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Heroism and Heartbreak – The Lost Takodians of the Second World War

The Roll of Honor

In order to fully understand the significance of the sacrifices made during the Second World War and a small, unremarkable building that would eventually be erected to honor such actions, we must cast ourselves back into the reality of the moment. For in the summer of 1946, the world still grieved over the catastrophe and even in the small town of Richmond, New Hampshire, that feeling would be recognized, memorialized, and felt for generations to come.

Allied personnel celebrate the end of World War II in Paris, France, 1945

As our society emerged from the wrenching experience of war, the sheer scale of the destruction slowly dawned on people. Tens of millions of people around the planet were dead, hundreds of millions displaced, and thousands of cities and towns lay in ruins. The greatest war the world had ever seen was over, but the wreckage it reaped would last for decades.

In Europe, a swath of destruction spread from the British midlands across northern France and into western Germany. Rubble lay thick upon the ground, especially in the most heavily fought areas. The former Reich was still a smoking ruin, pounded into rubble by Allied bombers and Soviet artillery from the Rhine to the Elbe. In the east, where the war had been most genocidal, a zone of ruin spread wide from the Balkans and to the east a trail of blackened cities, towns and villages stretching 3,000 kilometers to Stalingrad, St. Petersburg and the outskirts of Moscow. And throughout the desolation, millions still struggled after one of the worst ‘hunger winters’ in centuries. Others still fought and died, as partisans, criminals or executed as collaborators. Still others went into exile or disappeared into the Soviet gulag, entire populations moving west or east to escape their past, find a new future or face the crimes of the present. And everyone trying to adapt to this strange, new world now run by the Soviets and Americans.

In the Far East, the wreckage was in some ways even worse. The war in China had started over a decade earlier and was still raging, with communist and nationalist forces skirmishing daily. The death toll in the mainland had been well over a million people per month in 1945, with millions more refugees still on the move. Most of Asia remained in unrest, with the old European colonies in ferment and entirely new states struggling to be born. Nationalist movements sprouted up from Indonesia to Indochina, from Burma to British India. Japan itself lay in ruins, starved by the last few years of blockade and flattened by American bombing, made worse by the still-echoing flash of two nuclear bombs that portended a dark, uncertain future for the entire globe.

Ruins of Cologne, Germany, at the end the war
Ruins of Cologne, Germany, at the end the war

Everywhere people mourned both the past, with entire families, villages, peoples bombed, shelled, shot or gassed, and the uncertain future. The survivors often wounded, physically and psychologically. And everywhere the dead and missing lay heavy on hearts and minds, an oppression of spirit hardly lifting with the spring sunlight.

Even in countries barely touched by war – including parts of Great Britain along with Canada and the United States – the dead were still ever present, the gold stars hung in so many windows across the countryside, the curtains drawn, mothers and fathers quietly weeping before many rose to support other parents grieving a loss of their own.

A poem, written a few years earlier, bore witness to this personal anguish, made worse not just by the vast destruction of the war but also by the missing futures, the careers not made, the marriages never vowed, the children never born, the experiences and knowledge that would never be paid forward.

The young dead soldiers do not speak.

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses:

Who has not heard them?

They have a silence that speaks for them at night

And when the clock counts.

Across the United States, millions of families grieved. Not just for the 400,000 who had died in a war fought across the globe, but for the millions who had come home wounded, their bodies as torn as their spirits. Many blue stars too remained in windows, a mute testament to the sacrifices made by so many.

A mother of three children in military service during the war.

The woods of southern New Hampshire were no different, whose families had sent their young men off to fight in the wars of independence, the Civil War and the two world wars. Each generation paying the blood tax to protect their families, their towns and their country. Gold and blue stars marked these homes too. There was no location so rustic and so remote that war did not leave its painful mark. Nestled in the woods near Richmond lay YMCA Camp Takodah, a thirty-year old summer camp for boys and girls. Despite the warmth of spring and sunny days, it too was not untouched by war. A dozen alumni, some who’d attended only a few years before, had laid down their lives while wearing the nations cloth and now lay in graves both marked and unmarked across the world.

Starting in May 1946, the sound of saws and hammers had rung through the woods around Takodah. A new building slowly took shape on the edge of Cass Pond. It was a large, one-room lodge with a wrap-around porch overlooking the water that would go on to become the iconic “favorite spot” at Camp. Almost two years earlier, “Uncle” Oscar Elwell, Takodah’s longest serving director, and Harold Dickinson, one of the Y’s most celebrated founders, had decided to build a ‘Memorial Lodge,’ both to recognize those alumni who’d died in the decades since the camp’s founding in 1916 and especially the boys who died, or who would die, before the end of the current war.

In September of 1944, the Cheshire YMCA Board of Directors unanimously voted to create the “Memorial Lodge Fund” and a year later they had raised $7,500, the equivalent of nearly $100,000 today. The donations came from local businesses, individual contributing alumni and generous YMCA benefactors. The fund was later increased to $10,000 to cover the cost of furnishings including light fixtures, a custom bronze plaque and dozens of wooden folding chairs, some of which are still in use today. A plot of land was cleared at the waterfront in the spring of 1946 and the ground formally broken on May 15th.

