The roots of the Lost Takodians project had been laid down many years before the research and writing began. Like many of our alumni, I had loved Memorial Lodge since I was a camper in my distant youth. While I had always noticed its tarnished bronze dedication plaque, especially the iconic screaming eagle at the top, I never truly understood the magnitude of what sat affixed to the stone fireplace for all to see.
When I started volunteering in 2011, first as a Mini Camp Leader and then as a Takodah YMCA Board Member, I began to pay much closer attention to the history of the camp. I immersed myself in the archives that the Y had kept since our founding in 1913 and, especially, since the formation of the camp in 1916. I learned about how the initial plots of the Richmond property were leased and then acquired in the following years. I studied up on how it rapidly expanded and changed as the decades rolled past. I dug into the people, programs, and places to be sure I had a solid foundation from which to grow and share our past. Throughout that entire process, the plaque kept calling to me. It wasn’t anything supernatural or unusual, mind you, it was just a nagging feeling that it was the tip of a very important story waiting to be told.
In preparation for Camp Takodah’s Centennial Celebration in 2016, I was asked by Artie Lang, Executive Director of the Y, to put together some historical assets, primarily photographs, that we planned to display for the alumni. One of the items I discovered was an original typed copy of the program used on July 28, 1946 – the day “Mem” was formally dedicated. I was almost certain, based on where that document had been stored in the archives, that no one had seen it since the days after it was first printed and handed out. As I read through it, I was struck by the sudden realization of how our simple wooden building placed by the pond got its special name.
I always thought it meant for us to hold close the memories of all the wonderful experiences and amazing friendships we made at Takodah. I always thought it stood as a reminder that some places need very few things to invoke powerful feelings that are meant to last forever. I always assumed it was connected to our century-old CT Ceremony or our cherished Candlelight which binds one summer unto the next.
While all of that is a perfectly logical interpretation, its actual meaning was “in memoriam” to the Takodians that had died in the thirty years preceding its construction. In the pages of the program was an “Honor Roll” of forty-four names of those who had passed away from 1916 to 1946. Twelves of the names had stars next to them. In that moment, as I sat in the basement of the Lake Street Office, I suddenly realized what I was looking at. I stood up, opened the large file cabinets that hold thousands of registration card for campers going back to 1916. Almost immediately, I found several cards that matched the names with stars next to them. Each of them had a handwritten marking in the corner.
I set up the historical display a few weeks later at camp and took the copy of the program and the registration cards down to Mem. I stood alone in the middle of the lodge and compared them to the plaque upon the fireplace. Of course, as I expected, they all matched. In that moment, I made a promise out loud to the twelve boys who had made the supreme sacrifice.
I promised that I would find them and tell their stories.
But, as I would learn, the time to honor that promise was not quite at hand. As we emerged from celebrating a successful century, my research would end up being redirected to another anniversary that was rapidly approaching: the 80th anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane. That story and its subsequent podcast about the storm’s destructive impact on Camp took a substantial amount of effort to produce. And yet, as I would also learn, that was time well spent as it gave me important new investigation skills that would be paid forward. Once it was published, the time had come for me to get to work on discovering the Lost Takodians.
I started by watching various military history documentaries, including several by Ken Burns and Forentine Films, for inspiration and to get a sense of the appropriate method of storytelling. From there, I talked to our elder alumni and past directors about the names on the plaque while scouring the records for anything I could find. Oscar had left a few wartime hints and facts here and there but it was very slow going. Most of what he documented pertained to the fundraising and construction of the lodge itself and no one remembered anything about the boys. So, at that point, I quickly turned my sights on outside sources. I spent hours upon hours chasing down leads – both hot and cold – from dozens of websites scattered across the internet. I cross checked anything I found with Ancestry, Fold-3, newspaper databases, cemetery registries, and various online sources from military museums, the Department of Defense, and National Archives in the United States and United Kingdom.
From there, the stories rapidly started to take shape. I confirmed the identity and basic information for all twelve of the men. Names. Ranks. Serial numbers. Branches. Birth dates. Death dates. Years at Camp. Places they had lived. Etc. I found their educational records, unit histories and more. I started to track down their potential family members and I submitted forms to request their relative’s military records.
The narratives began to make sense. The pieces of the puzzle were coming together.
