RICHMOND — The silence deep in the woods is all-encompassing, nature’s bounty for stoking the senses. Here, at Camp Takodah, tall pines stand sentry high above the hunter’s green cabins, their roofs coated with pine needles. The land’s contours lead downhill, to Cass Pond, where the Memorial Lodge — “Mem,” as it’s fondly called — sits grandly on water’s edge.
It was here in 1946, a sunny Sunday in late July, the sky dotted with puffs of white clouds, that the wooden lodge was dedicated.
The camp turned 30 years old that year, and its board of directors wanted to honor the 44 Takodians who had died since its founding. The Memorial Lodge Fund had raised the $7,500 needed to build the lodge, and a congregation of carpenters, family members and returning war veterans constructed it in a matter of months.
World War II was still on everyone’s mind, foremost the returning veterans who were struggling to re-enter everyday life. Some worked on building the lodge for free room and board, a temporary sanctuary in the months after the war, and they shared stories of buddies lost in battle. “Uncle” Oscar Elwell, one of the camp’s founders and its long-serving director, watched their interactions and listened to their conversations. He was duly moved that 12 of the 44 deceased Takodians died in the war.
Dedication day included speeches, songs, prayers, poems and tears, along with the reading of the 44 names. But Elwell wanted to separately honor the 12 who died in the war, so he unveiled a bronze plaque, a screaming eagle at its zenith. Underneath the eagle, its head turned to the right, are the names of the 12, who died violently on land, in the air and at sea. Today, their boyhood faces are embedded in the year-by-year, black-and-white “team” photos that adorn the Mem’s walls. In the summer of 1936, for instance, six of the 12 can be spotted in the long, rectangular image.
For 73 years that plaque has hung above the fireplace in the Mem, its physical luster fading under layers of grime.
Likewise, the men and their stories have faded into the clutches of time. But that was before Graeme Noseworthy of Leominster, Mass., made their stories his calling. A Takodian camper as a boy who returned 20 years later as a leader, Noseworthy has brought those 12 men to life. Even the plaque is being professionally restored.
For six months Noseworthy and writing partner Timothy Lang Francis, a Navy reservist who served two tours in Iraq and historian with a Ph.D. in military history, have been researching their lives. They have uncovered some incredible details about their bravery and heroism.
“I just kept digging and digging and digging,” Noseworthy said, an endeavor that began in earnest about six months ago.
Noseworthy and Francis, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., and has family ties to Keene, have never met in person. They will get together at the end of this month, when a special ceremony honoring the 12 killed in World War II will take place at the camp. Francis will be on hand, along with at least eight of the 12 families of the men represented, plus numerous artifacts collected from the veterans’ personal belongings.
Meanwhile, their amazing and heartwrenching stories are being loaded one by one on the camp’s website and can be found here: https://bit.ly/2wGB9YI. They began uploading them on Memorial Day and will add another name, another story, every few days until the June 29 ceremony. It’s where, in detail, you can learn about the likes of “Beanie” (Chester Lyman Kingsbury Jr.) and his trumpet, Robert Douglas Lancey and the long-abandoned tradition of the “Bat,” and so much more.
Just what motivated Noseworthy and then Francis to unearth their stories?
They’ll tell you it was the veterans themselves, speaking to them through reams of archives — military and civilian — and recollections by still-living relatives.
“It’s always surprising to see the individual details of what people went through. I’ve seen that the whole time writing as a Navy historian,” Francis said from Maryland this week. “There were close to 12 million in uniform during World War II, and every single one of those people have a story, and we don’t know them all, not even close to knowing them all.”
‘The Whistling of the Winds’
Graeme Noseworthy is the father of two boys, ages 13 and 15, and his wife, Carrie, is a former Army sergeant. He attended Camp Takodah in the 1980s for seven years, and his father and brother were also campers. Born in Northampton, Mass., today he is a marketing social strategist for IBM and works in Littleton, Mass. He went 20 years without visiting the camp, yet his experiences were poignant enough that in 2011, Carrie told him: “You talk about this place all the time. You should go back and visit.”
He did, and he was hooked. He signed up as a volunteer leader in 2012, and his kids attend camp. He’s also secretary and soon-to-be vice president of the camp’s affiliation, the Cheshire YMCA. And, of course, he’s the camp’s historian. He says the records kept and preserved by Oscar Elwell in the basement of the Cheshire YMCA building in Swanzey, including the original deeds, stand out for their detail.
“He kept everything, and I mean everything, and took unbelievable records of our camp’s history,” Noseworthy said.
Motivated, Noseworthy researched the effects the Hurricane of 1938 had on the camp, how it cleaned out the forest and devastated its buildings. He wrote “The Whistling of the Winds,” chronicling the camp’s destruction and reconstruction.
