Phyllis “Chickie” Shields Berry was 5 when news traveled from Australia that her father had died while serving as a U.S. soldier during World War II.
His death left a hole in the little girl’s heart that did not begin to heal until she found the Adult World War II Orphans Network more than 50 years later; and discovered avenues to learn more about and honor the father she had never known.
It is estimated 180,000 to 200,000 American children lost their fathers during World War II. Designated as orphans by the U.S. government, these children became eligible for survivor’s benefits and educational funding for secondary education, but their emotional scars were left unaddressed.
“Most of us experienced a wall of silence,” said Shields Berry, who was raised in Portland and lives in Spirit Lake. “Our mothers wouldn’t talk. When I asked about my father, my mother would say, ‘Oh, honey, he was a wonderfully talented musician and he loved you very much,’ but nothing else.” Eventually, her mother’s tears taught her not to bring up the painful subject.
In the mid-1990s, she noticed an ad in Field and Stream magazine that read, “Did you lose your father in WWII?” It was followed by a phone number. “That phone call changed my life,” said Shields Berry, who reached Ann Mix, the founder of AWON, a group dedicated to the mission of locating and supporting American orphans of World War II and honoring the service and sacrifice of their fathers and other veterans.
Through AWON, she discovered others who share a common background. She found their mutual ties of childhood loss and yearning to learn more about the fathers they lost led to immediate bonds of friendship.
“One of the advantages of membership is connecting with one another,” said Shields Berry. “Bring up the subject of having lost your father in the war and most are awkward with that information. When you talk with someone who has that shared childhood experience it’s almost like you’ve found long-lost siblings.”
To date, AWON has information about 6,000 to 8,000 World War II orphans in their database. Although not all are members, many of those who do join, like Shields Berry, dedicate themselves to helping find other orphans, and in sharing helpful information with one another.
This shared information is another benefit of membership, according to Shields Berry, who says she not only found her father’s military records, but discovered a group of men who had served with her father and were willing to share their memories with her. “A lifelong childhood dream for most of us is to find somebody they (our fathers) served with,” she said. “That’s a real connection and I had a yearning for that contact.”
Shields Berry’s father, John “Jack” Coleman Shields, was a musician with a patriotic heart. He lied about his age in order to serve his country during the World War I, serving as a trumpet player with the 83rd Field Artillery Army Band in France. He received a discharge from the Army four years later, having attained the rank of staff sergeant and assistant bandmaster. He was just 18.
Although Shields Berry became a professional musician following his stint in the Army, his sense of patriotism led him to join the Oregon National Guard. When World War II broke out, he served as bandmaster of the 41st Division, 162nd Infantry Band. His death came in 1943, following service in New Guinea during which time he, and other members of his unit engaged the enemy in the jungles of New Guinea.
Finding information about her father began to heal old wounds, but Shields Berry felt the need to be more involved. After reading about a fundraising effort for a Washington, D.C., monument honoring World War II veterans, she became a grassroots fundraiser, eventually raising more than $50,000 through AWON contacts.
The monument lies on the mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
Shields Berry was proud to be in the audience when former Sen. Robert Dole and other dignitaries dedicated the National WWII Memorial to those who fought for freedom.
“It wouldn’t be the same world if they hadn’t done what they did,” she said.
Her patriotic work didn’t end there. Shields Berry helps spread the word about the orphans support group as a member of the AWON Speakers Bureau and currently is working as the AWON fundraising coordinator for the National World War II Museum’s “The Road to Victory Brick Program,” raising money to help fund the museum’s expansion.
If you would like to schedule a speaker or learn more about AWON, contact Chickie Shields Berry at P.O. Box 1136, Spirit Lake, ID 83869 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about AWON at www.awon.org.