visit his father’s grave in the Jefferson City Military Cemetery and those of his two brothers Greg and Jimmy and his father’s wife Rosemary.
He also visited his dad’s little workshop under the family home.
‘‘We go down and it’s spick and span, beautiful. And they have a little plaque on the wall and it has all the eight children’s names on it.
‘‘Greg, Jimmy, Dan, Karen, David, Jane, Timmy, Tommy.
‘‘And at the bottom, they add John, Michael, Graham.’’
Family ties: Michael Gaeng holds a portrait drawn by wife Glennis of his father, US Marine Kenneth Gaeng.
Unique story: Triplets Michael, John and Graham Gaeng (Geange) at six years old.