As the work progressed, it became clear to me that my initial gut feeling was correct: this was a big story just waiting to be told. After all, I wasn’t finding relatively mundane details about basic training accidents or death from disease. I was finding epic battles, heroic fighting in combat, heartbreaking loss, lasting friendships, resilient families, and, above all, a group of remarkably intelligent and accomplished young men that were lost far, far too early.
As each story came into focus, important connections between the men, primarily centered around their collective time at Camp, and interesting tangents about their extended families came to light. There were also a great many “firsts” that kept me motivated and moving: confirming each identity for the first time, finding the first photograph of each man, receiving the first sets of records from NARA, making first contact to interview each family, chasing down many elusive but critical first clues, and much, much more. I struggled to get organized. The information was overwhelming. The process was mind-boggling. The emotional impact was hard to ignore.
And then, I found Tim.
I had first been made aware of him when I found a research paper he had published about how his uncle, Frederick Allen Stearns, was executed by the Japanese towards the end of the war. In fact, when I first came upon the paper, I didn’t even realize the family connection until I read about it in one of his footnotes on the very first page. That was a “wow” moment, to say the least. However, Tim would prove to be extremely hard to find. After a few months of exhausting all possible options, including cold calling US Navy libraries, I finally tracked down one of his family members working as an office manager at a small appliance repair company in rural New York. I called her that morning. I’ll never forget the conversation. I introduced myself, briefly described what I was doing, and then she stopped me.
“You’re looking for Tim, aren’t you,” she said.
“Yes. Oh my god, it’s him, isn’t it,” I replied with an obvious tone of excitement rising in my voice. “Timothy Lang Francis, the naval historian.”
“It sure is and he is going to LOVE this,” she happily said back to me.
We talked for a few more minutes and she assured me that she would reach out to Tim and help to connect us. About a week or so later, he and I got in touch and, at that point, this project immediately kicked into high gear. Over the coming months, we divided up the work, researched every aspect we could think of, communicated on a daily basis, and wrote draft after draft until we were confident that it was time to share our work with the families. One by one, we worked with them to confirm, edit, finalize, and approve each story for publication.
While we initially set a goal of having all of the stories published by Memorial Day, we could tell that more time would be required seeing as the records coming from the National Archives were taking much longer to acquire than we had previously realized. We decided that we would publish them individually – to give us more time to work and to ensure each story was given individual attention – from Memorial Day through June 29, 2019. That was the day we had been planning to assemble the surviving family members and friends at Camp to rededicate Memorial Lodge, let them see the places their relatives had experienced, and view the large collection of WWII artifacts and documents we had amassed. The final story was approved for publication, posted to the site, and shared on social media a matter of hours before the ceremony began.
As the families arrived at Camp on that sunny and warm Saturday morning, Tim and I knew our mission – or at least the first phase of it – had been accomplished. It was a feeling of relief that cannot be sufficiently described.
Since that day, we’ve seen the stories of the Lost – and now Found – Takodians get picked up in the media, shared by the military, and spread throughout our alumni around the world. I also had several opportunities to tell the stories to the campers and staff during my volunteer week in an effort to ensure a new generation of Takodians know their names. I’m still in frequent contact with several of the WWII families as the work goes on to find new records, new details, and new pieces of information we can add to the stories as we work to develop this project into something bigger with a reach far beyond our Y’s community. A book? Maybe. A documentary? Possibly. No matter what, Tim and I strongly believe that this entire compilation forms the basis of a unique American tale.
And, once again, it’s just waiting to be told.
In the meantime, I have a considerable amount of thanks to give.
To my family: Carrie, Justin, and Connor thank you for being patient with me during all those long nights and weekends that I was locked away with my PC in my home office or sorting through mounds of papers at the Dining Room table. Your support for the project and the ceremony kept me going. I love you all so very much!
To the WWII families: thank you for your trust in letting us tell these stories and, in many cases, for directly helping us make critical discoveries and connect the dots so we could deliver a high degree of accuracy. Our conversations, including the initial interviews and later when I had the chance to tell you things you had never known before, was an experience I shall forever be grateful for. And thanks to many of you for joining me at the cemeteries on Memorial Day Weekend as we placed the stone CTs and then at Camp on the 29th when we listened, spoke, and even cried together. It has been an honor to get to know you and to discover your incredible veteran ancestors.
