A Belgian woman's plea for help to find the Canadian soldier she thinks is her biological father has captured the attention of thousands of people around the world, prompting Canadians to dig into the military pasts of their own families and to scour archival websites to try to solve the mystery.
Florence Heene, now 71, got her first glimpse at the man she came to believe was her father as a child. She was rummaging through a box of photos in her home in Eeklo, Belgium, and noticed most were pictures of soldiers.
When she asked her mother who they were, she was told they were uncles.
But when she was around 12 years old, Heene saw her mother's marriage certificate; it was dated a year after her birth in 1945.
"This was strange," she said in a telephone interview from Maldegem, the Belgian town where she now lives.
Her mother eventually told Heene that her biological father was a Canadian soldier who was stationed in Ghent during the Second World War. Their relationship ended when he left to fight elsewhere and she married the man who became Heene's stepfather.
Although her stepfather raised Heene as his own, and she had a happy family life with her brother and sister, Heene desperately wanted to know more about her personal history.
"You miss a piece of your identity," she said.
So she took to Facebook a week ago to ask the world for help — something she calls her last resort.
"It is my greatest wish to find out more about … my biological father," she wrote in Flemish. "Is he still alive or how and when did he die? Do I have any other [half] brothers or sisters?"
Heene has very little to go on — only the photos and a belief that her father's first name was Herbert. She doesn't know his last name, nor does she know whether he survived the war. In her Facebook post, she said her mother's maiden name was Augusta Ryckoort.
Her mother never wanted to talk about the relationship, Heene said. "It was very difficult."
Since posting her plea on Facebook, it has been shared more than 114,000 times. Social media aggregator Reddit picked up the post, spreading its reach even further.
Heene has been receiving up to 300 messages a day from people offering suggestions on where to look for more information, or tips they think could help.
One Canadian woman thought the soldier appearing in the photo beside "Herbert" might be her own father. It wasn't. Others have taken it upon themselves to search online military and historical records on Heene's behalf.
Gary Menten, a retired sergeant from the 2nd Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, told CBC News he felt compelled to help when his aunt sent him Heene's Facebook post. Not only is Menten of Belgian descent, but he believes "Herbert" also served in Canada's artillery corps, based on the badge that appears on his beret in the photos.
"We have an expression that says 'once a gunner, always a gunner,'" said Menten, who lives in Montreal. "So this is very important to us."
Both Heene and CBC News sent the photos of "Herbert" to Library and Archives Canada, asking for help identifying him.
In an email to CBC News, Library and Archives genealogy consultant Emily Potter said although the quality of the photos makes it difficult to tell, "it does appear that he was a sergeant with the Royal Canadian Artillery."
Another researcher at Library and Archives Canada also looked at which Canadian regiments and divisions were stationed in Belgium in 1944 and 1945. Her findings narrowed down the search to:
- 4th Canadian Armoured Division, including Governor General's Foot Guards (21st Canadian Armoured Regiment); Canadian Grenadier Guards (22 Canadian Armoured Regiment); 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers); the Princess Louise Fusiliers (Motor); 28th Canadian Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Regiment); and Lake Superior Regiment (Motor).
- 2nd Canadian Infantry Division.
- The Lincoln and Welland Regiment (part of the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade).
- 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
"Unfortunately, we are unable to identify the soldier given the information provided," the agency wrote, noting the findings were "not an exhaustive search of our records, and to do so is a task we are unable to undertake."
Library and Archives Canada did provide a list of freelance researchers who could be hired to dig deeper into the mystery, saying it would respond to Heene directly.