On his 82nd birthday in May, Korean War veteran Wieland Charles Johnson woke from a nap to a surprise visitor. On that day, he met his 59-year-old daughter for the first time.
Johnson served in a non-combat support role in the Air Force on Okinawa Island from 1956 to 1958. While there, like other men in the military, he met a woman. He lived with Yoshiko Teruya for 20 months. She became pregnant and he asked for an extension of his tour. He was given six more months.
“She was not born yet when they shipped me back,” Johnson said of their child. “I would like to have asked her to come back, but at the time I was in the service. I did not think it would work out.”
He had to leave before Teruya’s baby girl was born. He wrote letters to Teruya but never went back to Okinawa.
In May, their daughter Linda Catt-Vahrson knocked on the door of his small room at the Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal.
“It was unreal. They came to my door, and she said I was her father. I knew this might happen,” Johnson said.
Days after that meeting he was still coming to an understanding of everything that had happened.
“She told me her mom died seven years ago,” Johnson said, tears coming to his eyes.
They talked in his small room, and the next day they went out to eat. The conversations were light, mostly small talk.
Johnson learned he had a 28-year-old grandson. Catt-Vahrson found out she had a brother. The two siblings never knew about each other’s existence.
Johnson said his son was upset that he was never told.
“I want to see her again,” Johnson said.
Catt-Vahrson said from her home in California that the meeting was emotionally a lot for her and Johnson.
“My mom really cared about this man; I don’t know what happened,” Catt-Vahrson said.
Those questions are for conversations still to come.
Her mom married a military man named Paul who was also in the Air Force and on the same base. Paul adopted Catt-Vahrson, and it would take a year of paperwork and jumping through hoops, but a tenacious Paul would bring them to the United States.
“I had a happy childhood growing up. I always knew there was someone else. I knew I was adopted,” she said.
But it was not until she got older, married and had a son that she began asking questions.
“My son was born with brittle bone disease,” Catt-Vahrson said, noting that the disease is hereditary.
“I really started to do research. I must have been 21 years old. It turned up nothing. Records were lost,” she said.
When the couple was together, Johnson did not speak much English, and Teruya did not speak much Japanese, Catt-Vahrson said. Daughter and mother started to talk about that time in Okinawa.
“Watching her expression, she loved this man. It was a love lost,” she said.
Her mom remembered his first name as Johnny, misunderstanding what she heard.
“Everyone called him Johnson,” she said.
“My mom told me my dad wrote her letters and named me Linda but somehow those letters were lost.”
Her mom remembered her father was from Virginia and that he had a brother who was also in the military.
“But I was not getting information without a full name,” Catt-Vahrson said.
She began talking to cousins. She submitted her DNA to Ancestry.com. A cousin was eventually able to track down Johnson’s name and address.
“I honestly did not expect him to be alive,” she said.
She found out that his birthday was coming up and said she knew she had to meet him on that day. She was not going to make an introduction as sensitive as this over the phone to an aged man.
“I was a little bit nervous, but I had no expectations. I just wanted to see his face,” she said.
So Catt-Vahrson and her husband arrived at her father’s assisted living facility.
The staff woke him from a nap.
“I said ‘happy birthday.’ I asked him, ‘Were you in Okinawa?” and those eyes of his just blew open and he grabbed me. He said my mom’s name,” Catt-Vahrson said. “He said her name correctly and my grandfather’s name. Then I knew. He spoke some Japanese to me. It was amazing.”
Catt-Vahrson returned for a second visit last week and was able to meet more family members, in particular cousins. She brought Johnson a cellphone so they could talk more.
There will be more visits.