Senior staff writer
Without the efforts of retired Camp Atterbury Col. Jorg Stachel, the beloved World War II Italian POW chapel would not exist.
Located north of the camp, the Chapel in the Meadow featured an altar and frescoes and was built in 1943 from scrap materials by Italian Roman Catholic prisoners of war who wanted something that reminded them of their homeland.
In the early 1980s, as Stachel recalled, it was time to preserve the chapel. Ed and Judy Suding and a handful of Johnson County residents also wanted to save it.
“I wasn’t at all happy about the condition of the chapel when I returned,” recalled Stachel, who was on his second tour of duty at the camp. “It had to be restored.
“Funding had never been available, and the chapel fell into disrepair. The Italian Heritage Society did not have funds either. I finally went to my superior officer and told him that a decision had to be made; but if he chose to tear it down, then the decision would be on him, not me.”
Non-allocated funds were found and the chapel was restored with plans developed by post engineer 2nd Lt. Kenneth Newlin, who lives in Southern Dunes on the Southside. The refurbished chapel was dedicated in a special ceremony attended by 200 guests in September 1989 and has ongoing support from the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana.
Stachel served the longest tour (1986-92) of duty as commander of Camp Atterbury and was later assigned to the Indiana National Guard adjutant general’s office before retiring. He lives in Greenwood with his wife, Gloria; they are active members of Greenwood United Methodist Church and have two children and three grandchildren.
Last week, Stachel stepped back into history with special guests at the Indiana History Center, 450 W. Ohio St., to experience the exhibit “You Are There 1943 – Italian POWs at Atterbury,” which is presented by Jane Fortune and Franciscan Health with support from the Guard and the society.
The re-creation of the chapel in 1943 also features enactors in the roles of post Lt. Col. John Gammell, post Chaplain Maurice Imhoff and Italian POWs Fioravante Pagnucco and Adelso Miotto.
Stachel walked through the smokescreen curtain into the moment in history 1943. He talked with Lt. Col. Gammell about the frescoes and the prisoners. Gammell referred to my camera as a Brownie.
Stachel then made a gaffe and told the post commander about the German POWs who would be interned at the post later. Gammell stopped him in mid-sentence, motioned to a chair in the corner and said, “Please sit down and rest until you come to your senses.”
Stachel, who served on the 17-member community advisory board, said, “It’s a great replica. You really are immersed into 1943. You will be moved by what you see. I’m sure the public will appreciate it and learn from it.”
Two descendants of Italian POWs were on hand for the VIP preview.
“The stories that came from the prisoners were amazing,” Stachel said. “Mussolini ran the show in Italy and drafted landowners and farmers into the military. The prisoners who came to Atterbury didn’t know where they were. They thought they were in India and that New York City had been bombed and was in ruins.”
Stachel s hopeful that those who visit the exhibit will also find their way to the refurbished chapel in southern Johnson County.
“When they get there I hope they get a feeling for the situation then,” Stachel said. “We hope it will inspire people to keep the faith just like the Italian prisoners. This is a piece of history that must be preserved.”
His words were echoed during formal remarks by Sister M. Marcene Franz of Franciscan Health: “Even in the darkest hours, the human spirit is capable of triumph.”