It’s like a scene from an old movie. Maybe something Humphrey Bogart would star in.
In 1943, four World War II soldiers from Wallowa County, serving in different units, accidentally meet each other on the streets of Algiers in north Africa. Those soldiers spend one day together: reminiscing, posing for a street artist caricature and spending the evening in a bar.
But this is not the scene from Casablanca. It’s a real-life incident that happened to four local men who had that chance meeting in a city that then was home to 8 million people.
Forrest Wilson, a resident of Wallowa Lake Village, is the son of one of the soldiers in this story. Wilson had read a Nov. 9 Chieftain story about former Wallowa County resident Gayle Stockdale, and a light flashed in his head.
“When I saw the Stockdale writeup, I said, ‘My God, I think this is one of the four.’ And I went and dug out (the caricature art) out of my dad’s wartime stuff,” he said.
The caricatures depict all four men in their respective duties. Lt. Robert “Bruce” Wilson, Forrest’s father, is seen driving construction equipment, Capt. Gayle Stockdale is driving a tank, Warrant Officer Bud Jones is flying a British airplane and Lt. Charles C. Thorpe is drawn with artillery. Either a bottle or a glass of spirits is also depicted in each character.
Wilson’s father was raised on a Wallowa County farm. He moved to Hawaii with his brother to combat the tough times of the Great Depression. He eventually obtained construction work at the Army Air Force’s Hickam Field and watched the Pearl Harbor attack unfold before his eyes.
Robert Wilson immediately enlisted but was initially turned down because he was too old — he was 36 at the time. However, he had a degree from the University of Oregon, and after he passed a physical fitness test, the Army enrolled him in Officers Candidate School and assigned him to the Army Corps of Engineers.
“He would have been crushed if he hadn’t been able to get involved,” said Forrest Wilson. “That was the big thing in his life, and it was the big thing in all their lives.”
Wilson was running supply missions for the Corps in the North African campaign. He found himself in Algiers and went for a stroll.
“He said he was walking through town and ran into another Wallowa County boy. In those days they all knew each other — it wasn’t like Wallowa, Enterprise and Joseph were separate,” Wilson said.
He is no longer sure which one his father ran into first, but they headed to a local watering hole for a drink, where they eventually ran into two others doing the same thing.
“My dad really liked the idea that all four of them ran into each other, so they decided to go out on the street and have these caricatures drawn. I don’t know if it was my dad’s idea to have them drawn, but since he ended up with it, I assume it was his idea,” Wilson said.
Forrest first saw the caricature when he was about 10, when his father was going through his war collection.
His father remembered that day vividly.
“My dad just talked about how much fun it was just to sit there and reminisce about Wallowa County instead of what was going on,” Forrest said.
To the best of Forrest Wilson’s recollection, the men never again met during the war, but his father and Stockdale returned and talked on occasion. Robert Wilson tried farming on leased land in Wallowa County, but eventually went to work at the Hanford Project in south-central Washington, commuting back and forth to spend time with his family, who still resided in Wallowa County. After a severe accident during his Hanford commute, he decided to return to college and become a teacher. He eventually found employment as a teacher at Willows, Calif., where he remained the rest of his life. He passed away in his sleep on Dec. 2, 1981. He was 75.
Although that chance meeting happened more than 70 years ago a half a world away, Wilson still shakes his head in wonder.
“Think of it. Four guys from Wallowa County, none of them coming over together, but running into each other in a city like Algiers,” he said. “It’s very unique, the odds are phenomenal.”