View the Match: Solving the Mystery of a Doughboy Grandfather and Celebrating a Family Reunion
By David Harstin
Special to the United Stated World War I Centennial Commission web site
Article © 2019 Daniel David Harstin. All Rights Reserved
In April of 2017, I received a message through my genealogical service account from a man I didn’t know named Johannes Heibel. I immediately noted the highlighted link below the message that read “View the match.” Needless to say, I was intrigued to have been contacted by a relative whose name I did not recognize. However, the message I was about to read would lead to a family reunion that I never would have imagined.
Johannes had written to me with the hope that I might help him discover the identity of his American paternal grandfather. He shared with me the following information. His grandfather was a soldier who served in the occupation of Germany following WWI. Assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, he was among those billeted in the village of Bannberscheid, the home of Johannes’ then-teenaged grandmother Frieda Keil (1902-56). Many of these soldiers served as mechanics and cooks.
Johannes’ late father was born Erwin Keil on 8 February 1920. However, at the age of four, he was adopted by his stepfather and given the surname Heibel. Erwin would be a young adult before learning of his adoption and biological father. However, his mother never disclosed to him his American father’s name. For a short time in the 1960s, he tried unsuccessfully to find his father. But after Erwin’s death in 2003, Johannes felt compelled to take up his father’s search.
Knowing that my maternal grandfather, Lester Denton (1892-1939) had served in WWI, I was fascinated by Erwin’s story. So I clicked on “View the match” to learn that the genealogical service rated my DNA match to Johannes as “extremely high.” Without a doubt, I learned, I have a German cousin! Could it be that we share an American grandfather? Excited by the possibility, I enthusiastically agreed to assist him in his search. Immediately, I set out to learn as much as I could about the service records of my grandfather and to search for other ancestors who had served in the war.
Knowing that my paternal grandfather and his only half-brother had never served in the armed forces, it was clear that my match with Johannes was through one of my other family lines. It took a little digging, but I soon determined from census data and family records that the brothers of my maternal and paternal grandmothers would have been too young to have served in WWI. Thus, I was certain that my match with Johannes was through my Denton line, and grew more excited by the possibility that we might share the same grandfather. Despite having learned that our shared DNA values fall high in the second cousin range, that did not rule out the possibility. However, after opening an attachment to an email from Johannes, that hope quickly began to fade.
The attachment was a photograph that his father Erwin had carried with him through most of his adult life. It is a very grainy, black and white picture of seven soldiers who appear to be “hamming it up” for the camera. Johannes had learned that the men were cooks and mechanics of the 1st Division who had been billeted in Bannberscheid. All of them are holding objects of which three are recognizable. One holds a hacksaw. Another playfully wields a butcher’s cleaver as if to strike the only man in the group who is kneeling. According to Erwin, that kneeling soldier, holding a cup in his left hand, was his father. However, despite the poor quality of the photograph, I could plainly see that the kneeling soldier was not my grandfather Lester Denton. Although I never knew him, I knew his face well from his portrait that hung on my grandmother’s wall.
Because my late mother was a toddler when her father died, she had grown up having limited contact with her Denton relatives. But she had long retained records of the names of her many Denton aunts and uncles. Before receiving Johannes’ initial message, I had added their names and some information about them to my family tree. Lester was the third of twelve children—seven boys and five girls. With the exception of one who died in infancy, all the Denton siblings lived into adulthood.
Reviewing census data, I determined that four of my grandfather’s brothers were old enough to have served in WWI. They were his older brother, Lee (1890-1979), and his younger brothers Clarence (1895-1958), Alvin (1899-1957), and Paul (1901-1932). However, I had no records of their military service. Aware that the majority of WWI veterans’ records had been destroyed in a fire in the 1970s, I was concerned that finding the information I needed would be a difficult task. However, other available records would provide all the evidence I needed to deduce which Denton brother was the father of Erwin Heibel.
My search turned up draft registration cards for only two of my grandfather’s brothers, Lee and Alvin. But then I found military headstone applications for Lester, Clarence, Alvin, and Paul. These four had served in the war. One of these applications held the key that unlocked the family mystery that had long evaded Erwin and Johannes.
