Doug Comella learned right before his 70th birthday that all his life, the man he thought was his father was actually his stepfather.
His biological dad, a young farm kid from Cambridge, Neb., died while defending his country.
Kenneth Graff had somehow survived the World War II attack on the U.S.S. Oklahoma, but he died in 1943 when three Japanese torpedoes sunk the U.S.S. Helena in the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands. Graff is a Purple Heart recipient with family roots in Frontier and Furnas counties, Nebraska, and in Republic County, Kansas.
Graff never met his son, and Comella only found out he never met his dad when the man he thought was his biological father was in the hospital in 2012.
“The attending physician ordered a transfusion prior to his discharge,” Comella said. “The label on the unit of blood was O positive. I am AB positive.”
A child with Type AB blood cannot have a parent who is Type O.
“What a way to learn of this,” he said. “Nobody on my mom’s side nor my stepfather’s family ever whispered a hint that he was not my real dad.”
It took three phone calls by Comella’s daughter, Christine, to convince his half-brother to give a general idea of what took place in 1942, the year Comella was born.
Graff’s parents (Harry August Graff and Floy Baker Graff) were farmers in Frontier County, Nebraska. Graff was born in Farnam, Neb. in 1920. The family lived in the Orafino area until about 1936 when they moved to Cambridge. Plat maps showed where Graff’s father's family lived in Frontier County.
“These maps had plots of land for my great-grandfather Marion Riley Baker, my grandfather Harry, my grandmother Floy’s brother Harry and one or two of her sisters,” Comella said.
Comella now lives near Daly City, Calif. He visited the Oakland, Calif. church where he was baptized to get some facts. On the certificate, he found two notations: Child does not know of illegitimate birth. Child adopted in 1947 by Samuel Comella and shall carry this name forward.
Graff’s sister Elaine died in 1997 and requested in her obituary that donations go to the Republic County Historical Society in Belleville, Kan. So Comella contacted the museum where staff and volunteers tracked down two photos of Kenneth Graff donated by his sister.
Two years later, Comella and his family visited the museum, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room when museum staff handed him a red bow-adorned box. Inside was a Purple Heart medal, the name Kenneth Graff emblazoned on it.
“Being able to touch them was another unbelievable and precious moment,” he said.
Comella’s research included San Bruno National Archives, Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, and the National Personnel Records Center. The National Archives online data base has a list of World War II deaths by state. Graff’s name showed up in Kansas. His mother’s name was Floy Childs.
“This rang a major size bell,” Comella said.
When he was about 4, a woman visited Comella’s house, and he was asked to call her Grandma Childs.
“This has remained in my memory all these years,” he said.
He contacted the National Personnel Records Center, requesting his dad’s records with the reason “possible biological father,” and a few weeks later 55 pages of documents arrived. They showed that Kenneth Graff went to Cambridge High School, and enlisted in the military in Hastings, Neb. Following graduation from basic training, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Oklahoma.
Three years ago, Leavenworth National Cemetery granted Comella’s request to have his dad’s memorial marker on U.S. soil, even though his name is on the wall in Manila. Over Memorial Day weekend 2013 — the most emotional of Comella’s life — he got to see his dad’s memorial marker in that cemetery.
Tears flowing, he spoke to his dad:
“You are now close to the home where your mom and sister lived much of their lives. You do not know the pain inside me of never having had the chance to know you, and you me.
“I treasure your serving our country willingly and paying the ultimate sacrifice for that service.
“Dad, I am thankful for the gracious assistance provided by the libraries, museums, and school in Cambridge and Belleville.
“You’d be proud of my wife Cecilia, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and we wish that you were here with us.
“As that is not possible, we look forward to when we meet each other for the first time.”
— Douglas Clinton John Graff Comella, proud son of Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Eugene Graff
Amy Hadachek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.