You hear of these things now and again: a class ring or a letter or a library book improbably emerging from the clutter of decades and finding its way back to its owner.
For Army veteran Dennis Sweeney, 91, it was a wartime diary jottings of high adventure and daily prison-camp mundanity mixed with the most engagingly sentimental hearth-and-home verse this side of ''Danny Boy.''
He entrusted the diary to a fellow prisoner six decades ago in the madness of a mass escape and forgot it so thoroughly that today, leafing through its brittle pages in the living room of his Allentown home, he can't remember composing it.
But there it is, a graph-paper notebook containing a chronology of his 1942 capture in North Africa at the height of World War II ''I was captured in Tunisia by Gen. Rommel,'' he says, evoking a comic image of a one-on-one takedown by the Desert Fox and descriptions of camp life, along with the wistful rhymes.
The diary had been in the possession of a veteran from Louisiana named Carl Valentine, one of Sweeney's fellow inmates in Italy's Servigliano prison camp.
On Sept. 8, 1943, in the confusion following Italy's surrender, many of the camp guards quit their posts and 3,000 inmates, Sweeney and Valentine among them, fled through a hole in the perimeter wall.
Pvt. Sweeney, perhaps anticipating long odds at escaping from Italy, entrusted his diary to Valentine, asking him to return it to his family in Pennsylvania.
Sweeney was prescient about his chances. Heading north with a dozen other prisoners, he evaded capture for 11 days. But the group eventually surrendered to encroaching German troops. Sweeney was shipped to Germany, where he spent time harvesting potatoes and cabbage on a prison farm and cleaning drainage ditches in a stalag.
Valentine, a gunner who had been captured after bailing out of his bomber over Italy, headed south and linked up with the American forces charging northward along the peninsula. Soon, he was back home, embarking on a life as a refinery worker.
He died four years ago, shortly after giving the diary to his nephew, Jim Norman, an orthodontist in Nacogdoches, Texas. Norman kept it on his desk, leafing through the pages now and again, imagining the life and fate of the versifying author and occasionally resolving to return the book to Sweeney or, more likely given the passage of time, his descendants.
Not long ago, during an interment ceremony for his mother's ashes at a veterans cemetery in Houston, Norman noticed several other military funerals under way.
''That kind of ding-a-linged the bell 'Get off your lazy butt and see about doing something about this,''' Norman said. ''I contacted the veterans administrator here in Nacogdoches. He dialed it up on the computer using Mr. Sweeney's dog tag number. Both of us were kind of sitting there with our mouths open he says, 'This man is still alive, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.'''
As quick as that, the diary was in the mail. It arrived just before Christmas at the Fourth Street home Sweeney shares with his lifelong friend, Jean Owens.
Along with Sweeney's caretaker, Marie Schleder, they eagerly pored over the penciled entries that alternate between print and cursive and recall extraordinary adventures: battling the forces of German Gen. Erwin Rommel in Tunisia, falling prisoner two days before Christmas 1942, marching 15 muddy miles to the port city of Tunis.
Sweeney spent Christmas in a German headquarters building, recording the experience in his typically understated way: ''We sang Christmas carols just to keep up the Christmas spirit ? On Christmas Day, they gave us two Dixies of good old German sauerkraut.''
From Tunis, it was a short ride across the Mediterranean to Sicily, followed by a train trip to Servigliano, his home for the next nine months.
Of faith and friendship
Sweeney, a bachelor who retired from Bethlehem Steel nearly 30 years ago, grew up in Allentown's largely Irish 6th Ward. His parents, Dennis and Elizabeth, raised 13 children. He entered the Army in February 1942 and went through basic training at Fort Wheeler, Ga., shipping out to North Africa with the 1st Infantry Division.
Sweeney was devoted to his mother, and many of the poems he composed during his internment at Servigliano evoke her as a sort of domestic beacon ready to guide her little boy out of the darkness:
''Somewhere a light is shining bright/In a land far across the foam./There sitting alone by the fireside/Is my mother, all alone. ? ''
Another piece is called ''A Soldier's Prayer'': ''It's just a soldier's prayer at twilight/For his mother dear back home,/a prayer of everlasting piece/which so far has been unknown. ? ''
Not all the poems are so somber. A ballad about prisoners being released from camp ends this way: ''As I walked out through the gate/I was met by my loving wife./She cried, she yelled 'You dirty bum,/They should of give you life!'''
In his years in captivity, Sweeney found comfort in his Catholic faith and the friendship of fellow prisoners. One entry tells of his sadness at the departure of Lefty, a ''good, true Englishman'' transferred with 600 other British soldiers from Servigliano to another camp.
He made other friends, including a few fellow poets who composed their own offerings about God, war and country.
He spent his final months as a POW in a German camp where he chopped down trees for barricades. As the Allies pushed on, the Germans abandoned the camp. Sweeney and other prisoners marched miles through snow to find American troops.
He went to France after that, to a hospital camp called Lucky Strike named for the cigarette brand and departed for home on June 2, 1945.
As ever, his thoughts were on his mother. When he docked in New Jersey on June 14, his 30th birthday, he telephoned his family and told them not to tell her he had returned, because he wanted to surprise her.
That's when he learned she had died on Dec. 23, 1943, a year to the day after his capture in North Africa.
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