Healing History
Gerald Smith '48 helps create a museum to honor former prisoners

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The guardhouse, barbed wire and entry gates outside the Dachau concentration camp looked so familiar to Gerald Smith '48 that at first he refused to go inside.

Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services

It was 1979, and Smith, a UNH professor of agriculture, was touring Europe with his wife, Dot. Their itinerary took them close to where Smith had been stationed with the Army Air Corps during World War II. He recognized where he was captured, bleeding and dazed, by a group of German soldiers. Although he'd never been imprisoned at Dachau, the resemblance to the camps where he had been held were almost too much to bear. "There was no way I was going in," Smith recalls. "And my wife said, 'Yes, you are.' I went in, and I think that was the best therapy I could have had."

It was also the beginning of the couple's efforts to chronicle the experiences of POWs throughout history. The Smiths helped create the National POW Museum in Andersonville, Ga., and, on annual trips there, worked long hours. Dot transcribed journal entries written by Civil War prisoners, and Gerry served as a living exhibit, greeting visitors. Year after year, they'd crowd around his table and listen while Smith, in tidy sentences spiked with a New Hampshire accent, told his story.

Smith was among the many men who left Durham in the early 1940s for military training. He became a co-pilot flying bombing runs in Italy and, later, France. On one such mission, Smith's B-26 was shot down. Within minutes of parachuting to the ground, he was a prisoner of war. He was interrogated and herded from camp to camp. By the time he was liberated in April 1945, he'd lost 60 pounds. His left hand, which had been mangled in the crash, had curled into a tight, immobile fist. His family didn't know if he was dead or alive.

Smith's injury meant he could never run a working farm, so he decided to pursue a career in agriculture education. He scheduled his classes around surgeries to repair his arm. During one hospital stay, he met an Army nursing cadet with dark hair and a big smile. Her name was Dot. They married in 1946.

In January, the Smiths embarked on what they'd decided would be their last long trip to Andersonville. In March, Dot, whose health had been fragile for months, died.

A week later, Smith returned to Andersonville to collect his RV. The museum staff had flowers and a condolence card waiting. After breakfast, Eric Leonard, the chief of interpretation and education at the Andersonville National Historic Site, called Smith into the lobby. The whole staff had assembled. Leonard presented Smith with a Ranger Award, the National Park service's highest civilian honor. "This building wouldn't exist if it wasn't for men like Gerry," says Leonard. He also gave him an award for Dot. "If he hadn't been a POW, he never would have met Dot," Leonard says. "Recognizing both of them was very important to us."

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