While shuffling through the records, he came across the official 1946 program for the Mem’s dedication ceremony, and that drew him to the 12 names on the plaque. The more he learned about a few of the men, the more he wanted to know.
“I’m going to go all in on this thing,” he told Carrie. “I’m going to cover the history of these men.”
Noseworthy’s painstaking research eventually led him to an article published in 1997 by the Pacific Historical Review. Written by Francis, it was titled “To Dispose of the Prisoners.” The article detailed the plight of 17 American prisoners of war — captured pilots and flight crew — who were executed in Japan after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the men was Frederick Allen Stearns, whose name is on the Camp Takodah plaque. Stearns is Francis’ uncle, the brother of his mother, Janet, who was a Keene High School graduate. She never knew her brother died as a prisoner of war in Japan.
Francis had uncovered the story through a series of letters Stearns had written home, eventually connecting the dots with information from the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
“That’s the article Graeme found,” said Francis, who worked for the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington for 20 years. “That’s how he got my name; he found my brother’s address in New York, wrote him, my brother told me about it, and I called Graeme back in November or December. He told me what he was trying to do, and I thought it was an awesome idea.”
As the pair collaborated, Noseworthy tracked down much of the civilian-life information on the men while Francis unlocked their military movements until their deaths.
“What I find fascinating is they all ended up in highly skilled jobs,” Francis said. “Two hospital corpsmen, two or three radar engineers, flight engineers. It kind of says something about Keene High School, or Keene itself, the kind of families they came from, the educational focus. And the camp itself.”
Stories from the home front and the battle front
Every one of the 12 stories is engaging. Some are quite startling. “We didn’t want to turn it into Hollywood,” Noseworthy said, “but what we found shocked us, 12 stories of heartbreak and heroism.”
Gale Phillip Newell and Raymond Miley Krepps Jr. died on separate ships in almost the same spot in the Pacific Ocean. Their time as campers overlapped, so it figures they knew each other at Camp Takodah.
Phillip Douglas Parady, a Keene High graduate, had confided to the mother of his girlfriend, Frances Paula Kelly — known as Puggy — that he intended to ask for her hand in marriage. When word reached the family that Parady had been killed when his submarine was sunk, Puggy’s mother, Dorothy, went out and bought an engagement ring that she gave to her daughter. She wanted her daughter to know his intentions, and that engagement ring is a family heirloom today.
“Even in her deepest grief, his mother was thinking of others,” Noseworthy said, shaking his head.
Chester Lyman Kingsbury Jr. — Beanie — carried his trumpet with him into battle as a member of the 26th Yankee Division 101st Infantry in France. He was killed in the woods of the French countryside, and his body lay there for two years. His niece, Sandra Kingsbury, showed Noseworthy the timeworn trumpet she found in her lake house. Noseworthy was able to identify it as Beanie’s through its markings.
Chasing “The Bat” was an annual tradition at camp. One of the leaders would dress, unannounced, in bat costume, and campers would race out of the performing arts building trying to catch it. The person who caught the Bat got free tuition the following summer (a tradition that ended sometime in the 1950s because kids were getting hurt fighting to get out of the building). In 1941, Robert Douglas Lancey was the Bat, and nobody caught him.
Lancey’s name is on the plaque, and Noseworthy struggled for a while to root out his story. He finally tracked down Lancey’s 93-year-old brother in Florida who had a friend in England who provided a tiny clue that Lancey was flying with the British Royal Air Force, and his plane was shot down. “Every story was a puzzle with pieces that had to be connected until finally we had the whole story,” Noseworthy said.
These are just tiny samplings of the men’s lives. The accounts written by Noseworthy and Francis are lengthy and detailed. Their sources included interviews with family members, camp records, The Keene Evening Sentinel, the Historical Society of Cheshire County, the National Archives in St. Louis and Washington, and various historical branches of the military. They have worked nights and weekends.
Their original goal was to publish all 12 stories on Memorial Day, but they decided to plan the June 29 ceremony instead and stretch out the stories over this month because they are all compelling.
“As an historian, I’ve always been the person to focus on the larger, economic picture ... and not the individual, so it’s great that Graeme has taken that role,” Francis said. “And some of them really pull at you. As I’m writing, it really helps I’m deployed in the Navy because I can understand their feelings — how the air smelled, how the earth smelled when they got there. I remember in Iraq smelling hot dust on the tarmac at the airport; I’ll never forget it. It’s just kind of amazing. …
“They all came from smart, middle-class backgrounds, and they all excelled in their positions. I do think they were great representatives of what it meant to be a citizen soldier from that era.”