Reading those headstone applications was like opening a small treasure chest of insight into the military service of my grandfather and three great uncles. All four had received honorable discharges. At least two of them, Clarence and Alvin, had been awarded Purple Hearts. Alvin had risen to the rank of Sergeant. Although I already knew the rank achieved by my grandfather from having visited his grave, the application confirmed that he achieved the rank of Supply Sergeant. The applications provided the names of the military units in which the brothers served. However, they gave no indication of the brothers’ service in the occupation.
At this point, it is important to recall that Erwin was born 8 February 1920. This meant that his father could not have departed Germany before May 1919. Therefore, I needed records that would allow me to narrow the list of potential fathers.
I soon found a database of troop-ship transport logs, and was fortunate to find records for each of the Denton brothers. The dates on these logs would allow me to narrow the list of Johannes’ potential grandfathers down to two.
Naturally, I searched first for my grandfather’s ship record. It showed that he had departed Europe on 23 August 1919. Paul departed the day before on 22 August 1919. Thus, their departures preceded Erwin’s birth by only six months.
As for the other brothers, Clarence had served in the occupation, but he departed Europe on 5 April 1919. Alvin was the only brother who did not serve in the occupation. Suffering from combat wounds, he departed for home on 29 October 1917, more than a year before the war’s end.
These logs made it clear that either Lester or Paul was Johannes’ grandfather.
Having exhausted my ability to further research the military careers of Lester and Paul, it was time to ask for help. I shared my findings with the noted WWI historian Alexander Barnes. Barnes is the author of several books, including In a Strange Land: the American Occupation of Germany 1919-1923i. He is also the one who suggested that Johannes submit a DNA sample to seek American relatives.
In the table below, you will find the key information that I shared with Barnes, and from which he quickly deduced that Paul Denton was the father of Erwin Heibel.
Age in 1919
Pvt. or PFC
Co E 26th 1st Inf
Co F 28th 1st Inf
First, Barnes told me that Paul’s company was the one that had been billeted in Bannberscheid, a fact I did not know before that time. Lester, he said, was stationed about ten miles away in Weroth. Second, not only was Paul billeted in the village where Johannes’ grandmother lived, the two were very close in age. Third, Barnes noted that having achieved the rank of Supply Sergeant, Lester was clearly a career minded soldier with regimental responsibilities. It’s very unlikely, Barnes said, that he would have been photographed “clowning around” as were the soldiers in Erwin’s photo.
Finally, there was the fact that I knew the soldier kneeling in Erwin’s photograph was not my grandfather. Thus, from this circumstantial and cultural evidence, Barnes and I concluded that Paul Denton was the father of Erwin Heibel and the grandfather of Johannes.
However, the strength of our evidence was not enough to confirm Paul’s paternity. Despite Barnes’ professional insights, the evidence did not eliminate the possibility of Lester’s paternity. More DNA samples needed to be collected from other relatives on both sides of the Atlantic in order to substantiate our conclusion.
While Johannes was busy collecting samples from his relatives in Germany, I needed to collect samples from relatives in my home state of North Carolina. I also began to search for at least one living descendant of my great uncle Paul. With a little internet sleuthing, I was able to track down and visit a grandson. His name is Ned Denton, who lives with his wife Alice in Gaston County, which happens to be my home county. After meeting with Ned and Alice over dinner, Ned agreed to submit a DNA sample. I also collected a sample from my now late Uncle Grover Denton, the son of Lester. My older brother Hugh Harstin also submitted a sample for analysis. In time, a German genealogical expert reviewed all the collected samples. His analysis confirmed our conclusion: Paul Denton was Johannes Heibel’s grandfather!
When Paul Denton departed Germany in the summer of 1919, 16 year old Frieda Keil may have been unaware that she was pregnant. The following November, Paul was married in Gastonia, the Gaston County Seat. He and his wife Ethel would have four children. Unfortunately, Paul would not live to see his children grow up. At the age of 31, Paul died from tuberculosis on 11 July 1932 in a North Carolina hospital for veterans. According to a doctor’s note on the death certificate, he had contracted the disease during his service in the war.
