Man finds his great-grandfather after 40-year search
Captain Carl A. Zwicker as he appeared in 1942.
Alfred Albert Zwicker, who later used the name Carl A. Zwicker, as he appeared in 1918.
The children of A.A. Zwicker and Agnes Congalton Zwicker just before Agnes and her daughter Elsa moved to Australia in 1913. From left: Otto, Al and Elsa.
This draft registration card helped Cary Christopher identify his great-grandfather.
Cary Christopher, who searched for knowledge of his great-grandfather for 40 years, found him in 2006 through a World War I draft registration card on Ancestry.com.
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Cary Christopher grew up not knowing what to believe about his great-grandfather.
Some things he was sure of: Born and raised in Germany, Alfred Albert Zwicker was a merchant sailor who married Agnes Congalton in her native New Zealand.
"They met in a pub," said Mr. Christopher, who lives in Moon. Zwicker played guitar in taverns and may have been doing so the night they met.
After they wed, "he was at sea most of the time and when he'd come home they'd fight like cats and dogs." The marriage lasted about seven years. Mr. Zwicker went back to Germany in late 1912 or early 1913; his wife and three children never saw him again.
After they separated, Agnes moved with their daughter, Elsa, to Australia, met and married an American sailor named James Smet and moved to Oakland, Calif., in 1915. The boys, Albert and Otto, remained in New Zealand, living on a sheep ranch with a family they became deeply attached to, until Agnes sent for them in 1921 and changed their last names to Smet.
Not knowing what became of her first husband, Agnes invented stories about him, which Mr. Christopher heard from his grandfather, Otto, and other relatives.
Zwicker had fought for the Kaiser in World War I, Agnes said, and died when his U-boat was hit and sunk. In another version, he was playing guitar in a cabaret when his ship left and he went AWOL. After it sunk, he changed his name to avoid prosecution. Another time, Agnes said he'd been taken prisoner of war.
"I wrote the Red Cross and the governments of several nations to see if there was a record of his being a POW," Mr. Christopher said. "There was none."
Hooked on genealogy at age 12 by his grandmother, Otto's wife Frances, Mr. Christopher searched for his great-grandfather for 40 years and never found him. In 2006, when Ancestry.com posted World War I draft cards on its Web site, Mr. Christopher typed in Zwicker's full name -- Alfred Albert Zwicker -- and his birth date on a whim.
Within seconds Mr. Christopher was staring at an image of the draft card of Carl A. Zwicker, a naturalized U.S. citizen working as a ship rigger in 1918 and living in Brooklyn with his wife, Sophie. He was of medium height and build, with blue eyes and light hair.
Mr. Christopher had seen Carl A. Zwicker's name before on ship crew lists from about 1915 to 1930, but didn't know how to find out more about him. Due to inaccurate transcriptions since corrected, census records had been no help, either.
Mr. Christopher later found Zwicker's naturalization record and checked all the births in Leipzig, Germany, the day he was born. Together they proved Albert Zwicker and Carl A. Zwicker were the same person.
"To search for anyone for 40 years and suddenly find him ... I was in a state of shock. I just couldn't believe it," Mr. Christopher said.
Fueled by the knowledge that his German great-grandfather had become an American citizen, Mr. Christopher dug deeper. He learned that Zwicker had been the captain of several merchant marine ships beginning in the 1930s.
One of them was the S.S. David McKelvey, an oil transport shop. On May 14, 1942, a Nazi U-boat torpedoed the McKelvey in the Gulf of Mexico while it was en route from New York City to Galveston, Texas. The ship did not sink immediately; 25 of the 40-man crew were saved the next day by the Coast Guard. But Zwicker and 14 others were lost.
"The first thing I thought was, how sad my grandfather Otto didn't live to know [his dad] was an American and an American hero," said Mr. Christopher, whose discovery is one of five stories now being featured in an Ancestry.com marketing campaign.
"After all the fables we'd been told about him," Mr. Christopher said, the irony of how closely one of his great-grandmother's stories mirrored reality hasn't escaped him. "He was killed by the very nation of his birth during World War II, the complete opposite of what we'd been told."
Mr. Christopher also learned that his great-grandfather and his second wife had a daughter, Violet, born in 1915. In the Social Security Death Index, Mr. Christopher found Sophie Hannah Arendel Zwicker (1890-1977) and Violet Zwicker Huckstep (1915-1996) had both died on Long Island. Through probate records, he located Violet's granddaughter, Lorilyn Haley, who lives in Tampa.
"I sent her all the evidence," Mr. Christopher said. "She was ecstatic."
After they met in Tampa in 2006, she also sent photographs of Zwicker, the first Mr. Christopher had seen of his mother's father's father. One manly pose in athleticwear indicates he'd been a bodybuilder in his youth.
A retired real estate asset manager, Mr. Christopher, 54, and his wife Danielle moved here two years ago from San Diego to be near their son David, his wife Annie and their two children. David, worship minister at Faithbridge Community Ministries in McKees Rocks, and Annie, who is worship leader there, use music in their ministry.
"He's a guitarist," Mr. Christopher said, "just like his great-great-grandfather."
First of an occasional series
First Published July 29, 2009 12:00 am