When reflecting on World War II, most people’s thoughts first drift to the military heroes who served to defend the rights of others. However, there are many memorable stories of everyday men and women who stepped up to protect their communities and those they loved. One such individual is Gene DeCamp, a resident of Windham Terrace Assisted Living, who at 19 years old served as a volunteer interpreter for the British 8th Army in his hometown of Lanciano, Italy. DeCamp moved from town to town with the British regiment, helping them communicate with the Italian army as they worked against the German occupation of the city. The son of Italian-American immigrants, DeCamp moved to Italy with his parents to be closer to extended family after his mother fell ill. As a dual citizen of the United States and Italy, DeCamp was uniquely qualified to assist Allied troops as they came into the area, and he was thrilled to have the opportunity to make a difference in the war.
“It was an interesting time to grow up, and I did so quickly,” said DeCamp. “I’ll never forget when the British army came through the city during the German occupation. I was so happy they were there that I ran right up to them as they attempted to speak with the Italian officers. They were thrilled when they realized I understood what they were saying and could translate between the two groups. I volunteered then and there as an interpreter and started right away. They gave me a British uniform that my mother sewed an interpreter’s patch on, and that was it. I went with the British captains and officers from town to town helping them communicate with the Italian forces.”
During the war, DeCamp remembers the fear his family and their neighbors experienced as the fighting was all around them. He remembers his home having a large crack down the side after a bombing and how it was the threat of such attacks that left everyone on edge. As if things were not stressful enough, there was also the added stress of separation from DeCamp’s father, who was in the U.S. during this period. His father had returned to the U.S. to finalize the family’s move and was unable to return after the war began. For three years, DeCamp witnessed the unimaginable as he watched friends and neighbors lose everything to the occupying German forces, and he hoped for the opportunity to make a difference. He received his chance when he began interpreting for the British and Allied forces. His family was terrified that something would happen to him, but underneath that terror was an immense pride that kept him going and reminded him of the importance of his work.
“It was an incredibly dangerous time, but I felt strongly that I was doing the right thing,” said DeCamp. “I firmly believe that my work saved the lives of my family and those of many others in our community and the surrounding area. When I was 20 years old, I made the decision to return to the U.S. and went to Pennsylvania to meet my father. It was very difficult to transition back into a daily life that didn’t include fearing aerial bombings and raids by foreign militaries. Over the years it’s gotten easier to talk about my experience, and I hope that by sharing my story it will help future generations to understand a more complete picture of what life was like during the war.”
After returning to the U.S., DeCamp went back to school and finished his education. He then went on to become a high school history teacher for over 30 years, sharing his knowledge of the greater world and his experiences with his students.
“At Windham Terrace, we believe in the importance of standing up for the welfare of others,” said Lynda Brislin, executive director of Windham Terrace. “We are honored to have individuals in our community like Gene DeCamp who put themselves in danger to help others during an incredibly difficult time in world history. Gene’s story is an inspiring reminder that anyone can make a difference no matter what age you are.”