Had Erwin Heibel found some surviving veterans of Paul’s company during his search in the 1960s, it’s unlikely that he would have discovered his father’s identity. Some might have recalled relationships they and other soldiers had with German girls. However, given Paul’s premature death, if Paul had any knowledge of Frieda’s pregnancy, his secret probably died with him. Only through the advent of the internet and DNA analysis, along with the persistence of two relatives in researching their ancestry, could the mystery of Erwin Heibel’s Doughboy father have been solved. Soon a family reunion would take place in Germany.
Like many other people, I had submitted my DNA for analysis only to learn more about my ethnicity and general European ancestry. Through my genealogical research, I had already learned that most of my ancestors came to North America prior to the Revolutionary War. Thus, I never dreamed of being contacted by a close European cousin.
During the course of this genealogical journey, I have been blessed to have been introduced to many Denton cousins whom I otherwise never would have known. In addition to Ned, several still live in or near Gaston County where I was born and raised and where Lester and Paul lived many of their early years. But most amazingly, this journey afforded me the opportunity to travel with my wife Julie to Germany in the summer of 2018.
While searching for his grandfather’s identity, Johannes came to know a number of researchers interested in the study American Occupation of Germany. He was also introduced to German filmmaker Utz Kastenholz. Soon after learning that the Heibel family mystery had been solved, Kastenholz invited me to fly to Germany to be interviewed for a historical documentary he was producing. Needless to say, I immediately accepted his offer.
When my wife and I arrived at the Frankfurt airport, Johannes greeted us with a beaming smile and open arms. Our embrace was captured on video by Kastenholz and his production crew. With them was historian Kai Sprenger and Johannes’ close friend Trudi Nelissen who would graciously serve as our interpreter for the duration of our visit to Germany.
Following an afternoon of interviews recorded near Erwin Heibel’s boyhood home in Bannberscheid, Johannes and his lovely wife Monika welcomed us into their home. We spent a few days getting know one another and touring the Westerwald region where they live. But the highlight of our visit came a few days later when Johannes and Monika hosted a family reunion at their home. It was then that I was introduced to two more second cousins—Johannes’ sisters Annemarie Stein and Christel Dillschnitter. Further, we met several of their children and grandchildren.
For more than a year, Johannes and I had corresponded, mostly by emails translated by Google. We shared family photos and other details about our careers and families. From Johannes’ first cousin Ned, I had obtained and shared with him a few photos of his handsome grandfather Paul Denton. So when the opportunity arose to visit Johannes, I knew I would be meeting one with whom I had formed a distant yet somehow close relationship. From the moment Johannes greeted me at the airport, my heart was filled with a strong sense of our familial connection. That connection expanded throughout our visit, as we realized how much culture and personality we had in common.
In the months that followed our return home, the documentary in which Johannes and I appeared was released. Johannes has shared articles about our meeting that have appeared in a number of German newspapers and other media outlets.ii I have shared with him other family photos obtained from newfound relatives. Christmas cards have been exchanged, and other cousins on both sides of the Atlantic have connected through social media. I hope that in time there will be another Denton-Heibel reunion. But mostly, I hope the story I’ve shared in this article will help to kindle in those who read it a desire to explore their family roots. Because the stories of our ancestors can help us to better understand who we are and to appreciate more deeply our connection to others. My stay with Johannes was a brief seven days, but I returned home feeling that not only had I found a new cousin, but a brother in heart. How blessed I have been to have clicked on “View the match.”
David Harstin is a United Methodist Pastor living in western Tennessee. He is a graduate of the Ministerial Course of Study in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He earned his M.S. Degree in Rural Sociology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and his B.S. Degree in Mass Communication at the University of Tennessee at Martin. An honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran, he served three years on active duty (1983-86) at Ft. Sill, OK and in Neckarsulm, Germany. David and his wife Julie have been happily married for 31 years. They have three daughters.
i Barnes, Alexander. In a Strange Land: The American Occupation of Germany: 1918-1923. Schiffer Military History. Atglen, PA. ©2011.
ii Kastenholz, Utz. Stars and Stripes Am Deutschen Eck: Die Amerikanische Besatzung Nach Dem Ersten Weltkrieg.©2019 German Language Version: https://www.swr.de/geschichte/stars-and-stripes-am-deutschen-eck/-/id=100754/did=22485362/nid=100754/1q5cmce/index.html