Memorial Lodge, late 1940s
Memorial Lodge and Waterfront, late 1940s.

The building was constructed by Jim Whitcomb, one of Takodah’s earliest carpenters, with help from Stan Bush, Edward Rogers, Bob Chase, Eddie Reynolds, Russell Starkey, and other Takodah staff. Several fathers of campers also assisted along with local veterans that had returned from wartime deployments and were struggling to assimilate back into civilian life. The work was hard and included lugging stones and cement for building a large, 20-foot high fireplace and chimney, but the labor provided a sense of purpose.

As noted in the Y’s records for that year, the veterans were paid in “room, board, and a place to have some fun, fresh air, and camaraderie.” It was that last compensation that proved the most valuable. As they cut logs and dug the foundation, the men got to know each other. As they raised the wooden frame, they shared their experiences of war. As they excavated and laid the stones – including one that was oddly shaped like a heart – for the fireplace, they talked about the buddies they had lost in combat. As they put the finishing touches on the roof, they wondered about the future. The war loomed so large in their young lives, remaining vast and incomprehensible even as they struggled to return to daily routines. And in the quiet forest, with its memories of family and childhood, they began to heal in body, mind, and spirit. Soon enough, the building would be complete. It would stand silent by the water until the coming summer.

Sunday, July 28, 1946, less than a year after the end of the war, was a bright and lovely day. The sun was shining, it was 80 degrees, and the sky was dotted with a few wispy, white clouds. Camp was quiet, the Boys session now over though the echoes of laughter and singing from well over a hundred campers still hung high in the humid air.

Oscar and Francis Elwell
Oscar and Francis Elwell

Late that afternoon, as a small gathering of people assembled in the beautiful new lodge, Uncle Oscar stood on the porch, the smell of freshly cut wood lingering beneath his feet. He looked out over the still, shining water for a moment. Then he heard footsteps coming out the wide double doors of the Lodge.

“Oscar,” said Frances, his devoted wife and partner, as she walked up and took him by the hand. “We’re going to get started now.”

They walked together back through the doors as their daughter, Verna Elwell, played “Abide with Me” on the chimes. Some people sat quietly, others talked, or cried and comforted each other. The veterans no doubt remained perfectly stoic despite emotions rolling underneath.

Soon, George K. Ripley, President of the Cheshire YMCA, began to speak.

“We are here to pay our tribute of respect to those forty-four Takodians who are no longer with us but have encountered physical death. In this service of worship, we would dedicate this memorial lodge to their everlasting remembrance and ourselves to the perpetuation of that tradition which they ennobled with their lives.”

Prayers were offered. Poems read. Tears shed. Frances read all forty-four names as Barbara Bigham sang “Ave Maria.” Rev. Arnold A. Brown led the group through the formal act of dedication. Oscar then stepped towards the fireplace and unveiled a bright, bronze plaque adorned with a screaming eagle in flight, his razor beak turned to the left for peace, and his sharp eyes looking down upon the following names:

Burrows, William

Newell, Gale

Eaton, Thomas

Parady, Phillip

Kingsbury, C.L., Jr.

Robinson, Lawrence

Krepps, Raymond

Slade, Robert

Lancey, Robert

Stearns, F. Allen

Merrill, Leonard

Toomey, George

These men, patriots all, were singled out for permanent recognition as Takodians who perished in the greatest war the world has ever known. They had served their nation in bombers and battleships, upon the fields of France and the islands of the Marianas, in the burning villages of Italy and across the mountains in Burma, and in destroyers and submarines on the deep, dark Pacific. They had fought for freedom and they had died for our democracy, for their families and for their comrades in arms. They were sons and brothers, husbands and fathers, uncles and cousins, friends and lovers. They were sorely missed. They were truly loved.

Moments later, Douglas Whitcomb walked onto the porch, faced out over the pond, and started to play Taps – twenty-four precious notes on a bugle – as everyone stood and sang the words.

Day is done. Gone the sun. From the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.

Memorial Lodge in the Fall of 2018

In the 73 years since that solemn ceremony, Memorial Lodge has been a place of celebration and joy. From classes to Candlelight and from wicker armchairs to rustic weddings, “Mem” is one of the first places people think of when they think about Camp. In all those years, however, the story of the twelve Takodians who died in the war has never been told. While their names had always remained in front of us, their history had been lost to time.

Until now.

Memorial Lodge Dedication Plaque
Memorial Lodge Dedication Plaque as seen above the mantle prior to being restored.

Within this section, we will share the stories of each man, based on nearly a year of research and working closely with individuals, families, digital collections, libraries, archives, museums, and agencies in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, India, and beyond. This work represents the culmination of countless hours of discovery, dozens of interviews, and the careful review of hundreds of pages of military records, books, and documentation.

On behalf of a grateful community of Takodians across the nation and around the world, the stories of these warriors can finally be told in the order in which they served and made the supreme sacrifice.

For there is no greater character than the character of those who serve.

Click on a name below to read each individual story.