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Finding His Father

Centreville man writes about father's ordeal in Japanese POW camp.

Centreville's Duane Heisinger was just 10, and his brothers, 7 and 4, when their father, an assistant district attorney in Fresno, Calif., joined the Army in 1941 and headed for the Phillipines.

In his just-published book, "Father Found," Heisinger, now 72, of Bull Run Estates, tells the story of his father's life and death as a POW of the Japanese during World War II. It took him 10 years to write and involved difficult and painstaking research, but the result is truly remarkable.

"The pain and joy of the author is transparent as he locates the documents and people and weaves the fabric of his father's incredible story," writes Ann Bennett Mix, founder of American WWII Orphans Network. "He reminds us of the true cost of war, the bravery of the men who must fight and the families who suffer through the separation and ultimate emptiness of life without them."

HEISINGER WILL SPEAK about his book Tuesday, July 8, from 7:30-9 p.m., at Centreville Regional Library. "Father Found" is available via XulonPress.com, Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com or Borders.com, plus bookstores. Or e-mail Heis56@aol.com.

Writing the book was something Heisinger — who in 1985 retired as a captain after serving 30 years in the Navy — felt compelled to do. At a family reunion at his brother's house, 10 years ago, one of his nephews asked about his grandfather. He said his dad had a tough time talking about him and didn't know many details.

"I realized, if we were going to know anything further, I'd have to do it," said Heisinger. "And there were always questions in my mind about why he went into the service before WWII, at age 38, leaving three kids, a wife and a good job."

Samuel Lawrence Heisinger had graduated from law school and was in the California National Guard when there was a voluntary call-up of JAG (Judge Advocate General) officers. He could go to the Presidio in San Francisco for a year or to the Philippines — and he chose the more adventurous overseas assignment.

"He was a patriotic person," said his son. "And it was a break from county government. He planned to open his own law practice when he came back."

But it was not to be. Instead, he became a POW from May 6, 1942 until his death, Jan. 13, 1945. He was placed on the last prison ship to Japan, three weeks before American forces arrived in the area, and died on that ship, seven months before the war ended.

IN "FATHER FOUND," Duane Heisinger recounts his father's life from the time he left Fresno until his death. He does so through firsthand interviews with survivors and information gleaned from journals, diaries, letters and even scraps of paper dug up from where soldiers buried them in the POW camps.

"[His] work is a tribute to, not only his father, but to all of us who served in the Philippine Defense Campaign," writes the Rev. Robert Phillips, former POW and chaplain of the American defenders of Bataan and Corregidor. "His love for his father put a very human thread to his thoroughly researched story ... as seen by his father and fellow POWs."

Heisinger and his wife Judy (who have three married daughters and 10 grandchildren) moved to Centreville in February 1992, and he began his work on the book in fall 1993. "I've always been kind of a historian," he said. "With all my Navy time and travel, I was comfortable about being able to pursue it. And I'd retired, so I had time that I could devote to it."

He tried to get hold of his father's service record, but most of it got destroyed in the Philippines. But he made contact with people working on similar projects.

"I met a professor in Connecticut who became a mentor to me, and I went through all my dad's letters to my mom — who'd had them typed up and gave them to [me and my brothers]," said Heisinger, who also praised his mother for doing such a good job of raising him and his siblings alone. (In fact, he dedicated the book to her and said all three boys wanted to do well in life because she worked so hard for them).

He asked the professor about every name his father mentioned in his letters and also took those names with him whenever he went to the National Archives or talked to anyone generally knowledgeable about the Philippine POW camps.

"THAT LET ME to a diary of one of those names, and [that person] sent it to me," said Heisinger. "Since I had a limited amount of material on my dad, I'd pursue anything talked about by people who were even remotely around where he was — people who knew him or what he did."

"They'd tell me what they saw," he continued. "And to piece his story together, I'd weave in personal comments from people [with firsthand knowledge of] him or who wrote letters to my mom, after the war."

The recollections included ones such as that from a man who, after meeting Heisinger, told him, "I stood in line to get on a ship with your father — and you walk like he does." Even more poignant was a remark from a man now living in Indio, Calif. He told Heisinger, "Your father was the father to me in the POW camp [in Mindanao] that I never had as a child." His father was 40 then, and the younger man was 22.

"That was very special because, in a sense, I was sharing my father with someone else," said Heisinger. "And that statement made it worthwhile to me to have spent 10 years on this book because it gave me a keen sense of my father's character and the kind of person he was."

The research also enabled him to make contact with other sons and daughters who'd lost military fathers in WWII, in combat or as POWs. "We've met and shared a lot, and I feel very close to these people," he said. "It's kind of a support group, and it's been very rewarding." And what makes his book unique, he said, is that it doesn't simply retell a historical event, but "shares the personal, emotional viewpoint of a son" whose decade-long odyssey leads to a "Father Found."