It is estimated that 183,000 American children were orphaned – lost at least one parent – when their father died or listing as missing in action during World War II. The American WWII Orphans Network (AWON) is a national organization dedicated to locating sons and daughters of Americans who died or are still missing from World War II, honoring their fathers’ service and sacrifice, and educating the public about the impact their fathers’ deaths had on the children they left behind.
AWON was founded in 1991 by Ann Bennett Mix of Bellingham, Washington. Ann’s father, Pvt. Sydney W. Bennett, was killed in action in 1945 in Italy while serving with the famous 10th Mountain Division. As a child, Ann “always waited for him to come home.” As an adult, Ann yearned to meet others like herself, who grew up in an era when households led by single mothers were not the norm, or in step-families that had their own family dynamic challenges and acceptances.
Growing up as an American WWII Orphan was largely “under the radar.” Some families continued to talk about and honor the deceased father openly, while others didn’t mention him at all. Communities, schools, churches – even extended family – sometimes pretended the father never even existed. Some orphans lost touch with their fathers’ family entirely, even though they may have lived in the same town. Schoolmates and neighborhood children often were told by adults not to ask, “Why doesn’t Johnny have a father?” It was a Wall of Silence.
In adulthood, American WWII Orphans faced new challenges. Many went to college on their fathers’ G.I. Bill benefits, but still felt stigmatized as “being different” than everyone else. Some carried into adulthood unresolved issues from the absence of their father, having a bad relationship with a step-father, or having no father figure at all, in their formative years. But like everyone else in the 1960s and 1970s, American WWII Orphans focused on starting careers and families of their own. And when the time was right in their later adult lives, American WWII Orphans revisited the thoughts, feelings and questions they had in childhood, just like Ann Bennett Mix.
Growing up as an American WWII Orphan was not a dreary upbringing – it was just different than everyone else growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many Orphans had happy childhoods, were told from an early age about their fathers, and stayed in touch with their fathers’ families. But it is safe to say all World War II Orphans wished they could know more about their father, wished they had had their father in their lives, and would want to honor the sacrifice he made for freedom.
AWON is here to help, by educating the public about these fathers and their Orphan children. If you are an American WWII Orphan or know someone who is, please consider joining AWON.