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Stark remembers former POW Camp

Ex-POW Albert Peterman of Germany sits in a vintage jeep alongside former civilian foreman Francis Lang (left) and former camp guard Allan Gurney (right) in Stark on Saturday. The three traveled to visit from Germany, Florida, and Alton, NH, respectively, to visit the site of Camp Stark where they worked during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Allen Koop) (click for larger version)
March 31, 2010
STARK — Just past the center of Stark, about a mile and a half up Route 110, stands a NH historical marker that reads:

"In the spring of 1944 a high fence and four guard towers transformed a former Civilian Conservation Corps Camp on this site into New Hampshire's sole World War II prisoner-of-war camp." This sign marks the spot where the entrance to Camp Stark once stood.

All that is left of the camp today is a crumbling fireplace-turned-memorial revealing where the camp's recreation hall once stood, and a well-hidden cement block foundation of a guard tower. However, the overgrown meadow once filled with barracks played host to a group of local citizens and historians on Saturday when two former camp workers and one German ex-prisoner-of-war returned to the site to reflect on their time spent in Camp Stark during World War II, and the unlikely friendships that formed amongst the soldiers, civilians, and POWs on both sides of the fence.

From the spring of 1944 to the spring of 1946, Camp Stark was home to about 250 German and Austrian soldiers, the historical marker explains. The prisoners helped to fill the void in capable workers created when many young American men were sent to war. They worked in the surrounding forest, cutting down pulpwood for Berlin's Brown Paper Company.

In 1944, Albert Peterman was a teenaged soldier fighting in the German army. It was in Normandy that he was captured by Canadian forces, a moment he still remembers clearly more than sixty years later.

"It was the morning. 4 o'clock," Mr. Peterman explained in his broken English. "Canadian Army: 'Come out!'" From France, he was transported to England, before being brought to Boston and Fort Devens. From Massachusetts, he traveled by truck to Camp Stark for a year-and-a-half interment.

"There was a rule that they had to make a certain amount of wood per day," translated Ole Peterman who traveled from Germany with his grandfather and served as interpreter for the get-together. "A cord of wood per day."

The POWs were paid 90 cents per day, explained Mr. Peterman and were allowed to spend their money at the camp's canteen where they could buy cigarettes or candy.

Mr. Peterman also spent two years in an English work camp following the war, and emphasized how much more he enjoyed his time at Camp Stark than his time harvesting hops and cherries in England.

"Here is better," Mr. Peterman said, gesturing passionately. "Here is good."

Mr. Peterman was joined by Allan Gurney of Alton, NH, former Camp Stark guard, and Francis Lang of Florida, former Stark resident and camp civilian foreman. Mr. Gurney fought in Italy during the war before being stationed at Camp Stark following a foot injury. He spent five months at the camp.

"I didn't know Albert as a POW. Not until we had reunions," said Mr. Gurney, referring to previous gatherings at Camp Stark. "And we've become great friends." The two write to each other two or three times a year with the help of Mr. Gurney's German neighbor who translates Mr. Gurney's letters from English to German and Mr. Peterman's letters from German to English.

"My brother, Albert, and I both worked at the camp," said Mr. Lang who worked at Camp Stark for about a year. "In fact, he was one of the first ones here when they were getting the camp working and he was one of the last ones when they closed it up." The brothers worked as two of the many civilian foreman at the camp, hired by the Brown Paper Company to teach the prisoners how to cut down the trees. Now, Mr. Lang is the last surviving civilian foreman of the camp.

"I've been to Albert's house in Germany two times," said Mr. Lang, who is also friends with Mr. Peterman.

In fact, Mr. Peterman and his grandson began their trip to America with a visit to Mr. Lang's house in Florida before making the trek up to NH by car with Mr. Lang and his wife. The Petermans will travel back to Florida with the Langs before flying back to Germany next week.

This get-together was not the first of its kind. It was Dartmouth Professor of History Allen Koop who first had the idea to tell the unique story of Camp Stark. In 1986, with the help of Stark resident Madeline Croteau, he organized the first German-American Friendship Day, explained Ms. Croteau. While doing research for a book on Camp Stark, Professor Koop traveled across Germany to talk to former POWs of Camp Stark in the months leading up to the reunion, persuading five men to make the long trip back across the Atlantic.

Two years later, Professor Koop's book, Stark Decency, was published, resulting in another reunion. In 1996, Stark hosted the second German-American Friendship Day, followed by another in 2006.

Professor Koop was on hand on Saturday to greet his old friends, and speak about the importance of telling the story of Camp Stark.

"A very significant day, 65 years after WWII, 24 years after the big reunion in '86," said Mr. Koop. "The story, a story of Stark Decency, continues. I ended my book with the prediction that the children of the POWs would be back. They have, and also the grandchildren."

"I think Allen Koop probably did something very, very good by writing this book in getting people back together," said Berlin resident Bill Joyce. "We've heard and seen so many horror stories on TV about every war where things were just incredibly bad. It could have been terrible for the guards and it could have been terrible for the prisoners, but they just took an adverse situation and made the best out of it and we all need to try to do that."

Ms. Croteau, who manages the Stark Heritage Center that includes Allan Gurney's collection of memorabilia related to Camp Stark, echoed Mr. Joyce's sentiment on the importance of continuing to reflect on those two years Camp Stark was in existence and to celebrate the friendships that have formed as a result so many years later.

"To me, we're so small here," said Ms. Croteau. "We don't matter here to a lot of people because we're so small, but things like what we've done today do matter."

Professor Koop concluded the visit to the clearing where Camp Stark once stood with a reading of a poem Francis Lang wrote for the 1988 reunion. The final two verses read: "These young boys now grey-haired men, 
Had learned to make amends, 
Those enemies from a distant past, 
Had now become good friends. There's nothing where the camp once was, 
Just a plaque that reads with pride, 
An equal tribute to those men, 
Who came from either side."

Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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