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From Salerno to Stark

Alton resident recalls experiences on the front lines — and at home — during WWII

ALTON RESIDENT ALLAN GURNEY today (right) and as he appeared in his early 20s (left) as a young private in the U.S. Army. The hand-drawn pencil sketch of the young Gurney was given to him by a German POW he befriended while serving at a prison camp in Pennsylvania. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
October 27, 2009
ALTON — Allan Gurney's most treasured souvenir from his military service during the Second World War isn't a helmet or a medal, but rather a piece of artwork that hangs on his living room wall.

Flanked on one side by a portrait of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, and on the other by an image of Gurney's personal hero, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a hand-drawn pencil sketch of the 85-year-old Alton resident as he appeared in his early 20s greets visitors with a warm smile.

For Gurney, who says that even the small taste of war he was given as a private on the front lines of the Allied invasion of Italy was enough for him, the drawing (given to him by a German inmate at a prisoner-of-war camp in Pennsylvania) represents an important lesson — that when the explosions, gunshots, and trenches are stripped away, even bitter enemies can sometimes find common ground.

Gurney, a native of Brockton, Mass., was a 17-year-old high school student when the United States entered the war in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Swept up in the patriotic fervor of the time, he left school to enlist, and was inducted into the Army at the age of 18.

After 13 weeks of basic training, Gurney's company was sent off to Europe as part of the 45th Infantry Division (which became known as the 'Thunderbird' division after replacing its original insignia, a traditional swastika, with the mythological bird in order to avoid confusion on the front lines).

Following its arrival at Oran on the Mediterranean coast in North Africa, Gurney's regiment was transported to Sicily to reinforce the Allied invasion of Italy.

The Allies, he said, were successful in pushing German forces north onto the "boot" of Italy until the invasion stalled near the coastal town of Anzio amid cold, rainy weather.

Shortly after celebrating his 19th birthday on the front lines, Gurney was stricken with a severe case of 'trenchfoot' (the military term at that time for frostbite) while serving on observation duty one evening, and was sent to a hospital in Naples, then back to Oran for recovery.

After several weeks of arduous rehabilitation, he returned to the front lines, narrowly missing the Battle of Anzio.

Although there was still fighting going on in the area, Gurney's feet hadn't recovered enough for him to continue serving on the front, and he was shipped back to the United States — a turn of events that he said he never regretted, having learned later that his company was nearly wiped out as the Allies pushed forward into southern France.

Upon their return to the States, Gurney said he and his fellow privates who had suffered trenchfoot and other injuries were given two choices for new assignments — become a cook, or an MP (military police officer).

"I didn't want to be a cook, and be in a hot kitchen," he said with a laugh, explaining that he opted to become an MP and was briefly stationed at Fort Devens, Mass. before being transferred to the prisoner-of-war camp in the northern New Hampshire village of Stark.

Originally built as a dormitory for Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression, Camp Stark was converted during the Second World War into a labor camp where German POWs were put to work cutting wood into pulp for the Berlin-based Brown company, which used the pulp to create paper, a much-needed resource during the war.

Gurney's duties at the camp ranged from guarding work details in the woods to manning the four observation towers located at each corner of the property.

Describing the experience as "interesting duty" for the five months he was stationed at Camp Stark, Gurney said he was later transferred to another POW camp in Pennsylvania.

It was in Pennsylvania, he said, that he became friendly with the aspiring German artist who drew the pencil sketch (based on a small photograph Gurney provided).

Another German POW who happened to be a tailor by trade offered to cut Gurney's standard-issue uniform blouse (which Gurney said was too long to suit his taste) down to a waist-length Eisenhower-style jacket that Gurney found much more comfortable.

"I always liked [Eisenhower jackets], but I never got one," he said, praising the "factory-like product" the POW was able to produce with the limited materials available to him.

Yet another POW who enjoyed woodworking, he said, made him a Maplewood hope chest that his daughter still uses to this day.

Although American guards were technically prohibited from fraternizing with their German charges, Gurney said he found the POWs he met at Camp Stark and in Pennsylvania to be friendly, good-natured individuals and true artists who produced "magnificent work."

While Army policy at the time did not allow the guards to pay POWs for their services with money, Gurney said, the prisoners were more than happy to offer their help in exchange for cigarettes and American candy bars.

Talking with the POWs and hearing their own anxieties about what the war might bring, he said, humanized them, making them seem less like enemies than spiritual comrades.

A peaceful reunion

Years after he was discharged from the service and settled in the Lakes Region with his wife, Gurney attended a lecture at the Gilman Library in Alton given by Allen Koop, a former professor of American and European history at Colby-Sawyer College and author of the book "Stark Decency: German prisoners of war in a New England Village."

After talking with Gurney and learning of his experiences as a guard at Camp Stark, Koop became inspired to organize a reunion of prisoners and guards in Stark as a celebration of the longstanding peace between the United States and Germany.

With the help of Stark resident Madeleine Croteau, Koop traveled throughout Germany in the years leading up to the planned reunion, tracking down a number of former prisoners, five of whom agreed to travel to New Hampshire for the event.

On a late September afternoon in 1986, Gurney and several of his fellow guards gathered in Stark along with the five former POWs for the first German-American Friendship Day, touring the site of the camp (where Gurney said nothing remained but part of a stone fireplace and the concrete footings for the observation towers) and sharing their memories of life inside the camp.

"It became a wonderful event that we'll never forget," a misty-eyed Gurney recalled, explaining that the reunion gave him an unexpected chance to re-connect with a former inmate with whom he still keeps in touch by letter from time to time.

Gurney also attended Stark's second German-American Friendship Day in 1996, a smaller event that he said was less well-attended, but no less meaningful for the guards and POWs who were there that day.

With more than 50 years having passed by the time the second reunion was held, and the passion and politics out of the picture, he said, the men who gathered near the covered bridge in Stark that day were no longer Nazis and Yanks; no longer Allies and enemies — they were simply old men shaking hands and trading memories of a place that became, for many of them, a small island of peace in the midst of a world on fire.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

Matin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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