POW letters sent to OHS

Published 11:05 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

It’s been only six weeks since Sandra Bailey publicly shared the story of her uncle Howard Derifield, the Hanging Rock native, who spent more than two years in one of the toughest Nazi prisoner of war camps.

Bailey had come across a handful of letters Derifield had written his family from the Stalag IIB Hammerstein work camp in what was then known as West Prussia. Getting those letters to an appropriate archive was the mission of Bailey, believing those pieces of history deserved to be in a repository where they would be preserved.

That quest was the focus of a feature story in The Tribune on the Sunday before Memorial Day.

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“It was just laid on my heart,” Bailey said. “He was an especial uncle to me.”

Last week Derifield’s niece got her wish, when she sent the World War II memorabilia off to the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus.

Derifield grew up outside Hanging Rock, one of 10 brother and sisters and the son of Sylvester and Nevada Murphy Derifield. He was 32 years old when he went into the Army on June 25, 1941, just under six months before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Derifield was deployed to the North African Theater where German and Italian forces had overrun Tunisia after the withdrawal of Vichy troops. Little is known about his time in Africa, except that on Feb. 17, 1943, he was captured and sent to the work camp.

For more than two years he struggled to survive, often making meals out of scraps as meager as potato peelings. Then in the spring of 1945, he was liberated.

A year later he married Martha Louise Gannon and ran a tavern in Haverhill. However in six years, he was dead and is buried in Woodland Cemetery.

Bailey followed several avenues to find a place for the letters. But when she listened to the advice of a contact from the Ohio National Guard, she knew she had found the right sanctuary for her piece of history.

“I wanted it to be a place where children can go,” Bailey said. “And they can go through that museum and I am hoping they will study those letters and feel what a person went through being a prisoner of war or in the military.”

John Haas is the reference archivist at the historical society. He looks at the Derifield letters as an important addition to the collection.

“I think they are very important,” Haas said. “We don’t have too many like them. These are one of the things we are trying to get more of, World War I and World War II material.”

Often historians researching books come to Columbus to use the archives.

“People doing books in the future, using letters as research material, these would be important to get the point of view of an everyday soldier from Ohio in a prisoner of war camp,” he said.

Add to that the material Derifield used to write his letters, Haas said.

“The German letterhead, the German post cards, the only things in English were his words,” he said. “The Stalag stamps, that has an interest all to itself.”