Roll call of history; Museum showcases lives touched by Fort Devens through the years.
DEVENS - It's not so much the weapons, uniforms, gas masks and other military artifacts that excite Kara E. Fossey; it's more the bringing together of visitors who swap stories about their time or association with Fort Devens.
"A lot of people come in here with different stories, and that makes it fun and interesting," she said.
Ms. Fossey, executive director of the Fort Devens Museum, recounted such an incident last week, about a former soldier recently visiting from Michigan who found his name on a roster of Fort Devens baseball and football teams from the 1950s.
But the nearly 3,000-piece collection of artifacts and photographs, housed in three rooms of an old building on the former Army base, dates all the way back to when Camp Devens opened in 1917, and continues to the present.
Fort Devens, which was New England's largest military base, closed as an active Army base in 1996, although some reserve training is still held in an area of the former base.
The first room's collection follows a timeline from World War I through the Vietnam War, displaying Army song books, Morse code translations, diaries, prisoner of war letters and records, still-boxed K rations, uniforms, medical supplies such as old morphine syringes, and weapons - lots of weapons, including large machine guns, rocket launchers and training rifles.
Ms. Fossey said many visitors, especially youngsters, are drawn to the machine guns. They are all deactivated or rendered inert, she said.
One of the uniforms in the collection was used by an actor who portrayed a World War II Army medical officer in the HBO series "Band of Brothers." (The snowflakes on the cap and bloodstains on the sleeves are not real, Ms. Fossey said.)
But besides those items, the eye is drawn to displays of uniforms, photographs past and current, and letters assembled to tell someone's story.
Most of the items were donated or loaned to the museum by former soldiers or their families.
There's a section devoted to Howard A. Washington, from the 366th, an all-African-American division in World War II. Roscoe Gray's World War I diary is on display, as are fingerprints and photographs of Friedrich Steinhoff, a German U-boat commander captured off Portsmouth, N.H.
Particularly moving is a display case full of items and documents pertaining to Bernier M. Pothier of Middleton, a survivor of the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines and 40 months in a World War II Japanese prison camp. He was a radio operator, and his mess kit and canteen, on display, stayed with him throughout his ordeal and helped him retain his identity, Ms. Fossey said. They show carvings he did of a palm tree, an airplane and his name.
C. David Gordon, president of the museum's board of directors, and a researcher and writer, said many visitors come to learn about the German and Italian POWs kept at Devens.
A case devoted to them holds artwork, letters to and from Fort Devens, and records of where they worked. Ms. Fossey said they picked apples locally, worked in the prison laundry and did logging in Maine and New Hampshire.
"They were treated fairly well, and most of them enjoyed their time here. They preferred it to fighting. Some even settled here after the war," she said.
A POW burial ground at Devens holds the graves of 20 German and two Italian soldiers.
Ms. Fossey, a Townsend native who has been the director of the nonprofit museum for four years, said that as redevelopment went on, it became clear that its historical record needed organizing. It had been a military training center for more than a million New England soldiers, a prisoner of war camp during both world wars and ground zero during the influenza epidemic of 1918.
An initial plan to name it Camp Willard, after early settlers of Harvard and Ayer, where much of the base sits, was changed to commemorate a Civil War general, Charles Devens, who was a Worcester lawyer. Intended as a temporary camp for training soldiers during World War 1, it was constructed in four months at a rate of 10 barracks a day, Ms. Fossey said. The camp became a permanent military installation in 1931 and the name was changed to Fort Devens.
The second exhibit room highlights the influenza epidemic. Nearly 35 percent of the patients - 32,248 cases - passed through Fort Devens Army hospital.
Personal papers of Dr. John McCleery eerily recount his daily duties of "300 serious cases, of which 10, probably 15 will die today." The room also has items from Fort Devens sports teams, its recently razed chapel, a top-secret Army agency (not much in that corner) and a flying club. There are a few German uniforms and a Japanese prayer flag brought home by U.S. soldiers.
Museum volunteers are working on a new display showing the "Women of Devens" and the "Faces of Devens."
"We are still telling the story. It was not all cut off in 1996," Ms. Fossey said.
She said some visitors come to research family members, wars, the influenza epidemic and other aspects of Fort Devens. Lectures are given at the museum, and twice a year, on Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day, speakers are brought in who have attracted 300 or so visitors at once. The museum's regular hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the third Saturday of each month.
Contact Karen Nugent at email@example.com
CUTLINE: (1) C. David Gordon, president of the Fort Devens Museum board of directors, researches information in the museum about prisoners of war held at Fort Devens.
Fort Devens Museum Executive Director Kara E. Fossey of Greenville, N.H., holds a water canteen owned by Bernier E. Pothier, a survivor of the Battle of Bataan and 40 months in a World War II Japanese prison camp. (2) Executive Director Kara E. Fossey stands in the Fort Devens Museum.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff Photos/TOM RETTIG