Camp Butner, which once stood as a military training center and prisoner of war camp in parts of Durham, Granville, and Person counties, is now 75 years old. The town of Butner developed from Camp Butner, and was incorporated in 2007. Camp Butner was at one time called Grandurson, the Gran was for Granville, dur for Durham, and son for Person. This article is about a man who once served at Camp Butner.
Thomas Sanseverino was born in New York City in 1921, and in 2017 he sat with me in his Durham home and talked a little about his life. While talking to me, this 96-year-old man bounced up three times to show me things I asked about. One was a piece of shrapnel from a German mortar shell during WWII that had lodged in the back of his leg and was extracted in a Paris hospital. The doctor asked Mr. Sanseverino if he wanted to keep it as a souvenir.
Not only that, but this congenial man still works. Walk into Duke Homestead Barber Shop on Duke Homestead Road and if you are lucky you will get your hair cut by Thomas, who goes by Tommy. After getting home form WWII, Tommy got a job at McCullough’s Barber Shop in downtown Durham in 1946, and he has been cutting hair in Durham every year since then. You can do the math; that is 71 years. He eventually bought the barber shop he worked at and it became Tommy’s Barber Shop. He cut hair full-time until 2015. Now Tommy goes in to cut hair on Wednesdays and Saturdays only.
Never miss a local story.
Tommy has been an elder at Mt. Bethel Presbyterian Church for many years. He fell in love with Mt. Bethel after falling in love with a beautiful young lady from Durham, Dot York. Tommy was a Catholic, but Dot was a Presbyterian, and when a man loves a woman like Tommy loved Dot, a thing such as religion can be changed. So Dot York became Dot Sanseverino before Tommy left for overseas service in WWII.
Although Tommy was born in New York City, his father took the family to Italy when Tommy was just one year old. Tommy did not come back to the United States until he was 18, in 1939. Benito Mussolini was leading Italy down a bad path, allying with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The Sanseverinos got out when they could, and came back to America. Tommy joined the army shortly after his return to America. He signed up for one year, served it, had a month out of service, and then was drafted back in with the onset of WWII.
Tommy was stationed in Camp Butner. Over 40,000 army troops served at Camp Butner, and thousands of German and Italian prisoners were kept there during World War II. Tommy spent about 13 months at Camp Butner, where he was assigned to the famed 78th Lightning Division. He remembers constant noise from troops training, the explosions from the firing ranges, army vehicles going to and fro, and instructions being shouted. One very pleasant noise he had was after a hard 20-mile hike, he saw some young civilian ladies hanging curtains in a day room on the base. One had blond hair and was pretty as a peach. Tommy was smitten, and managed to get close enough to say hey to the young lady. He got a smile and a “How are you?” back.
One day, Tommy got some instructions that would change his life. He was told to take three men to Durham for a job on Cole Mill Road. At the house was the pretty blond that he had first seen a few weeks before after that long hike around Camp Butner. Dot York became his wife just a few months later.
But married or not, WWII came calling. Tommy shipped to Belgium and eventually landed with the 78th Division in the horrible battlefields of France and Germany in 1944. Tommy was a platoon sergeant who had 47 men under his leadership. The 78th captured the German towns of Kesternich, Schmidt, the Schwammanauel Dam, then kept going, taking Euskirchen, Rheinbach, Honnef, and Bad Neuenahr. After running through Germany, the 78th served as an occupation force on German soil until it was deactivated in 1946.
Tommy was there, receiving two Purple Hearts and a Combat Infantry Badge. He saw many things that live in him today, and in our interview he made a point right up front that there were some things about WWII he did not want to talk about. Of the 47 men who served under him in his platoon, all are gone now, but they live on in the mind and heart of this 96-year-old man.
One piece of good news came to Tommy as he lay in a hospital bed in Paris after doctors took out that fragment of mortar shell he got fighting the Germans. He got the news that he had a son, and his wife wanted to know what to name the baby boy. Tommy was elated but left that up to Dot, who he had had to leave behind in Durham, pregnant, after he got deployed. He told me, as he recovered in that Paris hospital, his mind was more on getting back to his boys in his platoon, which he did. By the end of the war, Tommy was Staff Sergeant Sanseverino.
I knew I was in the presence of a good man while I visited with Tommy Sanseverino. All I could do on my way out the door was to look him in the eye, thank him for his service, and offer my hand. I think he enjoyed the visit, and I know I will never forget it.