American family finds Honiton war baby

Doomed romance left Honiton boy fatherless. His siblings were told he died during a war-time air raid.

When Honiton woman Sybil Harris married a Dunkeswell-based US sailor in 1945, her parents despaired.

The newly-weds were quickly parents themselves to a bouncing baby boy, but the romance was doomed. Mr and Mrs Harris Senior, who were stewards at Honiton Conservative Club, talked their daughter out of moving to America - meaning the marriage was soon over and the baby grew up without a father.

Now 65, Jim Burns regrets not meeting the man who gave him life. But, thanks to a twist of fate, he can look forward to meeting half-sisters and a brother he never knew he had.

Jim, a retired train driver, of Phillips Square, shares his fascinating story with the Midweek Herald, prompted by a recent story about a museum’s efforts to buy the US Navy’s former administration block at Dunkeswell airbase.

“My parents, Sybil Harris and James Burns, who served with the Seabees, had a war-time romance and were married in May 1945 at the Church of the Holy Family in Honiton,” he said.

“I was born in the Conservative Club, but my grandparents, who were stewards there, did not agree with the relationship.

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“My grandmother did not want my mum to go to America and my mum was persuaded to stay here. Her relationship with my dad just fizzled out.

“I was brought up by my mother and grandparents, not knowing my father.

“I tried to find him a few years ago, through the Salvation Army, but found out he died in 1975.”

Jim was keen to trace his father after finding himself with no living blood relatives. His only son, Jamie, died in tragic circumstances in the River Gissage.

He said: “My mother never talked about my dad.

“It was a taboo subject and time just went on.”

But, in February this year, Jim’s life changed forever.

A letter from America was delivered to the home of his ex-wife. It was from a half-sister he never knew he had.

Celeste Burns explained a relative had come across his details while researching the family tree and that they wanted to welcome him into their family.

Her late father had told the family that Jim and his mother had been killed in air raids during the Second World War. He had even talked of returning to England after the war to find their graves.

“I found out my father had been married four times,” said Jim. “His third wife died in childbirth.

“I was emotional at first, but now I am in touch with a family I never knew I had.

“I have got three half-sisters and a half-brother still living, as well as other relatives.

“Initially, I was overwhelmed and then the dust settled.”

Jim is in touch with his family in America and is hopeful a reunion will be staged in England later this year.

Importantly, he now knows all about the father he never met - from his Clark Gable good looks and success with women to where he grew up, what he did for a living at various stages in his life and even what hobbies he enjoyed.

Right down to the last detail, Jim can now say he knows his dad.

He may never have been able to look him in the eye and shake his hand, but he knows every quirk of the sailor’s character - even his sense of humour.

When the late James Burns wanted his breakfast cooked, he would get up, go downstairs and ring the front doorbell until his wife got up and answered!

Stories just like that one are now being shared with Jim so, more than six decades after he was born, he can finally get to know his American family.