The journal is like the man who created it: a little worse for wear over the decades, but still a unique and enduring source of memories that offer a rare glimpse into history.
Bowling Green's Jimmie Stewart turns 100 on June 5; he lives with his wife of 68 years, Ruth, in their Warren County home. Seven decades ago, he was a prisoner of war in Germany. Seeking to document his time at the POW camp, Stewart compiled a unique journal/scrapbook that brings to life what conditions were like for the approximately 120,000 American soldiers captured by Axis forces in World War II.
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Stewart's family is from Evansville, Ind. When he was about 5, they moved to Bowling Green where they operated a butcher shop on College Street. When he was 21, he started managing the unique nightclub inside Lost River Cave. Orchestra leader and fellow Kentuckian Billy Vaughn is among the famous performers Stewart remembers meeting at the venue.
In 1941, the world war raging across continents led him to be drafted into the U.S. Army. After basic training in Macon, Ga., he was shipped off to Belfast, Ireland, in 1942 and then to the front lines in north Africa later that year.
"We had a mountain to hold," Stewart said of his squad's assignment on a fateful day. "We got a notice to evacuate. The best way to get out was the desert. I was watching a battle with binoculars, and before I knew it, a German convoy came through."
He and his squad were captured Feb. 18, 1943, and taken by ship and train over the next two weeks to a succession of POW camps in Germany.
"We were treated all right, except we didn't have anything to eat," said Stewart, who was aided by two things in his efforts to survive the camps: his slight build that required less food, and that he didn't smoke. As a result, he was able to trade his cigarette rations from the Red Cross to the German guards for food – when they had any to barter.
"One time I even traded cigarettes for a hot bath," Stewart said.
Stewart put the building skills he learned at home to use in the camps.
"The first day or two we were there, they called for any carpenters to come forward. I was the only one who was a carpenter," he said. "They sent me to a workshop ... and that kept me busy."
How the POWs kept busy, as well as how they kept their spirits up, is chronicled by the journal Stewart started in the camp.
The simple cover, now tattered but still legible, has bold lettering identifying it as a "WARTIME LOG 1941-1945."
Inside are poems, pictures, drawings, letters from home, names and hometowns of POWs – even a red armband emblazoned with a vivid black swastika. Some of the artwork and writings were produced by Stewart, who kept the journal hidden from German guards for the 26 months he was a POW; other parts were produced by other POWs.
One page features a carefully drawn bouquet of flowers captioned "Mothers' Day;" a poem titled "Prisoner's Dream" credited to a POW named Robert C. Nichols includes these passages: "I try to sleep, but all in vain, I see your voice and hear your name ... All night I see the same old moon, And I think of you that night in June. Twas then you promised you'd be true, and we planned so many things, we two ... "
A colorful hand-drawn poster announces a June 17, 1944, "Stalag Jamboree" featuring the "Wally Jamrose" camp orchestra and POWs in drag.
The journal also lists the POW camps and dates Stewart entered them – Stalag VIIA, Munchen, March 7, 1947, Stalag IIIB, Furstenburg, March 29, 1943, etc.
The journal accompanied Stewart in 1945 when he volunteered to drive a truck for the Red Cross and was at the organization's German base when English forces started strafing the area.
"They blew a pretty good-sized hole in the building," Stewart recalled. On May 2, 1945, English ground troops liberated Stewart; six days later, Germany formally surrendered.
Back in Bowling Green, Stewart returned to the Lost River nightclub, built houses, bought a farm and helped found the construction firm now known as Stewart-Richey.
Along the way, he had a chance encounter with a family friend. Ruth and her family were in Bowling Green to see a romance movie: "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine." Ruth remembered during the war years how her family would often talk of Jimmie. "They would say, 'I sure hope poor little Jimmie Stewart has something to eat.' "
Ruth's family invited Jimmie to watch the movie with them, and a romance blossomed. A few days after Ruth graduated from high school in June 1948, they were married.
The couple plan to celebrate Jimmie's 100th birthday with family and friends (a list now about 200 people long).
Jimmie has had a few medical issues over the years, and sometimes uses a walker to help him get around, but still reads the newspaper daily, goes to church every Sunday and is uniquely spry for a soon-to-be centenarian.
He attributes that to "hard work and good eating," Stewart said.
Stewart's marriage is also uniquely long-lived. For that, Ruth offered this advice: "You better have a good sense of humor; it will get you through the tough times," she said, adding "And don't sweat the little stuff."
That mindset of perseverance is evident in the opening pages of Jimmie's journal:
"This War Time log is not to be a masterpiece of literature – but merely a summarized collection of literary thoughts and souvenirs of time spent in prison camp. My soul purpose of such a collection is to place on record the things that traveled through my mind. It is the proof of effort made to keep my tract of thought from weaving itself among the barbed wires."
— Follow city government reporter Wes Swietek on Twitter @BGDNgovtbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.