His father's death left his mother, a heartbroken widow at age 19, unable to care for her only child so family friends raised him, though she stayed a part of his life.
Now, 70 years after his father's death, Michael has been given an extraordinary glimpse into the love affair between his parents through a series of recently discovered love letters between his father, Navy Officer Charles Campbell, and his mother, Elizabeth Tisdale.
"She always told me 'If there's something in my life I can never deny it's I was loved by your father,' " Michael, 70, tells PEOPLE. "The letters showed that."
During an emotional gathering in Lexington, South Carolina earlier this month, the 40 letters were returned to Campbell. He wore his father’s old sailor cap for the occasion.
"I've always had a lot of respect for him and being able to read his own words, has shown me why I respect him," he says. "Even in the middle of war, he was always positive about making a life with his wife and son.
"He never expressed regret that he was in this war situation," he says. "He knew he was headed to the hotbed Phillipines, but the knew that's where he was supposed to be. To me that's a real hero."
"The way he wrote to her, he told her over and over that she was his life," he says. "The last couple of letters, he talked about me, which meant a lot.”
The letters were discovered after two property preservation workers, completing a routine preliminary walk-through on a foreclosed home in Augusta, Georgia, found them, along with a Purple Heart medal, in a dusty box in the house attic.
No one knows how they got there – or even who owned the house.
"That's the mystery of it, " Lara Mauer, 43, tells PEOPLE. "We will never know."
Her finding them when she did was also incredibly serendipitous.
“We didn’t know at the time, but that house was going to be condemned for black mold,”Mauer says. “I found the box on a Thursday and by the following Monday everything had been bagged and destroyed. It’s pure luck that I picked up that dusty box when I did or none of this would have happened.”
The Hunt BeginsMauer took the letters to close friend Britnee Kinard, a 2015 Caregiver Lincoln Award winner for her work with the SD Gunner Fund, an organization that assists veterans and disabled children with the financial burdens of owning a service dog.
“When Lara gave me the box, I immediately set out to find Charles Campbell’s family,” Kinard tells PEOPLE. “First it started off as a project, but when you really read the letters it was as if you had submersed yourself into a Great Gatsby type of novel. There was drama, love, heartbreak… It was a love story.”
Kinard spent two months tirelessly searching for the descendants of Charles Campbell using old records books and consulting war museums.
She sought the help of a local journalist, who directed her to Facebook. She then began cold-calling folks she thought might have a connection to the WWII Vet.
After weeks of coming up short, Kinard decided to make one last call to a woman in Lexington, South Carolina, she thought could be Charles Campbell's granddaughter, before calling it quits.
“I said to myself ‘This is the last one!’ Because people had begun to think I was some crazy stalker person,” says Kinard. “I just wanted these letters to return home, though, because I knew this was something really special.”
Hope Campbell, 44, admits she was wary when she first heard from Kinard, but she knew she had a grandfather that had been killed in action in the Philippines, so decided to hear her out.
“I didn’t know what to think when I first heard from Britnee,” she tells PEOPLE. “Only someone that truly believes in love and in this country would go to that much trouble to find us. It really touched my family that she reconnected my father with his father. Britnee and her family are now our family.”
When Hope and her 70-year-old father met Kinard to retrieve the letters, they were blown away by the love story they found in the writings.
“I had visited my grandmother several years before she passed away in 2009,” Hope says. “We talked about her and Charles’ love story and how they met. What her life was like after she got the news.
"It was a story that she didn't tell often," she says. "He was her true love. Even after he passed and she remarried, he was always her love. These letters are proof of their incredible story.”
The last letter, dated October 18, 1944, contains the last words ever written by Charles Campbell:
"Hello Darling, here I am today. How is my wife and son feeling today? The old man is fine himself. Thought I'd say hello to my family…Say hon, is Michael growin’ any? I'll be glad when I can see him. I hope it won't be so many more months. I've been away form the States for four month already… Well, darling, so I'll close for now. Tell everyone hello for me. Take good care of yourself and of our son. Write to me as often as possible. Remember I love you very much. All my love always, Charles."
Much of the letter was blacked out due to intelligence censorship at the time, but the love Charles Campbell had for his family is very clear.
“There’s been a sadness my whole life that I didn’t know him,” says Michael. “I now have closure, especially on this incredible love story that was my mom and dad."