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In New Hampshire: an Unusual Reunion

7 minute read
John Skow

Wars look better after 40 years, when the old men who were soldiers forget how frightened they were. Perhaps it is merely that survival itself takes on a golden haze: we were being shot at, but we were young, and the bullets missed. Even so, it seems strange that anyone would look back fondly at time spent as prisoner or guard in a military prison.

“Why would they do this for us?” wondered Gerhardt Clauss, 61, a former German infantryman who was seeing the tiny north-woods town of Stark, N.H., for the first time since 1946. Clauss, now a prosperous businessman in north Germany, shook his head, surprised by the brass band, the drill team and bagpiper, the signs announcing GERMAN-AMERICAN FRIENDSHIP DAY. On the other hand, why had Clauss, four other former prisoners and an assortment of wives, friends and children come all the way to Stark?

Partly, of course, just for a pleasant tour; life had long since eased for Clauss and the rest, and a vacation trip to the U.S. was quite normal. But Stark, even with its maples and birches blazing red and yellow on this early fall Saturday, is no more than a spare, work-worn village, well to the north of the usual tourist route through the White Mountains. To come here takes $ some effort. All through the afternoon of speeches and band music, the Germans, who were honored guests, and the American men of the same age who had been MPs at the prison camp, and a few old townspeople who remembered those days tried to say exactly why this reunion meant so much to them. Using an unfamiliar language, as some tried to do, was not really the problem. It was that the situation was unusual, and the ordinary formulas of memory and friendship did not quite fit.

Camp Stark, the only prisoner-of-war stockade in New Hampshire, operated from the spring of 1944 to the spring of 1946. Some of the 250 prisoners were captured in North Africa early in the war and were members of a division formed of leftist political dissidents routed out of German prisons and sent to fill out Rommel’s army. But those who returned to Stark, tracked down over the past four years by Allen Koop, a professor of American and European history at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., had been ordinary soldiers, 18 or 19 years old, captured by U.S. troops in Normandy in June and July of 1944. Some 300,000 German prisoners were shipped to camps in the U.S. during the war, and most of those who were able-bodied were trucked each day to work on nearby farms. Agriculture in New Hampshire produces little but rocks, and those sprout without help. The work to be done at Stark was up in the steep, wooded hills, cutting pulpwood for the Brown Paper Co.

Klaus Wiemann, 60, now a construction contractor, is a burly, genial man who still remembers much of the American-accented English, long unused, that he learned at 19 when he came to the prison camp. He had been a farm boy, and he knew well hard work. City-bred prisoners, he said, had a hard time. He was part of a five-man logging team. There were no chain saws or skidders or big logging tractors as there are now; the prisoners worked bow saws or long two- man crosscut saws to fell trees. Wiemann guided the workhorse that dragged the logs to the roadhead, and two other men bucked the logs into 4-ft. lengths. When the team produced “eine Klafte pro Kopf” — one cord of wood per man — each member received 80 cents for the day. It wasn’t much, but canteen supplies were cheap: beer 10 cents, milk 10 cents, cigarettes 25 cents a pack. (A reporter notes a discrepancy here; the Germans all agree that beer was available, possibly because they cannot now imagine that in a town so friendly beer would have been absent. But the old American MPs who made the trip back to Stark for this reunion say there was no beer for prisoners.)

Beer or not, Camp Stark was a hard, rough place. The guards were not vindictive, but they were guards, and the barbed wire was real. The work was brutal enough to beat down all but the strongest men. There were escapes, and one prisoner is supposed to have reached New York City before he was captured. Two men dug a tunnel and were burrowing under a guardhouse when they were discovered. Wiemann went AWOL from a work crew with another man and was caught in the woods three days later. He got ten days on bread and water for that, he recalled with a small smile, and the guards shaved his head. Then, perhaps because he was just 19 and they felt sorry for him, they turned their backs when his friends slipped food through the guardhouse wire.

Stories like this hung in the air at the reunion. Mario Adinolfi, 70, from New York City, had been an MP at Stark. So had Bob Simonian, 61, from Worcester, Mass. “You weren’t supposed to fraternize,” said Adinolfi, “but we all did.” Simonian remembers the prisoners’ going on strike when they got tired of work. “We had to go in and take away all their canteen supplies,” he recalled, laughing. Hermann Uelsmann, 61, who was a weapons specialist with the Luftwaffe before he was captured at Cherbourg, remembered the strike as grim and not at all funny. “The snow was two meters deep,” he said in German. “We could not cut our quota; it wasn’t possible. We struck, and they put us on bread and water. After five days, though, the commandant asked if we would work, never mind the quota. We said yes, and he gave us a day of normal food, without working. Then we worked. He was a fair man.”

Old men searched old faces and made broad gestures when memory clicked into place; yes, the hair is thin; yes, the belly is big. Winston Hart, 71, was there, a very tall, strong-faced man called “Hemlock,” with powerful knotty arms, his pants held up by braces, who was a woods foreman for the Brown Paper Co. Another bull of the woods, Albert Gadwah, 79, showed up wearing a brand- new red shirt, size extra large. “I never had a bit of a problem with those boys,” he said. Raymond White, 58, from Guildhall, Vt., seemed too young to have memories of Camp Stark. But he had come carrying a sack full of old photos, looking for a friend. He found him too: Clauss, who had translated for the local priest when White had been an altar boy at St. Francis Church.

Some of the memories hurt. “Well, have you had a good life since?” one of the Americans asked Wiemann. He was quiet for a moment, then said, “Yes, after the first six or seven years.” His part of East Prussia was taken over by the Soviets, and there was no home for him to return to. The war was half- forgotten for the Americans in 1955, but for one of the former prisoners, Hans Richter, 60, that was the year he fled East Germany with 60 pfennigs in his pocket. He found a job near Wiesbaden as a machinist and three months later sent for his wife Elisabeth.

Old stories, old faces. The reunion party motored a couple of miles away to the site of Camp Stark, now nothing but a clearing at the edge of the White Mountain National Forest, a couple of tumbled stone fireplaces and a new highway marker sketching its history. Historian Koop, who had organized the affair and is writing a book about Stark, spoke of “rugged hills and gentle people” and quoted the truthful remark of one old resident that “yup, things have been kinda slow since they closed the camp.” Hartmut Lang, a young official from the German consulate in Boston, said with great seriousness and strong emotion that it is very hard to be a prisoner but far harder to be a prison guard. To do these things with decency and without hatred, he meant. And that was the expression of what guests and hosts had been trying to say all day: they were proud of having participated together, 40 years before, in a rare and difficult act of decency.

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