To Tim: thank you for… everything. You offered to help me and be my partner on this project within the first few minutes of our initial conversation. I will never forget that. Your experience, efforts, honesty, and guidance completely transformed this project in more ways than I can count. And, of course, your participation in the ceremony was nothing short of remarkable. Thank you for your service. I’m so glad to have you as a friend and partner. Onwards to Phase 2!
To the Takodah YMCA: thank you William Parkman, Rob Therrien, Artie Lang, and Ryan Reed for your willingness to let me push this snowball down the hill. While it turned out to be much bigger than we expected, I think it proved to be worth all the effort it took to bring it to life. I sincerely enjoyed sharing each little discovery with you along the way. In many ways, we all learned a lot about our Y and how far reaching our mission and our history truly is.
To my friends: thank you Gavin Morris and Kevin Hoffman for jumping in and helping me build out a digital strategy and web structure that ensured we did it right. Thank you Rupert Lloyd-Owen for working with me to crack the case on the U.K. side so we could finally figure out what really happened to Robert Douglas Lancey. I will never forget sitting in my living room when the “ah ha” moment of discovery came to pass. Finally, thank you Barnaby Bosanquet for helping me to understand various maritime aspects and how to “write the ranks.”
To my fellow Camp Takodah Alumni: thank you for reading these stories and helping keep the memory of these men alive. If you or a Takodian you know is interested in recovering a set of U.S. military records, please reach out to me through the Takodah YMCA Main Office and I will do whatever I can to help guide you through the process.
To the United States National Archives and Records Administration: thank you George Fuller and Corey Stewart for helping us track down the IDPFs and OMPFs we so desperately needed. While that work goes on in the future, I’m sure more thanks will be given! The same thanks to Jaclyn Ostrowski, our independent research consultant, as well as she helped us to acquire the first three sets of records.
To the National Archives of the United Kingdom: thank you Jessica Nelson for helping me to find the RAF squadron and operations records we needed and for providing the much needed “translations” on the differences between U.S. and U.K. records.
To Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research: thank you Craig Fuller for helping us track down the aircraft accident reports that not only enabled us to tell the full story for several of the men but also helped us to brief their families with details they had never known before.
To the Historical Society of Cheshire County: thank you the hours of work required to put together the packet of local materials and for helping us verify so much information as the project was initially developed. I look forward to the day when we can place our Lost Takodians collection into your protected storage for future generations to find!
To the Keene Sentinel: Thank you for your press coverage of the project and the ceremony. Your publication plays a unique and special role not just because you covered the story now but also because you covered so many of the boys’ stories back during the wartime years.
To the men and women of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines: Thank you for your service to our great nation and for supporting this important work. Throughout the project timeline, I spoke with representatives from all four branches, in various positions, all of whom steered us, informed us, guided us, and encouraged us to press on and complete the work. I would especially like to thank LTC Lieutenant Colonel Gregory Heilshorn, Director of Public Affairs, and MAJ Moira Cuthbert, from the New Hampshire Army National Guard for helping us to make the rededication ceremony worthy of the men we were honoring. Of course, the same goes for the NHANG Honor Guard and Chaplain that joined us for the ceremony including SGT Bradley Johnson, SPC Eric Chase, SPC Nicolette Fortin, SGT Matthew Bruneau, SPC Brendan McGuirk, and LTC Steven Veinotte.
And finally, to the boys themselves: Billy. Gale. Thomas. Phillip. Beanie. Larry. Raymie. Bob. Robert. Allen. Spike. George. Thank you for the inspiration and, at times, for the little push you provided from the great beyond. Oh, how I would have enjoyed knowing you! From your courage in war, to your love of family, to the patriotic letters you sent home, each aspect of your lives made a real, lasting difference. So let me say it again: I promise you shall never, ever be forgotten. I have spent so much time thinking about you, reading your histories, seeing your faces in the eyes of your families and, I must admit, imagining your final moments. I’ve often wondered if you took a CT with you to war, spoke to your buddies about Takodah, or closed your eyes in the middle of some god-awful moment to reach back and feel the warmth of the summer sun glistening off of Cass Pond. Even now, over 70 years later, you are missed but no longer lost. The echo of your voices still reverberates through the fields and buildings in which you played. You have been elevated from a final bronze reminder of your name to a flourishing story that will be told time and time again.
Rest in peace, my fellow Takodians. I will live well knowing that the sunset has found you.