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Keeping a decades-long vow

Aging Brit seeks family of a Philly soldier he befriended in 1944

Malcolm Monk, with wife Patricia, hopes to find the family of Philly soldier Joe Gumpper, whom he befriended 70 years ago in England.
Malcolm Monk, with wife Patricia, hopes to find the family of Philly soldier Joe Gumpper, whom he befriended 70 years ago in England.Read moreMonk family photo

FOR 70 YEARS, Malcolm Monk thought about tracking down the family of Joe Gumpper, a World War II soldier from Philly. But the task never felt urgent until this year, when Monk turned 81.

"It struck me that I have one last shot," says Monk, who lives in Massachusetts. "I'm not getting any younger."

So, he called the Daily News for help. I located several local Gumppers, but none were kin to the Joe Gumpper whom Monk befriended seven decades ago.

So, I need your help, readers. Please share this column far and wide, to alert the right Gumppers that Monk is looking for them. Because his sad but sweet tale deserves to come full circle.

Monk was 10 years old and living in his native England in 1944 when he met Gumpper, a young fourth-class technician with the Army's 164th Engineer Combat Battalion.

"We had U.S. troops and Canadian and British airborne soldiers stationed all around the village. They slept on the ground, in tents, under trucks, anywhere they could," recalls Monk, who lived with his parents and two sisters in picturesque Painswick, an 800-year-old town northwest of London. "They'd come back to town after maneuvers, exhausted and beaten up, and socialize with us. I met Joe and invited him to Sunday lunch. My mother was a wonderful cook."

Gumpper was grateful for the hearty meal - beef with gravy, roasted potatoes and fresh vegetables from the garden.

Gumpper was a Philly boy, and he and the Monks compared the contrasting rhythms of city and village life. Everyone so enjoyed the visit that Gumpper returned for more meals, and, with other soldiers, to play rugby and teach baseball to Monk and his friends. He even brought his laundry.

"He was lanky, easygoing and friendly," says Monk. Gumpper and his buddies shared with the Monks and other families their K-rations - gum, Spam and other hard-to-get wartime treats. "They were all very nice guys."

Not too long after meeting Gumpper, the Monk family was shattered to learn that he had been killed. Monk does not recall the details. Whatever the cause, it was a blow to Monk, who was already rattled by the bombing of a nearby airplane factory.

"Then Mr. Hitler decided to bomb Painswick. It destroyed several shops and cottages and killed a family who had moved to Painswick to escape the bombing in London," Monk remembers.

He stayed in Painswick long enough to fall in love and marry his now-wife, Patricia, in the village's beautiful Church of St. Mary. They moved to Canada and then the United States, where Monk worked in the semiconductor industry. They have three children, two grandchildren, and live in peaceful retirement in a small town outside Boston.

"I have had a very nice life," says Monk. But he says it won't feel complete unless he keeps a promise to his late mother to track down Joe Gumpper's family. He wants to share memories of the affable young soldier who brought sunny American cheer to the Monks during a frightening time.

With a few Web clicks, I learned that Joe Gumpper died on May 16, 1944. Military records denote his death as "DNB" - or, Died Non-Battle. That sounds right to Monk, who remembers talk of a training mission gone awry.

Gumpper is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery, in Cambridge, England, one of 3,812 World War II American soldiers interred there. But the cemetery was not his first resting site. He was initially buried at one of many temporary cemeteries in theaters of World War II.

"After the war, 14 permanent World War II cemeteries were established around the globe," says Timothy Nosal, public-affairs director of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees 25 permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil. "Families could choose to have their soldiers' remains moved to the new cemeteries or repatriated back home."

Records show that Gumpper's designated next of kin, one Mary Gumpper, wanted his remains interred at Cambridge. And that is how he has come to occupy Grave 19 in Plot A, Row 1.

The records do not mention how Mary was related to Joseph, but her address at the time was "2107B Radar Road, Roosevelt Boulevard, Pennsylvania." No such address exists today, but the area comprising Northeast Philly looked quite different 70 years ago than it does now.

Just as Malcolm Monk now looks different from the little boy who long ago invited a young soldier far from home to share a good meal with a lovely Painswick family. What a blessing that Gumpper knew such comfort in what were to be his final days.

Are you kin to Joe Gumpper? If so, please contact me. You'd make that once-little boy a very happy old man.

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly