Armie was from Wisconsin. He fought in Tunisia where he was captured while defending the Kasserine Pass in 1943. He arrived at Camp 59 in Servigliano via Camp 98 in Sicily (where the lack of food had sapped his strength and health). After escaping during the handover he and his companion, Ben Farley, made their way south, crossed the German lines during a thunder storm and reached the British. They covered 300 miles in 30 days and were amongst the first American soldiers to reach their army.
His story here is told in 2 tape recorded interviews with his son in later life. He also made a motorcycle journey in 1988 through Italy to revisit his route and to try to find some of the Italian people who had helped him in 1943.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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December 4, 2010
Dear Mr. Killby,
It was so kind of you to write to me before my trip to Italy this fall. I intended to write back sooner than this to tell you about my experiences. I apologize for my lateness.
Your letter was of great interest to me. I am impressed by the extensive archives of the Trust and I am certainly impressed as well by the number of Italian students you have assisted though your educational funding.
My partner and I had a great time in Italy, starting with three days in the Marche and then continuing on to Florence and Rome. It was our first time in Italy.
I am sending my father’s story. I interviewed him on audiotape in 1976 about his war experiences and typed the transcript, to which he added a few comments and made a few corrections. Then years later, in 1987, he said to me, “There are a few things I didn’t mention when you interviewed me that I’ve thought of since.”
“Well,” I said, “Maybe we should get out the tape recorder and do another tape.” And that was what we did. I am so happy to have that second tape, because there are valuable details on it that otherwise would have been lost. I believe you know that my dad passed away in 2000. During the last several years of his life he was affected by Alzheimer’s and I would not have been able to talk with him about his experiences.
My dad was a great story teller. I believe you will find that comes across in his narrative.
I have also included in this package printouts of some photos I took on the trip to the Marche. I’ve numbered the photos and have included background information on a separate sheet.
Basically, I could sum up our three days in the Marche in these stages:
1) Meeting Steve Dickinson. I had started communicating with Steve a couple of years ago when he discovered my Camp 59 website and wrote to share information about his uncle Robert Dickinson, who was interned in the camp. Robert never returned to England. In fighting with the Partisans near the end of the war he was killed in a gunfight. Steve met my partner, Mark, and me at Stanstead London Airport and we flew to Ancona and rented a car together.
2) A trip to Roccafluvione to see if we could find relatives of the Bianchini family who helped my father and Ben Farley. The Bianchini hid and fed them for several days and, when the two left to head south, the Bianchini provided them with a guide who took them though the mountains.
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3) Meeting Marino Palmoni and his son Antonello. As a young boy Marino discovered escaped prisoners hiding in the bushes near his home. The Palmoni family took these men in and protected them for many months. Marino and Antonello brought us to their old home and showed us the area in the woods where the prisoners hid in caves.
4) The visit to Camp 59. Filippo Ierano and Ian McCarthy gave us a tour and a reporter from Il Resto del Carlino interviewed Steve and me and wrote an article for his paper.
5) The time we spent with our wonderful hosts, Anne Bewick-Copley and her husband David Runciman. Anne had discovered my website when she was doing Internet research on the camp. Anne and David live in Oxford, but also own a restored farmhouse in Montefalcone (which is also where the Palmoni family lives). Anne and David gave us a grand tour of the area, including visits to charming hilltop towns and drives on curving roads though the stunningly beautiful countryside.
I contacted Giuseppe Millozzi before we left the U.S. As it turned out, he was in France when we were at the Marche so I was unable to meet him. I have read his degree thesis. It is a most impressive piece of scholarship and answered a lot of my questions.
You mentioned G. Norman Davison’s book, “In the Prison of His Days” I also have been in touch with his son, John Davison. John told me about your visit with him and his daughter. I am so pleased that he was able to make contact with the people in Vigevano who helped his father and that he was able to visit them this fall.
Take care of yourself. Best wishes for Christmas and the new year.
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Armie Hill on his World War II Experiences: Account No. 1 of 2
This story is based on the first of two tape-recorded interviews with Armie regarding his experience during World War II. Armie’s son Dennis Hill taped this conversation on February 21,1976 in Phelps, Wisconsin. Dennis edited the transcript and made a few additions and corrections that Armie requested.
On August 31, 1942 the troops in my company left the States. Our first stop was Antrim County, Ireland. We were in Ireland for a few weeks. Then they sent us to England to Liverpool. In England we had an idea that we would be sent someplace, but we didn’t know where we would be sent. We had been given extra training. We had spent time getting all our equipment ready. Everything had to be covered with oil and grease so that it would be waterproof, and then we covered it with canvas.
One day we were told to be ready to load on the ships. They took us in barges out to the ships. And the ship that I was loaded on, I was a sergeant and a squad-leader at the time, wasn’t a passenger ship but an old, Russian ship that had been used to carry freight. It really wasn’t sea-worthy. All around ships were being loaded. It took us several days to load and assemble the convoy. Finally, we set off from Liverpool.
We were given orders to stay below deck. When we were allowed on deck, we weren’t supposed to throw anything in the water that would give a clue as to the trail of the ships. When we did throw anything overboard, garbage or anything, it was always at night.
The speed of a convoy is only as fast as the slowest ship. In our convoy I estimated there were close to 100 ships. Everywhere you looked, as far as you could see, there were ships. There were British destroyers and cruisers that stayed on the outer fringes of the convoy to watch for submarines. There was an aircraft carrier or two. A plane from a carrier flew ahead searching the seas.
The route we took must have been quite northerly. We didn’t know where we were going, but as we travelled it got colder and colder. We didn’t want to be above ship very long because it was cold and the wind was strong. The seas were rough. We paid attention to the path of the ships. Once in a while the ships zigzagged. We wondered what they did that for, and then we found out that it was to avoid being hit by
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torpedoes. If a ship travelled in a straight course, the submarine could launch the torpedo ahead of the ship so the ship would run into it. By zigzagging, the ship could reduce the chance of that happening, unless the submarine was very close. Every once in a while we heard a boom when depth charges were dropped. When the sonar in the convoy sounded that there were submarines nearby, a ship would drop depth charges into the ocean. You could feel the ship vibrate when the charges were set off.
I didn’t ever see signs of enemy submarines. Of course, we didn’t know if there were any. But at that time the Germans were strong, because this was in the early part of the war, and the Germans had many submarines out just waiting for convoys. By that time they had sunk so many ships that the British had to get more ships wherever they could. They used anything that would float.
If a ship were to sink, a person’s only chance would be to get in a lifeboat. They told us no one could survive in that cold water for over eight minutes.
The food on our ship was worse than on the American ships. We had mostly mutton stew, cabbage, crackers, rutabaga soup, and mutton. It wasn’t the best of rations. They did have some American rations and some of our field rations. I ate those most of the time, if I could get them, I just ate the field rations. I also bought some British chocolate bars, they tasted really good.
Most of the men got sick due to the rough seas. The ventilation below deck was poor, and the air was damp and foul.
About three weeks after we set sail, as we approached the coast of North Africa, the weather finally started getting warmer. We knew we were getting into a warmer climate. Still, none of us had an idea where the ships were going, in fact, I don’t think there was hardly anyone on our ship that knew. There was a reason for this, we understood that if a ship were sunk the enemy would pick up survivors and try to find out where we were going. Then they would just wait for us to arrive. So the orders were sealed and nobody knew where we were actually going until the seals were opened.
Now that it was warmer I stayed on deck. Being an army engineer, I was interested in watching the British sailors as they made scramble nets from strong rope. The sailors were experts at splicing rope and tying knots. The nets resembled big fishnets. We were given training in how to climb down them.
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Finally, they told us that we were going through the Straits of Gibraltar. We could see Gibraltar as we went through, we could see high rocks on both sides of our narrow channel. They told us that we were about to be the first expeditionary force to go ashore and we were going to land in North Africa.
We were given instruction in landing and we were told we would be landing the next day at about four o’clock in the morning just before daylight.
We landed in British assault boats each of which carried about 30 men. The boats were positioned next to the ship and we climbed down on scramble nets.
Early in the morning we had our packs on — food and water, rifles, ammunition, and all the other equipment we were to carry — about 60 pounds per man. Sea swells were high and the assault boats rose and fell 10 or 12 feet alongside the ship. The assault boats had motors and were secured to the ships with ropes. Lieutenant Prestridge went down to our assault boat first. Being a squad leader on this mission, I was the second man to climb down.
When we were in the boat the two of us picked up the scramble net — which hung in the water between the boat and ship — and raised it up and put it into our boat. Then the lieutenant held one end and I held the other so the men could climb down. We were told to keep our chests as close to the net as possible, because if a person let himself lean backwards he wouldn’t have the strength to pull himself forward again. A captain on another ship let himself lean back and he fell off the net and onto the floor of his boat. He broke his back in the fall. We warned our men to be very careful. The 30 men on our boat boarded safely.
The assault boat headed for land. In the meantime cruisers were shelling the beach, attempting to knock out the blockhouses that had been firing on our ships. I didn’t notice if any of the ships were hit. There wasn’t much fire from shore. The British had already knocked out most pillboxes along the beach.
We landed near the port of Arzew, about 10 miles from Oran. When the boats were close to shore we entered the water, which was about five feet deep. I held our assault boat while the other men unloaded. The beach was rocky, so the assault boats didn’t land, but returned for another load of men. We climbed onto shore and set up the rifles and machine guns we had with us. There was little fighting. The rangers had gone ahead of us, so resistance had been almost entirely eliminated by the time we got to the shore. We were some of the first troops to land in that area and the invasion — Operation Torch — was a major victory for the British and the Americans.
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One of the ships hit a mine or was attacked by a submarine, and sank off shore.
As combat engineers it was our job to clean up barbed wire entanglements and fix up the roads and docks so ships could come into the port — then the other men wouldn’t have to come ashore by assault boat. It was our duty to go ashore first.
When the other ships got to the docks we helped to unload trucks, jeeps, tanks, and supplies. The dock at Arzew was a real good one. The French had built it. We encountered the Arabs and French there, who did not give us much resistance. We worked for a week unloading ships. We used the cranes on the docks, which hadn’t been damaged. We set up a field kitchen and our tents. The weather was mild — like in California where I had been stationed. Arzew would have made a nice resort town. It was November, but the weather was in the 70s and we worked in our short-sleeve shirts.
Soon the Arabs came around trying to sell us eggs. They didn’t care for money, as it was of little value to them. However, they were eager to barter for cigarettes, canned food, and any other rations. The Arabs also brought large, sweet oranges with them. In Arzew, the Arabs were very friendly.
Some of us were sent off to build a field hospital, or tent city, about ten miles away. I was detailed to go on that job. We worked there for a couple of weeks. We did a lot of blasting, as there was only about a foot of dirt covering solid rock. We did large scale blasting using dynamite and TNT. We drilled holes, lowered the TNT into them, and set it off using electrical wires and batteries. We blasted the holes to loosen ground so we could secure tent pins. When we finished our work we were sent back to the docks.
We were informed that we would be moved to western Tunisia by truck. The trip was 500 or 600 miles. We heard reports that the British were advancing on the Germans and the German forces were withdrawing to Tunis, where they had been evacuating troops. What we didn’t know was that the Germans had been bringing in fresh men to reinforce their troops around Tunis. On the way north, we passed through the city of Algiers and followed the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains. When we arrived at Tunisia, we learned that Montgomery was pushing the Germans toward Tunis. It was General Patton’s plan to reach Tunis first and shut off the supply routes.
Where we were now, near Kasserine Pass, it was desert country. It was our responsibility to guard Kasserine Pass, which was one of the major passes in that area. German planes came by now and then, but they did no damage to us. Ahead of us were infantry and tank units that had fought against the Germans
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and Italians. Our units had not yet been in combat. Meanwhile, we worked on building roads and setting up camps for the infantry, which we understood would be coming to reinforce us. Also, we were sent to guard a nearby airfield.
One day the first sergeant came to me and said, “Sergeant Hill, you and your squad — along with some other men — have been selected for a special mission. You are being sent to guard Allied headquarters.”
Major-General Lloyd Fredendall was stationed at the Allied headquarters for the Center Task Force of the North African invasion. There were British, French, and American forces there. We were to set up Cossack posts. At a Cossack post you don’t move at all — you don’t walk the post, but only listen and stop anyone who comes through. We had a sign and counter-sign as passwords. The sign was “Hi-ho, Silver.” And the countersign was “Away.” When anyone approached the post one of us shouted “Hi-ho, Silver.” If they answered “Away,” they were told to advance. The Germans were landing paratroopers behind the lines and it was their main objective to get someone into Allied Headquarters. But we didn’t encounter any Germans there.
When I was in California I had a fellow named Bommarito in my squad. He was the first of a bunch of new men to come in after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He had been a boxer. He was sort of a punch-drunk fellow. He was brilliant — he worked his way through college, but he didn’t like the service and I couldn’t make a soldier out of him. The officers didn’t know what to do with him. They didn’t want to put him in the guardhouse.
So the first sergeant said, “We’ll put him into Hill’s squad. We’ll see what he can do with him.” I talked to Bommarito and looked him over, and then I told the first sergeant, “Well, I’ll do the best I can.”
One way or another, Bommarito took a liking to me. But I always had to cover up for him. He slept late in the morning. We just couldn’t get him up. I’d go to roll call in the morning and call to the men, and everyone would be there but Bommarito. I’d look in his tent and he wasn’t there. Then, we would go out looking in the brush and there we’d find him.
I’d shake him and say, “Hey, Bommarito, what’s the matter? You’re supposed to be on roll call.” So he’d wake up and pull on his underwear and slip on a pair of pants. We were supposed to have leggings
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on and our shoes polished, so I had to hide him behind the other men so no one could see the way he was dressed. I gave him a lot of breaks — and he appreciated them.
When we were in California we would sometimes go on ten or fifteen-mile hikes. The weather was hot and we’d stop to rest along the way. First thing, Bommarito would come over and ask someone to give him a drink of water.
I got wise to him one time and said, “Where’s your water?”
He answered, “You know — that water is heavy to carry.” He had been traveling with an empty canteen all the time.
I told him, “You know, when we get into combat one of these days you’ll have to make sure you have a canteen full of water. You’re not going to go bumming water from the other guys then. Water is going to be scarce where we’ll be at.”
When we landed near Arzew, it was still dark and we were lying in the sand close to the beaches where the firing was going on, when someone crawled behind me and patted me on the back. I turned around and there was Bommarito.
He said, “Hey, sergeant, want a drink of water?”
I said, “You got some water there?”
He answered. “Yeah, look here.” I looked and saw he had two canteens full of water — one on each side of his belt. He said, “Boy, I made sure I had water.”
I laughed and said, “Sure, Bommarito — I’ll have a drink of water.”
He always tried to do as little as he could get away with.
Anyway, after we set up Cossack posts, I went around inspecting the men. Bommarito and his partner were supposed to be on one post, and farther down there were two men at another post. Bommarito had left his post and went to take a nap in the brush by the two men at the next post. In the meantime, an officer was sent to inspect our guard. He came not to the post where Bommarito had been, but to the post farther down the line.
The men heard him coming and one hollered out “Hi-ho, Silver.” The officer, who was a lieutenant, answered “Away.”
One of the guards said, “Advance and be recognized.”
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As the lieutenant came up to them, he pulled out a .45 automatic Colt pistol and told the guards, “You’re under arrest. Don’t you know that Germans can speak English just as well as Americans? You shouldn’t have let me advance without covering me with your rifles.”
While they were talking Bommarito woke up. He snuck behind the offieer, jammed a rifle to his back, and said, “Stick ’em up.” The officer raised his hands. Bommarito said, “Drop the pistol.”
The lieutenant dropped it and he said, “I’m just inspecting the guard.”
Bommarito said, “I know — but you may be a German, too.” Bommarito made him crawl on the ground and lay on his belly. They all covered him and wouldn’t let him go until he produced papers that showed who he was.
When he was finally cleared, the officer said, “I see you guys really work well together. You are a very good guard!”
When I talked with the men the next day, I had to laugh at the whole situation. I told Bommarito, “For once you were in the right place at the right time.” Actually, he wasn’t supposed to even be there.
We remained at headquarters until the infantry replaced our guard. Then we went back to our company — Company D, 19th Engineers.
The winter rains of North Africa were very heavy. Many of the sand roads were washed out. We put culverts in the roadways. No timber was available, so we used empty airplane fuel barrels. We knocked the bottoms off them and put them end-to-end. They served the purpose nicely. They only had to be used a short time while the equipment was brought through. We discovered that if we buried them deep and covered them with ten feet of sand, they wouldn’t cave in as they did when they were closer to the surface of the road.
I enjoyed engineer work. I had been raised in the woods of Wisconsin and had worked in lumber camps. I was used to hard work and handling tools. Many of the men were from cities and didn’t know the first thing about this type of work. When it came to sharpening stakes some of the men would hold the base of the stick with their feet and try to chop with both hands on the axe. I held the stake with one hand and rested the end on a board or stump. When I sharpened stakes the men looked on with amazement.
One guy said, “How did you do that? You must have worked in a pencil-sharpening factory!”
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They didn’t know that when I lived on the farm I had to sharpen hundreds of fence posts. I had been sharpening posts since I was little.
One evening the lieutenant came to me and was all excited. He said, “We’ve got to move. Get all the equipment together. We have to head for Kasserine Pass. The Germans are heading that way.”
We discovered that the Germans had made a big break-through. It was our duty to go to Kasserine Pass and lay mines before they arrived there. The pass was about a mile wide and on each side were high cliffs. It was rugged country. The road through the pass was the only means of getting through. When we got there my assignment was to go to the right of the pass and set up a 50-caliber machine gun, plus take a squad to cover the men who were laying mines.
Company D was to guard the pass on the right side and other soldiers were on the left side.
Another company laid the minefields. The man who trained us in setting mines was a British expert in mine setting. He later wrote a book on laying mines.
He showed us a German mine that was the size of a dishpan and weighed about six pounds. It was far superior to anything the Americans had. The mine, along with various booby trap contraptions, came in a container that was similar to a suitcase. Anyone who either stepped on the mine or lifted it would be blown up. There were push releases and pressure releases. The pressure release was a wire leading to the mine that, if cut, would snap back to the mine like a mousetrap and trigger it. Some mines were filled with shot, and if you stepped on one the shot would fly up and spread over a large area.
There were hasty minefields and strategic minefields. I think the one we laid was a hasty minefield. We didn’t put many booby traps in it. In order to disturb a mine like that it had to be pressed by two hundred pounds of pressure. A man could walk over it without setting it off, but vehicles traveling over it would blow up.
While we were laying the mines, someone who was foolish said “I’ll bet I could drive a truck through that minefield.” He drove a truck in and hit a mine. It picked the front end right up and blew out the front tires, leaving it right on the road. We just left it there.
It was on February 18, 1943 that we were sent to the pass. On the February 19, we saw advance Tiger tanks. There were six of them. They came close to our minefield, but not up to it. Someone opened up on them with our 37mm cannon. The fire bounced right off the front of the tank, but the Germans
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stopped. They fired a few shots toward the hills where we were. Then they turned around and went back. These were the scouts and we knew that the others would be coming in force later.
That night I didn’t sleep at all. Some of the fellows were sleeping, but I tried to keep them awake. I tried to organize them so that someone would be awake in case of attack. We were situated on a high rocky cliff and it would have been hard for anyone to scale it from the front. We were on top of a straight ridge, about fifty feet up, in an old cave. The French or someone else had apparently used it as a lookout post — there was some straw in it. It was a nice place for us because it provided shelter. All night I sat imagining I heard the Germans or Italians scaling the cliff or coming around it. There was occasional fire that night, but there wasn’t any action until the next morning.
In the morning, the Germans came with about fifty or sixty tanks that were all lined up. They were also bringing up their infantry. They started firing point-blank at our position. They were for the most part out of reach of our artillery. When our 75mm shells did hit their tanks they did no damage. The German tanks had treads three feet wide — especially built for the desert. They had the German 88 all-purpose gun, which was one of the finest guns in the world at that time. It could be used as anti-tank, anti-personnel, or anti-aircraft. The shell was about three feet long and about six or eight inches around. Any of our tanks that were sent out were hit once or twice and destroyed.
Just before the Germans came up with their artillery, we received an order to put all our packs on trucks and withdraw. We were told the infantry would replace us. We loaded our things on the truck. One of the first shots the Germans fired after that hit it. The truck burned and we lost all our supplies. I think loading the packs onto trucks was one of the greatest mistakes — it was one of the reasons I was eventually taken prisoner, because in my pack I carried a lot of provisions. I had extra clothes, candy bars and other food — enough to last for a week. The only food I had after I put my pack on the truck was British candy bars, some American chocolate, and a canteen full of water. That was what I lived on for the next three days.
The Germans advanced. Later I read that the German commander bragged he would break through Kasserine Pass by nightfall. Shells flew everywhere. You see war in the movies, but you have no idea what it is actually like. The sound of shells passing over was like that of freight trains. They exploded and pieces of shrapnel flew all around. A few pieces hit my clothing, but I was lucky — I suffered only a few scratches.
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One shell landed by my foot, but it happened to be a dud — it didn’t blow up. Some of the fellows were hit and I bandaged them up. I used up my own first-aid bandages and theirs. Some of the fellows were scared. Of course we all were scared. One of the guys was crying and every time a shell went over he cried louder. I don’t know what became of him or the others. With all my training I had expected this. Yet with all the training and my being an expert rifle shot, I could do nothing because there was nothing to shoot at.
I had pictured the Germans coming with bayonets on their rifles and I imagined we would engage in hand-to-hand combat. This was totally different. All firing was way out of range. The trucks and troops were five or six hundred yards from us, so when we did fire we didn’t know if it hit anyone or anything. Our only advance was by tanks and a few trucks — and the latter were blown up in the minefields.
I knew what their forces were going to do. They would keep using artillery and then attack at dark. We had orders to withdraw, so we did. When we were farther behind the line we regrouped. I gathered what men I could into my squad. In the meantime, the Germans and Italians were attacking the heights. Before they could destroy the minefields they knew they would have to do away with the men who were guarding them.
At night I contacted our battalion commander on the field telephone. I told him the Germans were coming in huge force.
He answered, “Then attack them. One thing we don’t want to do is withdraw now. Gather as many men as you can and attack. Do you hear me?”
I said “Yes, sir.”
We gathered as many men as we could and we started forward in attack. I was one of the leading men. The machine gunners heard us coming and opened fire. We all hit the ground. That was the last I knew of the squad. I lay quietly in the dark while the Germans raked over our lines with tracers. I lay still, listening, and thinking that I must get closer to them. I didn’t have any hand grenades, but I had a grenade launcher and a grenade. I thought if I could get close enough I could shoot it into their midst. I finally got up and started to run, but I slipped on a rock and fell into a hole. As I fell, my helmet flew off and hit rock. The Germans heard it — it made a loud noise. I heard them hollering and then they started shooting toward me. They knew just about where I was. I managed to get down low enough behind the rock that it protected me, but I could feel the bullets whizzing over my back.
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I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew I was awake and the Germans were talking not too far from me. They were shoveling a hole. I crawled away from there and looked for my men, but I couldn’t find anyone anywhere around.
That was the last I saw of any of our men. I don’t know what happened to them. In my fall I had hurt my hand and my knee so that I couldn’t walk. The next day I lay on the side of the mountain, where I could hear continued fighting. I didn’t know where I was or what I was going to do, but I thought to myself the main thing is to survive.
I supposed the Americans would be bringing in reinforcements. It was the second day of combat but the Germans hadn’t gotten through the lines yet. I moved on for a ways and suddenly I spotted a German standing not far from me. I aimed at him with my rifle. He wasn’t far away and I could easily have shot him. Then another soldier joined him. I watched them for a while. They were just young looking. I didn’t want to shoot them and I didn’t know how many men there were besides these two. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled away from there.
I had drunk all my water. I came to a ridge and there was water flowing on either side of it, but I had been warned that the water was alkaline. There was plenty of water but I couldn’t drink it. I looked around for something to eat but I couldn’t find anything. I was getting weaker and weaker. I climbed up the side of one mountain. I knew I couldn’t last too much longer.
I kept thinking “Boy, what a place this is to die!” No one would ever find me there. I probably would be listed as missing in action. If they found wounded or dead men, I assumed the Arabs took their clothes and dog tags, and that they buried many of them in the sand. The Arabs knew they had advantage over you, so you had to be careful which of them you talked to. I started down the other side of the mountain. I prayed that I might find water somewhere. This was my third day without water.
As I stood on the side of the hill, I could see the remains of the roads that had been built by the Romans. The Arabs had used these as paths for many years. I found a pair of discarded sandals as I walked. I followed along a path and at one point thought I heard the sound of trickling water. I walked toward the sound and, sure enough, there was a little stream. It was about two feet wide and about a foot and a half deep. It was a miracle that I should find water there! I filled my canteen and put pills into it to kill bacteria. I mixed it up. That was my first drink in three days.
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I lay down and relaxed. I hated to walk away from this place, because it was such a relief to find it. I thanked God there. I thought to myself here is the land where Christianity was born. I imagined the early religious leaders had walked on these very roads. It was growing dark as I followed a path to the side of a mountain. I would stay there overnight. I had some matches, so I built a fire. It was warm during the day but cool and damp at night. I built my fire on a rock shelf on the mountainside. It had just rained a bit, so I dried myself off.
I heard a plane flying over. It must have been an American plane. Not far from me was a German anti-aircraft gun. I could see shells from it flying up into the air. They were tracers, shot a little ahead of the plane. The plane was hit and caught fire. It flew a little way and then came down. It crashed about a mile from where I was. I wondered if there were survivors. I thought that in the morning I would go in that direction and look around. It made me mad to see the plane shot down, and I felt I should go to the anti-aircraft post and get the gunners. But I was too weak to walk that distance. Apparently everyone in the plane died in the crash.
The following morning I looked across the desert and could see the anti-aircraft gun out there. There were quite a few soldiers. I decided to walk to the left to see if I might come across any Americans. In a little way I came upon some Arabs. I wondered whether I should approach them, but I didn’t have much choice. I thought that Arabs might be friendly toward Americans — we had given them candy and traded with them. I hoped that they would be friendly and help me.
I went up to them and they greeted me. They appeared to be friendly. I motioned that I was hungry and asked if they had something to eat. There was a woman in the group, about three men, and some children. They had built a fire and placed a flat rock over it. They fried me two eggs on that rock, and they gave me a piece of bread to eat with the eggs. In return I gave them some money. I had a lot of money on me — about two or three hundred dollars in French money and some American invasion money. The invasion money was like other currency except it had a golden seal. One Arab was talking and tried to attract my attention, but I thought I heard something behind me.
When I turned around there were two Germans. They had submachine guns trained on me. The Arab grabbed for my gun right away — he wanted it, and the Germans let him keep it. It was an ’03 Springfield .30-06. The Germans searched me and took my knives, bayonet, and gas mask. I had a hunting
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knife that I had bought, which they kept, but they gave the rest to the Arabs. They didn’t check me for money. They gave the Arab who turned me in 200 francs. That was what they paid any Arab for turning in an American. I myself had about 1,000 francs on me. But I was lucky that the Arabs didn’t search me or hurt me, as they did some of the prisoners I talked to later.
The Germans were stern looking, but they weren’t mean and they respected me. They told me to follow them, and they took me to a nearby olive orchard. A captain of the German army had set up a field table there. He was writing when I was presented to him. He stood up and saluted me, which I thought was most unusual.
He said, “Hello, sergeant.”
I answered, “Hello.”
He had been schooled in England and he spoke perfect English.
“For you,” he said, “the war is finished. I am writing a letter to my girlfriend in Berlin. I’ve been here in the desert fighting for two or three years.” He showed me a picture of his girlfriend. She was a real nice-looking girl.
“I don’t know if I’ll get out of this war alive,” he said.
He picked some olive blossoms from one of the trees and pressed them down. Then he told me, “I’m going to send her these.”
He put the blossoms into the letter and sealed it.
Many times in the years since I became a rural mail carrier I have thought of that — my first experience with the Germans. It seemed so odd to me, as I thought he would be reading maps or making battle plans.
The captain gave me food and offered me some wine. All of the Germans drank wine. They had it in cans and they called it vino. It wasn’t strong, but it quenched my thirst. The Germans carried it in their canteens.
I was loaded onto the back of a truck and taken to a small town. I was imprisoned in what I thought was a school building. I was locked upstairs with a huge man — a black man who was a French soldier and about as big as my uncle Frank Anderson. He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak French. Then they brought in another soldier, who had a toothache. I was worried about food and he just
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kept saying, “Oh, my tooth hurts! My tooth hurts!” He was from the infantry. There was a bunk without a mattress where he slept and I had a bunk, too, in another part of the room.
I was getting cool and when I looked around I saw there was a fireplace and paper. I had matches, so I thought I would warm the room. When the black man saw what I was doing he came over and motioned excitedly — as if to say “No, no — don’t build a fire in here.”
I thought, “The heck with you. It’s cold in here.” So I struck a match and built a fire. It warmed us and the room was much more comfortable.
But, I realized later why I shouldn’t have built the fire. I had been sleeping, when suddenly we heard planes. I don’t know if they were British or American. They started bombing. I heard the planes zooming low and the shells falling. The first bombs hit close to the building and all the windows came crashing in. Glass flew all across the room. I realized then the reason I shouldn’t have built a fire was that they could see the smoke or light. The Germans rushed in downstairs and I could hear them shooting with machine gun fire from the rooftop. The planes bombed there for what seemed half an hour. I looked up and expected any moment to see a bomb crash through the ceiling.
The next day they took us out of the building. The Arabs gathered around and shook their fists at us and made motions with their hands that they would like to slit our throats. I thought that at least we were safe with the Germans. They loaded us on trucks and took us to Sfax. The trip was about 100 miles. Again we were kept in a building that might have been a school building. The Germans occupied all of the significant buildings.
They didn’t bring the black fellow along. I don’t know what was done with him. They only brought the man with a toothache and me. At Sfax they brought another man to join us. He was a major in the American forces. He was on a special mission and had been dropped behind German lines.
He said, “I’ve got to escape from here because I have some important information to report to the Americans.”
I thought “Sure. You are probably just a German.” So I didn’t tell him anything about myself.
One day he was shaving and he had taken his dog tags off so I looked at them. They did have his name on them. His name was Sage. He was an officer — a major. Now I knew he wasn’t trying to fool me, so we talked. He said he was from Tacoma, Washington. He kept insisting he was going to get out.
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He said, “They searched me but the only thing they didn’t find was this knife.” He showed me a scout knife. He continued, “I’ve been watching our two young German guards. I’m trained as a commando and I could take care of them quickly and escape. Tonight I’ll go down and ask them for a cigarette and then make my break.”
“One thing you’ve got to be careful of,” I told him, “is the Arabs. Once you are out be careful of them because they would turn you in. You’ll need food, but if you ask the Arabs for food [they] might betray you.”
“Well,” he said. “I’m going to try to save enough food to take along.”
I had some extra rations so I told him, “You can take along what I have here, too.”
“Tonight when you see me going down,” he said, “Don’t say anything. You’ll probably find two bodies in the morning. I’ll drag them into the building.” That night about one o’clock I saw him get up and go downstairs. I expected any minute to see him dragging bodies up. Pretty soon he came back upstairs and lay down in the corner again and he didn’t say anything.
I wondered what happened, so the next morning I said, “Well, I see you’re still here. I thought you were going away.”
He said, “I looked at those German soldiers and they were so young looking and innocent that I couldn’t do it. They’ve been so good to us. I’ll have a chance later on to escape.”
We were moved farther north toward Tunis. The Germans brought in another truckload of prisoners and they loaded us in railroad cars they called “40 and 8 boxcars.” The World War 1 veterans knew these well — 40 and 8 meant the boxcar would hold 40 men or 8 horses. It was totally dark in the cars. They put a box of sand on one end for a toilet. We were given mouldy bread and water. The trip to Tunis was about ten days and we were locked in the boxcars all the way, except for an occasional stop when we were let out for a brief time.
Once when we stopped and were let out we studied the outside of the boxcar we were in. It had one window that was covered with two steel bars that were about an inch thick. One of the bars was broken. That was on the inside. Covering the window on the outside was a door. The door was on hinges and it had a hasp through it, and the hasp was closed with a spike. The door couldn’t be opened from the
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inside but it could be opened from the outside to air the car out. It was closed and locked while the train was moving.
I told Sage, “Hey, look at that! Isn’t it a miracle that one bar is broken. If a person were strong enough to bend the other bar a little he could get through.” I just happened to have a knife sharpener that I carried with me, that the Germans hadn’t taken away from me. I had bought it in California and I always carried it with me when I had my hunting knife.
Some of the men who were with us were paratroopers. We decided we would use the major’s knife to cut a hole in the wooden wall so that we could reach through and open the hasp. They took turns cutting through the boxcar wall. When the knife got dull I sharpened it. It took several days but finally they cut a hole big enough to fit a fist through. The Germans didn’t think that anyone would even consider doing that.
Finally, one night five or six of the fellows crawled through the window. They stood on our backs to climb up and after we hoisted them up they dropped out through the hole. Before they left I told them, “Remember when you go, don’t let the Arabs turn you in.”
They said, “We’ll see you again — probably back in the States.” The next morning the Germans opened the boxcar and counted us and noticed some were missing. The sergeant got mad and his face turned black. He wouldn’t give us any rations.
Sage and the others had lowered themselves down and dropped on the tracks. They dropped when the train slowed down. They were paratroopers and they knew how to drop so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.
They had asked me if I wanted to go, but I said no. My leg was infected. The Germans had put some kind of salve on it that looked almost like pitch, and they had bandaged it. That stopped the infection right away. But I couldn’t walk well and I limped.
So I told them, “I’m going to have to do the best I can whatever happens.”
When we got to Tunis they put us in a church. They must have had a lot of prisoners there before us, because the floor was covered with straw. That was my first experience with lice. Everything there was covered with lice and fleas. They were on the straw and on our clothes. We were warned against smoking, because if we dropped a match and the straw caught fire we would have burned alive. We stayed there for
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about three weeks. The Germans fed us brown bread, which was moldy. The French Red Cross came in once a day with a big kettle of what they called couscous. It was made of a boiled plant that was something like lettuce. We were each given a cup of this soup. There was rice in it, too — or macaroni. Sometimes we were given just macaroni alone.
The Americans continued bombing, though they didn’t bomb our area. One day I was given my couscous and I ate until I got near the bottom and discovered there was glass in it. It must have been in a place where flying glass had landed. We kept getting new prisoners all the time — French, British, and Americans. There must have been about 100 of us all together. With the arrival of new prisoners came the latest news— the British were feeling confident. They said, “Monty will be here in a fortnight.” They thought a lot of Montgomery.
The Americans had brought in new tanks, which were much better than the tanks of the early part of the war. The Germans were anxious to move us out of the area. They planned to fly us out. There was an airport not too far away. Several times they marched us about five miles toward the airport, but each time American and British bombers came over. The Germans couldn’t land their planes, so they marched us back.
Finally one morning they succeeded in landing their planes. There were about fifty planes and they loaded about fifteen men to a plane. We flew over the Mediterranean to Sicily. We flew low and many times the plane almost touched the water. The machine guns in the fighter planes pointed up. That way the British planes couldn’t fly low enough to fire at us. Occasionally we hit an air pocket. The propellers would keep turning, but the plane wouldn’t move forward — it just dropped down ten or twenty feet. Then suddenly it would move forward again. It took about an hour to get across. When we landed I didn’t know where we were, but there the Germans turned us over to the Italians.
I thought the Italians would treat us better, but they were poorly organized. We had to stand for hours while they counted us. Hitler and Mussolini had made an agreement that the Italians would receive the Germans’ prisoners. We were valuable to the Italians because their control of us helped to ensure that their men who were prisoners were treated well. Or, in case of surrender, they could use us to barter for better terms. On Sicily they loaded us into trucks while it was pouring rain and they drove us into the mountains. It was cold in the mountains. I had a field jacket but little other clothing that was appropriate for
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the cold climate. The other men were just as poorly dressed. We all had summer underwear and light outer clothing. Our prison camp was far up in the mountains. It was almost impossible to escape from that camp. No one lived near the camp, so even if someone managed to get out of the camp there would be no place to get food.
Earlier, when I was captive under the Germans, they had wanted to clean straw from one of their buildings. They detailed some of the prisoners — including me — to remove the straw. It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. While I was picking up the straw I found five knives, Italian money, French money, and a lot of Arab money. I gave away three of the knives and kept two — one was a penknife and the other was a scout knife. The Germans hadn’t searched me when we boarded the train to leave.
The camp on Sicily was Camp 98. When we first came into that camp we were unloaded from the trucks and lined up outside the gate. We were searched again. The Germans hadn’t been particular about searching us. The Italians were much more thorough about searching.
I had a pair of pliers in my pocket that someone had given me in North Africa before I got on the plane. As it was pouring rain, I watched for a time when no one was looking. Then I kicked a hole in the mud. I dropped the pliers and the scout knife and I stomped the mud back on top of them. I thought that at least the Italians wouldn’t get them and if I should ever have the chance I could go back for them. I wanted to take the small knife with me, though — so I slit a hole in the seam of my pants beneath the belt and slid the knife in. The Italians searched me thoroughly, but they didn’t find the knife. It was only a small penknife, but it came in handy many times after that. I used it for opening cans and whittling wood.
In the camp we had our hair cut off so that we were bald. As we stood in line we had to take off all our clothing. The clothes were put into a large barrel to be deloused in hot water. The front of my pants got scorched, so I had big holes in the knees. They gave us blankets to try to stay warm in the cold wind and rain.
The Italian doctor had a large syringe and he used it to give us shots on the chest below the nipple. The shots hurt and our chests swelled up like women’s breasts and my armpit swelled to a shape like an egg. It was painful. We got three of these shots one week apart.
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The mountain camp was a tent camp. The tents were old desert tents and about fifty men were kept in each tent. We were given beds. The bed I was given was a platform of slats with a mattress cover over it. We were fed twice a day. In the morning we got a small piece of bread and a piece of cheese. In the evening we were fed a little macaroni or rice. In addition to being cold, the mountains were windy and damp. There was nowhere to dry our clothes. I was there about six weeks and I don’t think it was warm a single day.
The food was dealt out so sparingly that we could hardly live on it. Many of the men had dysentery. Those who stayed there longest grew weaker, and those who just came into camp caught the illness from them. There were no inside latrines — there were only slit trenches on the outside. The prisoners dug the trenches. We simply squatted over them. There was a lot of vomiting and diarrhea. Periodically, the trenches were covered up and new ones were dug. There was no doctor to care for the sick, but those who were ill were put into a separate tent and given more rations.
I was put in charge of some of the fellows. We had to break up stone to put on the road because all the paths there were mud. Our shoes sank into the mud when we walked around. The fellows looked around for anything to eat. There were some dandelions there. We cooked the dandelions and ate the greens.
We were supposed to get Red Cross parcels but we didn’t receive them. Later, I found out that they did come to the camp, but the officer in charge wouldn’t give them to us. I wasn’t in too bad a shape because I was in good physical condition when I was captured, and I had been treated fairly well until then. But finally I grew weaker and weaker, too. The larger fellows were the ones who suffered the greatest weight loss. Those that weighed only 120 or 140 pounds did all right because they needed less food to live on. Everyone was given the same amount of rations. I could almost see day by day the weight the men lost.
While we were there one man cut through the barbed wire and tried to escape. There was a big confusion. They counted us. The lieutenant in charge, who seemed generally to be a nice fellow, broke down and started crying. I couldn’t understand why, but I found out later that any guard who allowed a prisoner to escape was sent to the Russian front. That was their lever to keep the officers and guards in line. All of the men feared the Russian front.
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“What we are fighting here,” they said, “is a gentleman’s war. At the Russian front we take very few prisoners and neither do the Russians.” The escaped prisoner was caught the next day and brought back to the camp. They made a big display of him. The colonel gave a talk.
He said, “This is an island. You can’t escape from here. We’ll show you what happens to escaped prisoners.”
There was a flagpole in the middle of the yard. The prisoner was tied there by his hands and feet and forced to stay there for several days without food. Finally he got very weak and was cut loose. I don’t know what they did with him afterward. Of course, most of the fellows were too weak to try to escape.
I found out that we were going to be moved from this camp, but we were told the ones that were sick would have to stay.
I thought, “I’m certainly not going to stay here!”
I managed to get up to the gate where the trucks were parked. Two friends held me on either side. I used all the strength that I had to look as if I was able to walk. I just managed to get onto the truck. We were taken down the side of the mountain and loaded into boxcars again at a railroad station. Before we were put on the boxcars we were given rations. The rations I got looked like it was supposed to be meat. The can was all rusted. We were given two or three cans and they were supposed to last to the next camp, but when I opened a can the food was rotten and stunk. When we stopped in a town the guards opened the doors. Some Italians were close by. They wanted to exchange bread and other food for cigarettes. I quickly motioned to one of them that I had a can of meat. The man gave me a handful of grapes for the can of food. I don’t know whether he got sick eating it.
We were put in the cars again. When the doors were closed the inside was total darkness. I lay on the floor and couldn’t move. They put a couple of young guards in the car with us. The men milled around and if a guard came close to them they would just kick him. I could hardly move, so they just stepped on me. It must have taken two or three days to get to the next camp, in central Italy — Camp 59 [in the village of Servigliano].
When it came time to unload, they told us to get out of the car. But I couldn’t — I was so sick. A couple of the other prisoners carried me out and put me on the truck going to the camp. When we got to the gates the other prisoners were eager to see us so they could get the latest news. Some of the men had been
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at the camp for two years or longer. I was taken to a special area — like a hospital — where I spent the next three weeks. They had two British doctors. I think they thought I had rheumatic fever. They gave me aspirins, which was about all they had in the way of medicine. They gave me about six of them a day. In that area we had about double the amount of rations we would ordinarily have been given. I regained my strength there because we had better treatment than at the last camp. The officers were more humane than at Camp 98. I got to know the doctor well. I finally was discharged from the hospital and was put in a hut.
Because I was a sergeant I was put in charge of what the British call a section. This was a camp of mostly British men. There were some Americans and some “Cyps” — guys from Cyprus. I was in charge of 36 men. I took down their names, their ranks, and serial numbers. It was my duty to account for these men all the time. When we had roll call I had to go along with the Italian and count the number of men. If there were men missing I had to account for their absence — explain that they were sick or whatever. We were lined up outside.
Also, I lined the men up when we were fed. We were fed once a day. Each of us had a large earthenware bowl for our food. As section leader I had to stand by the pot where the food was being dished out and count the men as they passed by — I counted in Italian. If any of the men went through twice — if the count went over 36 — then I would have to go without eating.
We got Red Cross parcels in the camp. The parcel was about the size of a shoebox. Everything that came in the package was dried — dried fruit, a can of powdered coffee, chocolate bars, and so on. It was compact. Each parcel was divided between two men. It was difficult to divide this equally, so we arranged everything according to a value system. The system was according to cigarettes — everything in the package was worth so many cigarettes. Using this system the men could trade rations. We got Red Cross parcels from America, Britain, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. There were quite a variety of foods, so we set up a trading post. I didn’t smoke, so I would trade my cigarettes for something to eat. The trading post was held behind one of the huts everyday. Anyone who wanted to trade anything would go there at a certain time. That way we used up everything and nothing was wasted.
One of the New Zealanders built blowers out of tin cans. We weren’t allowed knives in the camp but we were allowed scissors. So the guys used scissors to cut apart our cans and make things out of them. The blowers had gears, with shoelaces for pulleys. Turning a crank made from wire would cause another
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gear to turn. The blower had a propeller-like fan and a forge. We used the blowers for making tea and coffee. There were few matches in the camp, so someone would go to the kitchen and get a few coals in the morning to get his blower started. One man would cook his meal and then empty his coals into another man’s blower.
Nothing was wasted. We burned up the wooden boxes that the Red Cross supplies came in, we picked up branches that blew down in the yard from trees, and we’d strip bark off the tree trunks. We lived fairly well there because things were organized. Every night before we were locked up in our cabins we walked around the camp. At first it seemed strange to see everyone walking around the camp, but after a while I got used to it. Just before dark we’d walk about an hour. It was good exercise and it was relaxing. We paired off as we walked. We talked about the towns we came from and what we would do when we got out. We wondered what was happening back in the States. Some of the men who had been in the camp longer than I had been got mail, but all during the time I was a prisoner I didn’t get mail.
I hadn’t received mail for a year, so didn’t know what had happened at home during that time. My relatives did write to me. Some of their letters were returned marked “missing in action.” Those that weren’t returned probably reached the camp after I left.
I was allowed to write once a week — a form letter — and only to my mother. The fellows were allowed to write only to their parents or to their wife. The letters were censored, so about the only thing I could write was that I was OK and looking forward to coming home.
There were no newspapers or magazines in the camp. We had what we called the library, although it contained only a few books. The British ran the library. Some of the books came through the Red Cross. They had all been censored. We checked out books and read them. We read them carefully and studied each page. We organized activities to amuse ourselves and pass the day, because the days could be very long.
One of our pastimes was telling stories. Every week we’d meet in one place and someone would tell a story. An Australian might tell about his ranch in Australia where they raised sheep. Each man would talk about his home country and his background. I talked about logging in northern Wisconsin. I talked for about an hour while the men took notes. I had worked in a cordwood camp with my dad and I had worked in some other camps, too. I explained the various ways of logging — the equipment and techniques. The
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fellows were interested in my stories because many of them were from the city and they had never been in the country. Some had never seen a crosscut saw or an ax. Some of the fellows told me they would like to visit northern Wisconsin when they got out. I haven’t seen any so far, but most of them probably wouldn’t know my address if they did want to look me up.
Some men were constantly plotting ways to escape from camp. They tried to think of ways to use sugar or lemon powder or other common goods for explosives to blast a hole in the wall. The camp — there were about 1,500 of us — was divided into groups. The Americans were in one section, the British in another, and the Cyps in another. We would get together and talk only once in a while.
In trying to keep from getting bored, it was interesting for me to stand back and watch the doings in the camp. Some of the fellows followed regular exercise routines, others made their own playing cards from paper, and other guys made a checkerboard on the ground and used rocks for checkers. They found all sorts of games to play to pass the time.
When we first came to the camp we were all deloused. We had to strip all our clothes off. They were put into a large boiler that had steam rolling out of it. This was to kill lice, bedbugs, fleas, and other pests that were in them. But when we got them back they were partially burned and so crisp that they fell apart, and they shrunk so much that they hardly fit. The camp was overrun with bedbugs. They were vicious and would even come out in broad daylight.
At night we weren’t supposed to talk. When the guards came around if they caught someone whispering they would put that fellow into solitary confinement. Solitary was in another building. There they kept food from disorderly men for a day or so. Sometimes they came in and just picked someone out, whether he was the man who had been talking or not — they might even wake someone up who was fast asleep and call out, “Solitary! Solitary!” And then take him away. Some fellows would start laughing because it seemed so funny to wake someone up and take him to solitary. And then they would then be taken away, too.
As soon as the men were taken out of the building the bedbugs streamed out of their bunks in rows. They must have sensed when a fellow left, because then they marched into the other fellows’ bunks. The beds were in tiers — one on top of the other — and the bugs crawled up the posts. You could try to kill them but there seemed to be so many of them that it didn’t make much difference.
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Our clothes were so destroyed by the delousing process that in order to try to save them we usually wore just our underwear shorts. The climate in central Italy was quite mild anyhow. It didn’t seem unusual to us because it was what everyone wore. No one could see in because the walls were of solid rock, perhaps two feet thick and 16 feet high.
On top of the walls were broken bottles and glass that was angled inward so no one could climb over. Also, there were guard towers on each corner and men posted at intervals as watches. Searchlights were trained on the camp. Escape from this camp would have been nearly impossible. This camp had also been used as a prison camp during World War I.
When we arrived I noticed the shutters were gone from some of the windows.
I asked the guys “Why are the shutters missing?” The hinges were still on the frames.
They told me that British commandos in the camp had dug a tunnel underneath the wall. They used the shutters to keep the dirt from falling into the tunnel. They had taken them one at a time and the Italians hadn’t even noticed they were gone. They used them to shore up the escape tunnel. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but they told me that when they tried to escape the Italians got wind of it and shot them right in the tunnel and then they closed it up. I can believe it.
The fellows were digging tunnels all the time but the Italians would inspect occasionally. You never knew when they would come. They moved the cots and searched underneath the stoves. They tapped the floor with metal bars to find out if there were hollow areas beneath, and they looked for any tools that might be used for digging.
When we first got to camp, we had all our hair cut off as part of the delousing process. Everyone’s head was shaved clean and everyone had to take a bath. All the time we were in the camp we had to have our hair cut real short, though later on we had some British barbers who didn’t cut it quite as short. At the camp I recognized some of the fellows who had escaped from the boxcars en route to Tunis in North Africa.
I said, “I thought you had escaped.”
“Oh, no,” they said, “We all got captured again. The Arabs turned us in.”
I asked what had become of Major Sage. They said he was also recaptured, but he wasn’t brought to our camp because the officers were separated from the enlisted men.
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Later, when I escaped and was flown to Algiers and interrogated by an American officer there, I mentioned Major Sage.
The officer said, “Who did you say?”
I told him again, and he said, “Why — I knew him!”
He asked me if I knew where he was now and I answered, “No.”
He said, “He is in a prison camp in Austria — in Germany.” It seemed ironic that he had wanted to escape so badly and now I was back with my own troops and he was still a prisoner.
Also, when the intelligence officer questioned me I mentioned a conversation I had in North Africa with one of the German guards who could speak English. We asked him when he thought the war would end. He said, “The war will end as soon as we get our bomb built.” I asked him what bomb, and he said, “It’s a water bomb. When we get this bomb built, that will end the war because it will be powerful. Your country is working on this bomb, too — and so are the British.”
I didn’t think it was awfully important, but the intelligence officer seemed to think it was very important. After I returned to the States the U.S. exploded the first atom bomb and then there was talk of the hydrogen bomb — and that was what the German had been talking about.
The night of the escape was a mass confusion. I don’t really know how the escape came about, but at 10:30 in the evening men were running through the camp, calling out, “They have come to take us to Germany.”
Someone must have taken control of the gate, and someone had battered a hole in one wall that was large enough for a man to escape through. Many of the men had slipped through this hole soon after the confusion began. I had been without food and water at Kasserine when I was separated from the army. I knew enough to prepare for this escape. I found two canteens — a British one and an American one — and I filled them with water. I found a sack and threw all the food I could find into it, and then I crawled through the hole.
On the outside the confused men didn’t know which way to go. I told them to just begin walking — to get as far away as possible before day. I felt it would be wise to either pair up or travel alone, but not to move in large groups. Numbers are easily noticed and captured, and if one or two were caught at least we wouldn’t all be recaptured.
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I saw Ben Farley. We decided to travel together. Ben was a Kentuckian. He and I hadn’t gotten along especially well earlier. Ben was among the men I had charge of in the camp. Once I was passing tobacco to the men and I had some black tobacco, which no one wanted. Ben said he’d take it. So the next time I passed out tobacco I gave the black to him and he was angry and said he didn’t like it.
Ben hadn’t taken along supplies, so I gave him one of my canteens.
Others wanted to come with us but we refused them. They were persistent, and we almost had to run to get away from them.
One of the first things we ate when we were out in the country were wild grapes, which were sweet and abundant. At night we would take food from gardens — tomatoes and such. And we would fill our canteens from the streams that ran from the mountains. I had a rough idea of where we were. One fellow had smuggled in a newspaper and I had traced a map from it. I knew we had to travel south.
I used my watch as a compass. When you face the sun at noon both watch hands point south. At each hour when you face the sun, halfway between the two hands is south. Using my knife, Ben and I each cut a club. These were our weapons and our walking sticks. We avoided towns and stopped at farms only in remote areas, where the country folk were not apt to have telephones. If they were going to notify the authorities, they would have to walk to the nearest village and that would take time, allowing us to escape. We weren’t afraid of people shooting us, for Mussolini had taken their guns away long ago — except for any guns that they had hidden.
An Italian brought us into a town once — I don’t recall what for now. He left us for a bit and then he returned and said, “This town doesn’t have running water or electricity, but it does have a telephone and they’ve used it to call the Germans!”
We left quickly and soon after we saw trucks of German soldiers arriving.
I was never very frightened when I was experiencing danger. We stayed alert, but when you live constantly in danger you take it for granted and stop thinking about what is happening to you. The greatest shock was in returning to the States and thinking back on what had happened to me. I am convinced that there is a great strength in human endurance. When a man is in such extreme circumstances he becomes part animal. He senses and moves by instinct.
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At one place we nearly were caught. We were traveling through a small valley. There were mountains on both sides of us. Straight ahead was the village of Rochafluvia [Roccafluvione].
I told Ben I felt we should travel through the mountains and avoid the town, even though traveling that way would be more difficult. Ben wanted to walk through the town. He said we might go right through undetected. We were in civilian clothes and our hair was long and our beards were heavy. We began to walk straight through, but soon the children noticed we were strangers and began stringing along behind us. An old man was sitting on a bench, sunning himself against a shop wall.
He motioned for me to approach him. I did, and he said, “Don’t look directly at me. You are an American aren’t you? I have been in America once.”
I answered yes. He continued, “I am not a fascist, but this is a fascist town and you are in great danger here. Don’t stay here tonight or they will cut your throats. You have sympathizers here, too, and if you are killed your murderers will not live to brag about their actions. But hurry through — now!”
We continued walking — quickly. Farther down the street a young man walked up to us and gave us the Nazi salute, mistaking us for Germans. Another said, “They are not Germans — they are Americans.” The young man flushed red and turned away. Several men moved close to us — close enough to grab us. One huge man stepped onto the threshold of his shop. His arms and hands were covered with blood and in one hand he held a large butcher knife.
He said, “We’ll get you. Other Americans have been through here before and we’ve gotten them, too.” My hair stood up straight on my head.
But they didn’t grab us, so we shot off down the street in a mad run.
Soon we came upon a group of people, and a priest was among them. We felt safe there. One man spoke to us in English saying, “We’ve got to hide you.”
They told us to follow a boy, and the boy led us to a farm. At that farm we were kept for several days. We were told to climb a ladder into the hayloft. Then the ladder was removed and it was returned only when we were to climb down. The owners of the farm were an older couple. The boy that helped us lived there with them. Two young girls, their granddaughters, lived there also. Two years earlier the granddaughters had come from Canada to visit, but when Mussolini took control of the country he forbade anyone to enter or leave. These people were very kind. They fed us and saw to our every need.
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One day the boy told us he knew of a good place to swim. We went with him and swam naked. When we returned we found the woman crying. The Germans had been through taking men and she wondered what had happened to us.
The Germans often came through towns and machine-gunned the streets and took by force as many men as they needed. They loaded them into trucks and took them away to work or to fight for them. We had seen them do this. At first there was crying, but when the firing began all grew perfectly still. Resistance meant death.
The Germans were offering a 3,000 lire reward for aid in capturing an escaped prisoner — dead or alive. Immediate death was dealt to anyone who helped an escaped prisoner. We didn’t want to cause trouble for these people so we left as soon as we could. They all cried when we left. The older folks gave us 50 lire to take along, and the children gave us money, too — another 50 lire — when their grandparents weren’t around. They didn’t want the grandparents to know about it.
One night Ben and I were going to cross a road as a convoy of German equipment was going over it. It was a long train and rather than to wait for it to pass we decided to look for a culvert and crawl through to the other side. We crawled up to the ditch and slunk through the culvert undetected. But suddenly the convoy stopped and all the men lined along the roadside to urinate. We lay as still as we could as the Germans talked and smoked above our heads and peed down on us. We weren’t caught.
We often slept in culverts.
Ben and I came to a river once. It was a swift mountain current. We decided to swim across. It was during the night. I reached the other side safely and waited there for him. I waited for a long time until I was sure he had drowned. I never felt so lonely and alone in my whole life. I went on then and stopped in a farmhouse.
While I was there, one of the folks looked out and said, “Someone is coming toward the house.” It was Ben. It sure was good to have Ben back with me again. We agreed then that we wouldn’t part again unless we absolutely had to — such as if we were ever attacked.
The people we stayed with were elderly. They had been to America at one time, in their earlier years, and they could speak English fairly well. They fed us. They had a fireplace. Most Italians had a fireplace in their home — built out of rock. Ben dried his clothes by the fire and we spent the night there.
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The next morning the couple gave us bread and other food, and we filled our canteens. They gave us directions, too.
We wanted to stay close to the Adriatic coast. The farther inland we went the more mountains we had to cross, and there were fewer roads inland.
We thought by staying close to the coast there would be a greater chance of coming upon a landing of British or American troops. We continued traveling south using the sun as a compass, knowing the sun would rise in the east and set in the west. We had been walking for three weeks now. We thought soon the Allied troops would be pushing north. We questioned people along the way, but in those days there were little means of communication — few telephones and radios. The people were poor and there were no newspapers. About the only news was passed by word of mouth. If someone was traveling north, he told the local people what was happening where he had been.
We avoided roads because there were German trucks traveling on them. At that time it wasn’t even safe to wear civilian clothes, because when the Germans needed help they took any man they came upon.
At one farm we learned there was heavy bombardment at Termoli. The farmer gave us directions to Termoli. When we got closer we heard the heavy naval guns and knew that there was either heavy shelling or an invasion. Many of the German trucks, instead of traveling south, were going north. The Germans must have been trying to escape before the landing forces cut off the roads. Perhaps paratroopers were landing and blowing up bridges. The Germans had to move before they became trapped.
We were confident that the landing had taken place. We stopped at a farm late one evening — after first circling the place to make sure there were no telephones. We approached with caution. The farmer had news that the British had landed and were moving inland.
We thought that in the night we could move close enough to the line to distinguish where the British forces were. When we got close it seemed Germans were everywhere. We had to run across several roads. We hated to run across. It was dangerous because we might be seen. So we crawled through the brush to the road and lay in the ditch. When the German convoys went by we were still. A lot of motorcycles went by — motorcycles were used for scouting.
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When we reached a culvert we crawled through to the other side. When we were on the other side we again crawled along the ditch until we found a place to proceed. It was slow movement, but it was the surest way of not getting caught.
We met an Italian farmer on the road who said the British had made a commando landing. We began to wonder how we were going to make it through the lines. First we would have to make it through the German lines and through the no-man’s land. Even when we were through to the British lines, the British might think we were approaching Germans and shoot us.
We debated our options and decided we would sneak as close as we could to the British lines.
Suddenly the sky grew dark and it started to rain. We got soaking wet. The thunder rolled and lightning flashed. We knew this was the best thing that could possibly happen. The storm would make it easier for us to move undetected. The thunder rumbled and the lightning flashed, and when it flashed we could see ahead and tell if the road was clear. If it were, we would dart forward again.
In this way we got through the German lines.
When we got near to the British lines we noticed the British had a machine gun set up on the road. We decided it was best to not surprise them at night or they would rake us with machine gun fire. We lay down about a quarter or eighth of a mile from the machine gun and waited for morning.
When morning came we looked toward them and saw three British soldiers with machine guns.
We studied them for a while. We didn’t see any Germans around so we thought now would be the best time to approach them. We thought the best way to go to them would be to walk and not crawl or sneak, because if we did they would think we were the enemy. We got up, picked up our things, and walked up to the road. Right away they noticed us and trained the machine guns on us. They noticed we didn’t have rifles. We waved our hands to show we were friends.
We walked right up to them and said, “Hallo! Are you British?”
They couldn’t figure out what we were doing there. We told them we were Americans who had escaped from a prison camp.
They said, “What the heck you American blokes doing here?” They were Scottish troops from the British regiment. They were wearing their camouflage desert uniforms. The Scottish were some of the best troops the British had and they used them quite often. The Germans called them the “ladies from hell,”
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because of the kilts they wore. And they wore short desert khaki pants. They were tough troops. They had well-built arms and legs.
They told us to follow the road and we’d come to a village where we’d be safe. We walked farther down the road and met some other men. We told them who we were.
They said, “We landed here a couple of days ago.” They told us American planes had bombed them — “Your blokes boomed us last night.” The Americans didn’t know that the British had landed in that area. We looked around and saw that several buildings had been destroyed. There were dead chickens and donkeys lying in the streets. We were invited to squad headquarters — or company headquarters. They gave us tea and told us to fill our canteens with tea. They told us they would make arrangements for us to stay with them in one of the buildings they were occupying. There were still German troops south of us. They told us it would be at least a week or ten days before we could go farther south.
The British called their trucks lorries. They said when they leave for the southern tip of Italy we could ride along with them. But at that time it would have been dangerous. First they would have to clear away mines and roadblocks. So for the time [being] we stayed with the British there in Termoli. We talked to the commander, who questioned us about what we saw along the way. We told him that, in coming through the lines, there didn’t seem to be many Germans and no heavy artillery pieces, and that it appeared all the trucks were heading farther north.
Of course, he was glad to hear about that. We told him where our prison camp had been.
He said, “I’ll pass the word on and we’ll try to send some men in to help the escaped prisoners.” He said they would probably drop paratroopers in that area, behind the lines, to organize a rescue squad. I thought there were about 1,500 prisoners. I knew many of them wouldn’t get through. I told him that most of the prisoners were British. We were the first prisoners they knew of to come to that area.
Ben and I stayed with the British for about a week. There wasn’t much fighting going on. It was more of a reorganization of forces. They sent out patrols and received supplies. I was impressed with their troops, most of which had been in the desert for about three years. They attended to their duties in very orderly fashion. These were the specially trained commandos who were the best troops in the British army. They were all selected volunteers for this special sort of action.
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Finally, the commander said the way was clear for travel south, and he told us we could ride on one of the lorries to an airfield that the Americans had captured at Taranto.
At Taranto we spoke with the American commander.
He said, “Well, we don’t know what to do with you. We’ll fly you back to Tunis when one of our planes goes for supplies.”
He wrote out an order for us to travel aboard the plane, and we took the next plane out — a large cargo plane. We were the first prisoners of war to escape and to return to safety, so at Tunis they didn’t know what to do with us.
They said, “We don’t know what to do with you. We’ll fly you to Algiers.” Eisenhower’s headquarters was at Algiers, and other American escaped prisoners of war had been flown directly there. Altogether there were about eight of us. In Algiers, an intelligence officer interrogated us. We were questioned about our escape — how we had escaped and the routes we had taken. Each of the escaped prisoners had taken different routes and arrived in different places.
The officer told me, “I am recommending that you be given a Silver Star medal for bravery in action.”
At Algiers they didn’t really know what to do with us either. While we were fighting our papers were lost, or they had been sent back to the United States when we were reported missing in action. The officer there wrote up temporary papers that we could use until our others were relocated. Our units had been reassigned. Some had lost so many men or suffered such heavy casualties that they were comprised of altogether new men now.
At that time there were no regulations regarding prisoners of war, so new rules had to be made. The new rules had to come from Allied headquarters. I did not have a chance to see General Eisenhower, but a couple of the other fellows were told to go right to headquarters and talk with him. I understood he was impressed by our escape.
We had walked about 300 miles in 30 days. Many of the miles were through mountainous country. Sometimes we crawled on hands and knees and sometimes we forded rivers. Some days we walked just a little. Other days we walked 20 miles or more.
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General Eisenhower wrote out and signed special orders for us to return to the United States. The orders stated that we would be sent back to the United States and given a delay en route before we were assigned to a permanent station. I think it was a delay en route of about 30 days — that is, we could go home for that length of time. After 30 days, we would each report to the section center nearest our home and there be assigned to a new unit.
We were given orders to fly from Algiers to Casablanca. There we were put on the SS Brazil and sent back to the States. The danger of submarines was much less than when we had invaded North Africa almost a year earlier. The ship sailed alone — without escort. We landed in Newport News, Virginia about a week later. I was allowed to go home to Phelps.
I got off the train in Eagle River. In those days there was a bus that ran from Eagle River to Phelps, so I took the bus to Phelps. I felt so good when I got to Phelps that I walked most of the way home from town. I had sent a telegram to my brother Vernon letting him know what day I would be arriving, but he didn’t know exactly what time to expect me. Mother and the boys were sure surprised to see me. They didn’t know I would be coming home.
Mother had a great deal of confidence that I would get through. My sister Sylvia told me later that even when she received the telegram reporting I was missing in action, she had said, “Oh, he’s probably hiding out there someplace.” She was sure I was safe. When I came back it was as if she was expecting me. All of my experiences seemed like a dream then — when I was back in the security of home.
After the 30 days I reported to Fort Sheridan. It was like going back into basic training again. I had to fill out all of my papers because they had been lost. And I had to have all my shots again and take some basic training.
As I was trained as an army engineer, they looked for an engineering unit that I could be assigned to. Finally the sergeant in charge said that I would be assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There I was to report to the 325th Engineer Battalion. They were called the 100th Division. Many of the fellows there hadn’t had much training. A few of them had had overseas training. I was in Company A. When I reported in at the camp it was a Sunday and a lieutenant was in charge.
He asked me, “Which outfit were you with before you went overseas?”
“Well.” I answered, “I went overseas with the 19th Engineers.”
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He looked at me and said, “19th Engineers? Why, I was with the 19th Engineers before they went overseas.”
He asked me which company I was with, and I said, “Company D.”
“I was with Company D!” he said.
He had been a sergeant in the 19th Engineers. Just before Pearl Harbour he went to OTS — Officers Training School — and he didn’t report back.
He told the captain, “The 19th Engineers — there was a real engineering outfit!”
We were a corps of engineers — a regiment. We had a large amount of equipment that a battalion didn’t carry with them. A battalion was in charge of just a division. The Corps of Engineers covered the whole West Coast. The man I talked with was Lieutenant Denton. He wanted me with his company.
He asked the captain, “May I have him in my company?”
The captain gave his permission. So we talked. He asked me what had become of some of the men we both knew. I got along very well with him. They were going to go overseas in the fall. I had to take all of the basic training. And I had to give talks on landing and minefields and other practical experiences.
By fall I was ready to go overseas. I had all my shots, I had all my equipment marked and packed up, and I had to send out form letters to my family.
The day before the company left. Lieutenant Denton said, “We got special orders. You can’t be sent overseas. A prisoner-of-war can’t be sent back to the same field. We have to send you someplace else. We’re sending you to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. We’re getting orders printed out. Get all of your stuff and get ready to move.”
I had to unpack, turn in all my supplies, and just keep my clothing. That same day I took a bus to Fayetteville, North Carolina. At Fayetteville, I caught a bus to Camp Kilmer. That was the way the army worked. You never knew from one minute to the next what would happen. At Camp Kilmer I had to answer questions, fill out papers, and be interrogated to find out what I could do.
Finally they told me, “You are being sent to New York City now. You will be stationed with the guard detachment 5Dy7 in the New York Port of Embarkation. I took a train to New York City, and from there I took a bus to Pier 90.
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There they told me, “You’ll be in charge. This is highly secret work and you have been specially picked for this mission. You will be working with the British Intelligence and the American Intelligence. What you see here and what you do you can’t report to anyone. You will be working on the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, among other ships. This is the world’s largest port of embarkation. You cannot disclose any information. The enemy would love to know what times the ships leave or what times they are to arrive.”
A navy ship, the Normandy, had been burned at Pier 88, right next to our pier, and they thought it was sabotage. The bulk of the ship was still sunk in the water where it had burned. The Queen Mary would dock on one side of the pier and the Queen Elizabeth on the other. Sometimes only one would be in at a time, other times both were in at the same time. The pier was over a quarter of a mile long, and the ships were almost as long as the pier.
We loaded as many as 15,000 men on each ship. We had a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of authority. Our word went very far. Rank meant nothing. Regardless of what rank a person held, he still had to obey us. There was the New York Police and the AMP — Auxiliary Military Police — and we made up the Security Guard. The Security Guard ranked above all the others.
When the ships came in, I was the first one aboard the ship when the gangplank was lowered. I would first post a guard on the gangplank and then walk aboard. I went to the master of the ship in the wheelhouse with orders that he had to sign turning the ship over to the Port of Embarkation. After he signed the orders, he didn’t have anything to say about the ship until just before the ship left, when I gave him a release. He signed that also. Then the responsibility went back to him again.
It seemed strange to me that just a few months earlier I had been in the lowest position — I couldn’t speak a word in my own defense. Now I was in command of the world’s largest ships and I carried a huge responsibility. I had as many as 300 men under me — men that I was in charge of.
I sometimes thought to myself, “Here I am, from a small town, with just a grade school education from a country school. Wouldn’t you think that they would have men who were specially trained for positions like this?” But, again, that was the way the army worked and it always seemed to work out well.
All the while I was working on the pier there was no trouble. There were some small fires where welding or braising was going on, and we had to call the fire department for those, but we didn’t lose a
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single ship and we didn’t lose any men. We loaded and unloaded millions of men while I was there. While the invasion of Normandy was going on we put in long hours. Everything had to be punctual — things had to be done at the right time.
One strange thing happened around the time of the invasion of Normandy. We were loading troops, and I was on the ship from four o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. I was on duty inspecting the guard, standing by the gangplank and watching the troops load. It was about 11:30 at night. There was a long line of men entering the ship. They were being checked as they loaded. It was the Queen Elizabeth that they were boarding.
Someone hollered, “Hey!”
I didn’t generally pay attention to men hollering, because when you are loading 15,000 troops a night you can’t talk to every single man, because they are always asking questions — “Where are we going?” — “What ship are we going on?”
We could hardly tell them anything anyhow. But this one fellow attracted my attention. He had his helmet over his eyes. He had his pack and his rifle. I walked over to him.
He said, “Aren’t you from Wisconsin?”
I said, “Yes, I am.” I kind of wondered why he mentioned that.
He said, “Aren’t you from Phelps?”
And I said “Yeah!”
I looked closer and still didn’t know who he was.
And he said, “Aren’t you Armie Hill?”
I said, “Sure!”
“Well,” he said, “I’m Matt Pennala.”
The Red Cross gave each of the men doughnuts and a small container of milk. Matt had these and he was so excited that when he took a drink it spilled all over the front of his clothes. We talked for a little while. It was a miracle to see someone from Phelps — a dot on the nation — in the port at New York. Finally I told him, “I’m going to be off duty in a few minutes. I have to go check another gangplank, but I’ll come back and talk with you again.”
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I went down to check the lower level to make sure the upcoming relief would replace the guard there. When I got back, I looked for Matt but he was gone. He had gone on the ship already. I thought I could possibly go onto the ship and look for him but I was going off duty right away.
I could go anywhere I wanted to. I was very familiar with the ships. I knew every crook and staircase. I had walked them for many days.
Matt and I still laugh and talk about that experience to this day.
After the Germans surrendered, I was technically eligible for a discharge because they started relieving the men according to points. But because my job was so vital and the men were still coming back from overseas, they wouldn’t let me go. I would have needed only about 59 points to get out of service and I had over 98. I didn’t complain. I was happy to be of service. They relaxed quite a few of the rules. One day there were photographers from Life magazine on the pier. They wanted to take pictures of both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, which were both in port. The sergeant that I relieved told me photographers would be taking pictures of the ships.
“But,” he said, “Don’t let them get on the ships until they get special orders.”
They insisted on getting on, but I told them they would have to get special orders from headquarters, which was on the same pier. They returned with written orders and I let them aboard. I still have the pictures that appeared in that Life magazine.
Among other ships that docked at the Port of Embarkation was the Ille de France. There were also Swedish ships. Some of the men on the Swedish ships talked Finn. I stood on the side and listened to what they said. They would sometimes even talk about me — the guard — as I just stood by smiling. A little later I’d say hello in Finn — and did they look at me! Then we’d talk a little. They wondered how I learned to speak Finnish.
I told an officer once that I didn’t understand why I was chosen for the job at the port.
He said, “Well, when we look at all your experiences we know if you are the man we need. You should be proud you’ve been picked. You are an expert shot. You know some Italian and you speak Finn. You have worked with the French and the British, and have been with Arabs, Italians, and Germans. All that is important.”
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They wanted me to stay on when my time was up. I could have signed up for another six months, but it was nearly fall and I was anxious to get some hunting done at home. I wanted to get out before winter set in. I had been in the service almost five years when I put in for my discharge. My wife Eini was with me in New York at the time. We were living with my sister. Our daughter was born in New York. It was crowded there, and I was anxious to get back home and find a place for us to stay.
After my army career I didn’t have any regrets. The first year was the longest. The rest of the time went by fast. I felt it was a great experience — serving the country and meeting all the types of men I met during those years.
An old buddy that I met at a 19th Engineers reunion told me that Bommarito had lost his life in Italy and is buried in a military cemetery there.
George Hautala (who was in my division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina — and was an attendant at Eini’s and my wedding) later told me Lieutenant Ramon E. Denton (Company A, 325th Engineer Combat Battalion, 100th Infantry Division), who had me assigned to his division after I returned from overseas, stepped on a mine in Germany and was killed.
The size of military units is dependent on the branch of service and method of organization. In the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II:
- A sergeant was in charge of a squad (12 men).
- A staff sergeant was in charge of a platoon, which was made up of four squads — or 48 men.
- There were four platoons in a company and four companies in a battalion.
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Armie Hill on his World War II Experiences: Account No. 2 of 2
This story is based on the second of two tape-recorded interviews with Armie regarding his experience during World War II. Armie’s son Dennis Hill taped this conversation on August 24-26, 1987 in Phelps, Wisconsin. Dennis edited the transcript and made a few additions and corrections that Armie requested.
I’ll start my story from the beginning, when I was first inducted into the service. I received my draft notice 1940 and signed up for selective service. Word came that December that I would be called, and I was inducted into the service in January 1941.
This was the first draft and I was one of the first men drafted from Vilas County. There were about seven of us who were drafted from Vilas County, and I was the first one from the town of Phelps. We went to the courthouse in Eagle River and we were driven by bus — I think it was to the train station — and then we took a train to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
At Fort Sheridan we were selected to go to Fort Ord in California. We went by train and it took us several days to get there.
At that time, Fort Ord had been a tent camp — everyone had been living in tents. Before we arrived, new barracks had just been hastily put up and everything at the fort was still a mess. A lot of the work was still undone. The streets were sand. It was raining. We hadn’t had basic training, so we got all of our training there at Fort Ord.
All was confusion there. I thought to myself, “If they’d just let me out, I’d walk home.”
I was disgusted with it. Many of the officers weren’t trained. Many of the men who were in charge were from the regular Army. They didn’t much know what to do. They had only been chosen to be officers because there were so few officers.
I don’t know if most were good officers or not, but some of them were good. They taught us basic training, inspections of the barracks, and all the little things that had to be done. Finally, we started engineer work. I liked engineering because it was like work I had done in logging camps and around home. I was surprised how few of the men knew how to sharpen an axe or a saw. They didn’t know how to use
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various tools. They sort of had to depend on me later on when it came time to do any work. Instead of the officers telling me what to do, I was telling them what to do.
Finally, having something worthwhile to do helped me feel better, and I started getting used to the camp and didn’t mind it so much. At that time the pay was very low — $30 a month for a private. Later, when I got to be a private first class I got $36. But out of that they took our laundry money, dry cleaning money, and life insurance money. My life insurance was 55 cents per thousand. For $10,000 it was $5.50. So that alone was a big chunk off the payroll.
I was drafted for only a year and I figured, “Well, I’ll get my year in some way.” Slowly I started getting use to this army life.
In the spring we were given a furlough. I was broke and I didn’t know how I was going to get home. My friend Hector Flatow, who was from Ironwood, Michigan, had worked at WLS radio in Chicago. He played an accordion. He said, “Let’s work this out. Let’s borrow money from some other fellows who will go with us.”
There ended up being five of us. We each paid a certain amount in — I think it was $20 — and we bought an old car. I think it was an Oldsmobile. We didn’t try it out or anything. We just started toward Phelps. We took Route 66 all the way from California to Chicago.
On the way we went through New Mexico. The fellow who had done most of the early driving got off there. Then we stopped in Amarillo, Texas, and the next fellow got off there. From Texas, the next fellow — who was from Oklahoma — did the driving. Then he got off. That left Hector and me. We took turns driving. We drove through Chicago. Hector knew the roads in Chicago fairly well. There wasn’t as much traffic in those days. Then he drove me to home. I got off, and Hector drove on to Ironwood.
I was home for a while. I think we had a ten-day furlough. We had driven day and night to get home — it took us three days and three nights to get to Phelps. It worked out pretty well. I was home for a few days. We figured it would take us about the same amount of time to get back.
But when Hector came to pick me up he was sick. I drove us to Milwaukee, where there was a veterans’ hospital. I let him off and he stayed there overnight.
While we were there, the other fellows had been waiting for us. When we didn’t show up at the scheduled time they hitchhiked back to the camp. So Hector and I wound up driving the whole way back.
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We stopped at each place — in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico — along the way. We stopped at the gas stations where the guys were supposed to be — where we were supposed to meet up with them. At each place the people told us, “Well, there was a guy standing around here, waiting and waiting. Then he took off hitch-hiking.”
We knew that it was going to take us longer to get back. We couldn’t drive all the way, even if we took turns. Hector sent a telegram to the 19th Engineers to let them know we would be late. We waited awhile but we didn’t get a reply. We were scared that we would probably be put in the guardhouse and we wondered what might happen to us.
We were driving through the desert one day. Hector was sitting up asleep in the back seat. I was driving and must have fallen asleep. I heard somebody blowing the horn. I woke up and here I was headed for a big trailer truck. I was in the wrong lane. It was a lucky thing that driver blew his horn, because I swerved out of his way.
I figured, “This is enough!” I just drove off to the side of the road and fell asleep myself. After that we didn’t drive at night.
We were late. It took us five days to get back instead of three days. When we got back to camp we reported and we were kind of scared. But, the officers said, “Oh, you’re OK. We sent you back a telegram extending your furlough.”
So — that was my first experience in the service!
That fall we found out that we were to fight forest fires that were burning close to Yosemite National Park. They sent us because we were engineers. The fire was far up in the mountains. We drove by truck as far as we could and then walked the rest of the way. All of our provisions — the shovels and everything that the forestry supplied — were taken up on the backs of mules and donkeys. We went way up where the air was thin — that’s where the fires were. It was awfully hot during the day and the nights were real cool. The forestry supplied us with food. It was sent to us on parachutes. We saw them coming down — we were on top of a mountain — and they glided right by us and down into the canyon, into the fires. Once in a while we got hold of one.
It was really good food. That food was the best food I tasted while I was in the service. There were plenty of chocolate bars, and there were some drinks, all kind of canned goods, biscuits, and good meat.
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We were there about a week or more, until the fire was finally under control. Then we returned to Fort Ord. I liked that work better than being in the camp or on manoeuvers.
Back at camp, we were told that we were to go on manoeuvres. It was in September. We went by convoy through Yosemite National Park. We stayed overnight there. We saw the great falls, the big redwood trees. It was really exciting. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Boy — that was a long bridge! It had been built just a few years earlier.
We went to Fort Lewis in Centralia, Washington.
When the manoeuvers were over the officers said we could have some time off to visit Tacoma or explore that area of Washington — so long as we would report back in three days. I had a cousin, Ted Sepp, who lived in Tacoma with his wife. This was really a good chance to see him. He had been to our place in Phelps during the Depression — so I had gotten to know him quite well.
I thought, “I’ll surprise him.” So when I got to Tacoma I first called and then went to his address. As I walked up to the house he was waiting with his wife by the door. He said, “Here comes the soldier now!” He was all excited. It was nice to see him.
I stayed with them a couple of days, and he showed me the harbour and the Tacoma area. It was nice and cool compared to how hot it had been in California, especially on manoeuvers. I talked with Ted about the old times when he had been in Phelps — where we lived by Sand Lake. We used to go fishing on Sand Lake — and swimming. Ted was an excellent swimmer. Several times he swam across Sand Lake and I rowed the boat after him. He was an expert. He had been a seaman on the old tram steamers that travelled to South America and back. He really knew what it was like to be by the sea and the water.
After I visited the Sepps, I went back to Centralia. We travelled by convoy back to Fort Ord again. It was getting close to December — and my year of service would be up in January. I was counting off the days until I would be discharged from the Army. I had already bought my ticket and was all ready to go home.
We were sent for manoeuvers in the Mojave Desert. We got back from manoeuvers, and the fellow who was supposed to be the blacksmith wasn’t working. He had taken off already on a furlough. So I was the blacksmith then. I had to sharpen and care for all the tools and work the forge.
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Then Lieutenant Prestridge came to me, all excited. He said, “Hey! Get everything packed up. We have to leave in a couple of hours. The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbour. We’ve got to report back to camp immediately.” We all jumped in our trucks and started right back to the camp. When we got to the camp it was in an uproar.
Prestridge said, “We don’t know when we’re going to be bombed.”
We didn’t know if or when the Japanese might attack us. The Japanese had submarines and Fort Ord was right by the ocean, less than a quarter mile from the Pacific. We didn’t know if they were going to land men there. But what the Army was more interested in was the airplane factories around Los Angeles and throughout the southern part of the state.
They told us, “Tomorrow morning send everything home. Pack it up and we’ll send it home. Put your addresses on all your stuff.” I was lucky I had a footlocker. I had bought it so it was my own. I packed everything that I could – that I wanted to send home. I just kept the army-issued clothes with me. A lot of the stuff I couldn’t pack and I couldn’t take it with me, so I just had to leave it there — throw it in the wastebasket. There were a lot of things I would like to have kept. I bought souvenirs and all that stuff.
We took off by convoy. After several days we got to Pasadena, California. They didn’t have a place there to station us, so we stayed in the Rose Bowl — where the Tournament of Roses and the Rose Parade are held each year. All the roses are kept in one large building, and since that building was vacant we all slept there when it was raining. We slept on the floor, as there were no beds.
I didn’t mention yet that I had been selected to serve as a corporal, and then I got sergeant stripes. So I was in charge of a squad. There were three squads in a platoon. We did all our exercising — all our training — in the Rose Bowl. I’d sit on the bleachers and watch the men train. Little did I know — with my little experience I didn’t know anything about the Rose Bowl then, but I found out later — just how important the Rose Bowl actually was. Now when I watch the Rose Bowl games on television it seems so funny to think that I was there, training the men in that same Rose Bowl.
We were there for a while. We worked making barbed wire entanglements to put along the ocean. They were called “concertina.” They were long rolls of barbed wire, and we had special equipment to make the rolls. When you stretched them out they were like a concertina, or accordion. They were small and
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when you stretched them out, they would reach probably 50 feet. Then you’d pin them down. They were to prevent saboteurs from coming on shore from submarines.
From the Rose Bowl, several of us were sent to Bing Crosby’s stables in Inglewood. We were stationed at the stables. We were just on guard duty there, around the different plants — standing by on alert, ready to be called. After I arrived, I got sick. Our doctor didn’t know what to do, so he sent me to a civilian hospital. The civilian doctors said I had acute appendicitis — they would have to operate on me immediately. They operated on me and then I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, the men had been sent to a park that was a couple of miles from the Rose Bowl—Oak Grove Park. The Army had gotten large tents for us. We stayed in the park and continued our training there.
We got orders in the fall — I think it was September — to pack everything. We would be going to the East Coast. We loaded all our equipment. We put Cosmoline on our equipment and packed it up. It took several weeks to get everything ready. The equipment was sent by freight and we travelled by passenger train to Fort Dix in New Jersey. It was there we found out we would be going overseas.
We were stationed at Fort Dix for a while. Although we knew we would be going overseas, we didn’t have any idea where we would be going — or when. We didn’t do very much training there because all of our equipment was Cosmolined and packed up. Most of the training we did was calisthenics and running — basically keeping in shape. We had been there for several days when the officers said that if any of us wanted to take a pass in the evening we could leave the base.
Fort Dix wasn’t far from New York City, so I figured I would take a bus there. When I arrived, I called my sister Lillian. When Lillian was a young girl she had left home for New York and stayed there with my aunt Alga. She had remained in New York and got married. At that time, she had already been there for 10 years or so. When I called her up and told her I was in New York City, she was really excited. She told me where she lived.
I thought, “Well-being in the service I’ll find my way around.” I got to Grand Central Station and I took a taxi. I don’t remember what it cost me. Was she ever happy to see me!
While I was staying with her, she said Viola Turpeinen and her husband were going to be playing in Central Park. That really excited me, because I had heard Viola play accordion at the Finn Hall in
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Phelps, Wisconsin. She was originally from Iron River, Michigan. In the old days, during the Depression, she used to come to Phelps and play at the “worker’s hall” — or Finn Hall. I was just a kid then. I walked barefoot to the hall when they had “cowboy picnics” there. That was a big doing for us. When she played accordion the people danced.
Lillian and I went to Central Park. Sure enough, they had a stand there where Viola Turpeinen and her husband were playing. When she took a break, I went to the stage. I had my uniform on.
I said, “Hi! How’s everything? I’m from Phelps. I’m here now to come to visit you.”
She was so excited. She said, “Get a chair — you and your sister both get chairs — and sit right here on the bandstand with us.” She talked with us about the old days. She said, “You know, that’s where I got my start — in Phelps. That’s where I first got to play my accordion. I remember Neimi and the Haakonens used to pick me up from Iron River, take me to the Finn Hall, and then later drive me back to Iron River.”
They had a quart bottle of wine and they offered me drinks from it. I didn’t drink too much. Lillian and I danced a few dances. I had to leave the city kind of early, so we went back to Lillian’s apartment. Then I went back to the bus station and I took a bus back to Fort Dix. It was really lucky that I had a chance to visit my sister. I also had a chance to see my cousin Millie. Everything seemed to be playing just right into my hands.
Soon after that we went overseas. The seas were real rough. I read later that that winter was a particularly bad one in the Atlantic and the seas were unusually rough. The waves were choppy. The ships just wallowed through the waters. We travelled a northern route. We didn’t know where we were going.
I was lucky that I had an old sleeping bag. We weren’t supposed to take them overseas, but I liked the sleeping bag so well that I took the packing out from the inside and just kept the cover with the zipper. I put my blankets inside it and, when I pulled the zipper up, I managed to keep warm — whereas many of the other fellows were cold.
The food on the ship was mostly rutabaga soup, mutton, and British tea. The bread was good, but most of the rest of the stuff I didn’t care for much. The water wasn’t very good for drinking, either. It had chlorine in it and it tasted strong. They did sell some candy bars on the ship — British candy bars made from really good chocolate. I had enough money so I bought mostly candy bars.
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Many of the fellows who were with me threw up and were seasick. I never did get seasick. Of course, it was probably good that I didn’t eat very much. When I had a chance I would go on deck. But it was so cold on the deck, with the wind blowing and weather damp — raining and foggy — that it wasn’t very pleasant up there.
I think it was a couple of weeks before we started getting close to North Africa. Suddenly the weather started warming up and the seas became calmer. I’d go on the deck of the ship and watch the British sailors. They were assembling a large net, which they said would be used as a landing net. Being in the Army engineers, we did a lot of rope work in our projects. It was interesting to watch the British. They knew just what they were doing — they were very good at rope work. I watched as they tied the knots and spliced the rope and made the big nets. The nets were like fishnets, only larger. Later they would be put over the side of the ship. We would climb these nets when it was time to leave the ship and get into the assault boats.
At one point we were told that we were passing through the straits of Gibraltar. We could see the rocky shore. Then we got the inkling that we would be landing some place in North Africa or Italy. We didn’t know for sure until we got our orders that we would be embarking the next morning.
In the evening we all got our packs ready. We were given a patch with the United States flag that we were to sew onto a shoulder of our jackets. We were given a password that we were to use when we landed. The password would be “Hi-ho, Silver,” and the answer would be “Away.” If we encountered someone and they knew the answer, we knew they were friendly.
The next morning at 4 or 5 o’clock we knew that we were about to land in North Africa. Our ship was brought closer to shore. We were told to be ready to go down the scramble net as an assault boat was brought alongside the ship. We got our orders to go down and Lieutenant Prestridge went down first. I was the second one to go down the scramble net. It was harder for the first two of us to go down, as the net was hanging between the landing craft and the ship. There were swells in the water — probably 8 or 10-foot swells that went up and down and dashed against the side of the ship. When we got down from the ship, we lifted the net into the assault boat. In going down the scramble nets we each carried a pack with our rifle, ammunition, and supplies. The pack weighed about 60 pounds. You had to hold yourself close to the net, because if you let yourself lean backward it was impossible to get close to the net again — and you would
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fall. In falling down onto the metal boat you could break your back — or you could fall between the boat and the ship.
We helped about 30 men into the assault boat. When it was loaded we threw the net against the ship and the British started the motor and headed for shore. There was no firing at us at the time we landed. It was early morning. We got close to shore, but the assault boats didn’t land on shore — we had to get off in the water. The water was about up to our necks when we jumped over the side of the boat and headed for shore.
When I got to the shore, it seemed such a relief to be on shore after being on the ship. I didn’t care what happened next — just to be able to hug the sand was good! There was some firing going on but not much action at that time. I suppose the British cruisers and destroyers had by then shot at any installations that were firing. When daylight came, we were told to march. We went to the harbor of Arzew, 10 or 20 miles from Oran, Algiers. When we got there our first job was to unload the ships. The port was in good shape. We stayed there about a week, unloading ships as fast as the ships got there. We had large cargo nets. To unload the ships, we would go into the hulls and throw in all the supplies we could fit in the net. Then we would hoist the cargo net up and swing it onto the dock. We would load the cargo on trucks that would take them inland, farther from the Mediterranean shore, so the German or Italian ships or submarines couldn’t shell them.
I didn’t see much action, but I did see one ship destroyed. I happened to look over and I saw a large explosion. The ship may have contained ammunition. The whole thing blew up. A submarine might have hit it, or it might have run into a mine. That was the only ship that was destroyed. After the cloud of smoke cleared away there was nothing left.
After working there, we went on to build a hospital — but I covered that already in my earlier story [taped in 1976], so I won’t go into much detail about that. After working there I was in charge of using explosives. We used dynamite and TNT because everything was solid rock.
After finishing the work at Arzew, we were sent by convoy to Algiers. We went through the city of Algiers and on to Tunisia. From Tunisia we worked on various engineering projects. Everything was mud and sloppy there. It was the rainy season at that time. Then we got orders to go on the guard post. I told you about that — when I was in charge of the guard zone — and story about Bommarito.
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Later we were told to pack up and go to Kasserine Pass. I’ll always remember the date that we got to the pass — the 19th — because we were in the 19th Engineers. We were told that the Germans were preparing to attack the pass. We would be laying minefields in case the Germans tried to break through.
Everything was disorderly at the time, because nobody knew just where the Germans would try to make the breakthrough — or if they would. We thought that we would get plenty of air protection. But all the while we were there not a single American plane flew over. There were some German planes that came over, but they didn’t drop bombs. They were more or less just looking — taking photographs and finding out what our positions were, I think.
It was on the 19th when some of the German tanks came up and fired some shots. They got up to the minefield and couldn’t get through. Some of them may have hit mines — I don’t remember. Then they withdrew and we knew that they would attack the next morning. Later I learned that the Germans cleared the mines from the road during the night-time. It was early the next morning — on the 20th — that the Germans really opened up on us. They had tanks and mortars. They had just got the new six-barreled electric-controlled mortars, which were some of the best they had. They made a large whining sound as they fired into our midst.
What hurt us the most was that we got orders to load all our packs onto trucks. The infantry would relieve us, we were told. But as soon as the trucks were loaded, one of the trucks — my own truck — was hit by German artillery. Everything burned. I just hated to look out there and see all my provisions burn. Little did I know at the time that that would be the last I would see of many of our troops. When evening came I called up our Major Kellogg to find out what we should do.
I said, “The Germans are attacking us. Will we get reinforcements or what? Or — should we withdraw or what?”
He said, “Just stay there. Gather up as many men as you can and get ready to attack the Germans.” It was getting dark when I gathered up the men I could and we started going toward the German lines.
I’ve told you about that already.
Well, anyway, the Germans captured me.
I was in a prison camp in Tunis until we were flown across to Sicily. I was in prison camp on Sicily — Camp 98.
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Just before the Allies landed in Sicily, I was taken by a transport to Italy and then by train to a prison camp in northern Italy — Camp 59. The British ran that camp. When I got to the camp I was in bad shape. I couldn’t even walk. Some of the Italians were in charge. They ordered us off the back of the truck. I couldn’t even get up at the back of the truck so they had some of the fellows carry me to an area that was like a small hospital within the prison camp. I was there for a couple of weeks. The doctor said I had rheumatic fever and he gave me about 10 aspirins a day.
I got more rations there. In a bunk by me was a British soldier who was ready to die. He was just skin and bone almost. He had tuberculosis. He couldn’t eat anything, so he gave me all his rations. He ate a few bites and then he gave me the rest of his rations. He was a really nice fellow. We talked. He was from Great Britain. I can always remember the doctor’s name because they called him Alphabet Miller — his name was A.B.Miller. [Note: The doctor’s name was J.H.D. Millar, and the three initials help to explain why the men might have called him “Alphabet Millar.”] In time he was put in charge of the camp. I got to know him when I was sick.
This camp was an old camp, probably built in World War 1. Or maybe it had been a large prison. It had high stone walls all around it. This was a much better prison camp than the one in Sicily. At the one in Sicily we just slept in old desert tents. When it rained the rainwater would just slosh into the tents. It was cold there. I was just about freezing every day for the six weeks I was there.
This camp was much nicer than that. What I liked about this British-run camp was that it was well organized. We made use of everything we had. Nothing was wasted. When I got out of the hospital, being a sergeant, the British put me in charge of a section of men. A section consisted of 36 men. We didn’t have work details, but being in charge of these men I had to count them every morning and evening. If somebody was sick or if there were any problems, I had to report it to the British and then the British would report it to the Italians.
It was also my job to divide the rations that the Italians gave out — and the rations we got from the Red Cross. I had to be very careful to equally divide them. When a man is almost starving to death he wants to get his share. Every time he looks at anyone else he’ll say, “Well — he got a bigger piece than I did!” There were some tricks to it. I managed very well. I got along good with the fellows. When the new
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prisoners were brought in, we’d get together and question them to find out what was going on. In that way we learned that American and British soldiers had invaded Italy.
We were thinking that, “Well, they’ll be coming here pretty soon to liberate our camp.” And we considered that we would be free to go then. The Italian soldiers were getting more and more scared. They were afraid of the Germans and the Germans were ready to come and take over the camp. So we were trying to figure out— were we going to be shipped to Germany or kept here? What’s going to happen?
We usually walked around the camp at night before going to bed. When they put the lights out we had to stay in the barracks.
One evening I was walking along when somebody tapped my shoulder and said, “Hey, sarge.” I looked and he was the same doctor, A. B. Miller, who had taken care of me in the hospital. He was a colonel. [Note; J.H.B. Millar was, in fact, a captain. He took command of the camp on the day the Armistice was declared, September 9.] He said, “They put me in charge of the camp because I’m the highest rank, but I’m just a doctor. I don’t know much about military ruling or anything. I want you to help me.”
I talked with him and I figured, “Well, we’ll just have to wait it out and see what happens. We won’t charge or try to get out of here until we’re sure that the Germans are coming.”
He said, “Maybe we’ll work it out with the Italians — maybe we’ll put our own guards on the gates, too. They won’t have rifles, but they’ll be there. Some of them can speak Italian. We’ll try to learn when the Germans are coming to take over the camp. And then we’ll try to break out of here.
I filled up my water jug. I had known in North Africa what it’s like to be without food or water. Some of the guys just didn’t care. I found two canteens. I had an American canteen and a British canteen. I filled them both with water. I gathered up all the food I could.
It was a bright moonlit night. All of a sudden there was shooting at the main gate and somebody got on the loud speaker and said, “The Germans are here taking over the camp.”
He said, “Get out of here any way that you can. Try to get out!” And he added, “God be with you.”
I looked around. The guys were all milling around. They were running to the front gate. I had noticed someone had made a hole in the wall at the back. I think the Italians had helped to dig it out. They
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used big sledgehammers or something to knock the hole through the back wall. The Germans were there — they had just arrived there.
I didn’t know who to go with and but I figured I was going to get through there, get outside the gate. I had quite a bit of food with me when I got outside. A bunch of us stood around. I told them “We’re all safe here for now. But the best thing will be to get away from here fast as we can.”
They said, “Let’s all go.”
I said, “We can’t all go together, or surely we’ll all get caught. The best way is to break up into small groups. The best way is to break up into pairs — and each go in a little bit different direction. Some of us will get through.”
Then we debated, “Who should go with who?”
There was Ben Farley. He was one of the men I was in charge of, so knew him. One day I had been dividing some tobacco — Italian tobacco — and nobody wanted it. Finally Ben said, “I’ll take it.”
The next week when I was dividing tobacco again, I gave him some of the same tobacco. This time he said, “I took it last time!” We kind of got in an argument. So I got to know him that way. He was kind of a little cocky guy, too.
I said, “OK, I’ll just take it myself and I’ll give it to somebody.” So I took it and gave it away to somebody — and did away with my ration that way.
I asked Ben, “Well — you want to come with me?”
He said, “Sure, I’ll come with you.”
There were some other guys who said, “We want to come with you, too.” Some of the guys started to follow us and it took a while to get rid of them. I finally had to tell them, “We’ve got to break up — we can’t go as a group.” Some of the guys started crying there, saying, “We don’t know what to do.”
I had made a map and I knew just about where we were. I didn’t have a compass, but I did have a watch that I bought when I was blasting holes for the tents when we landed in Arzew. By pointing the hour hand at the sun at 12 o’clock, you can know you are traveling due south. And otherwise half way between 12 o’clock and the hour hand always points you south — as Boy Scouts are taught. So I had a pretty good idea, when the sun was up, that we were going south. According to my map, I figured that the best thing — Italy being long and like a boot — was to keep going south. Then we would be all right.
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Ben Farley and I finally got farther away from there. We came to a vineyard and we filled our pockets and ate grapes. It was a real treat! Oh — they tasted so good! We took them by bunches. We ate and ate and then filled our pockets.
The next morning we wanted to hide out. We climbed up a steep mountainside and saw there was nobody around. We knew that the best time to walk was at night. We were just lucky that there was a full moon, too.
We were lying down there that morning — Ben Farley was sleeping and I was sitting on a big rock — and all of a sudden it just came to me. I thought, “Here I am, and I don’t know where I am or what I’m going to do or anything.” It seemed like I kind of fell asleep and all of a sudden I woke up and I thought, “Gee — what’s the use of being scared? Now I’m not in charge of anyone.” All this time I’d been in the service it seemed I was always in charge of somebody. And here, now, I was free. In the prison camp I was in charge of men. Now — it seemed so funny — all I had to worry about was myself.
Ben Farley finally woke up and he said, “Where are we? What are we doing?”
I said, “Let’s just wait for night. Let’s just be quiet around here. So we had a drink of water. Nobody came around and we waited for night. We knew that when the Germans got organized, they would search around the camp.
I learned later, in talking to some of the fellows who were recaptured, they figured about 98 percent of the fellows were captured — with dogs and by bribing or paying the Italians to turn them in. We got far enough away from the camp.
We figured maybe we would see American planes or that the Americans would be coming on land — that there had been surrender. Little did I know that it would be almost a year before the Americans would get that far north. Winter was coming — already it was November. It wouldn’t be long before the mountainsides would be covered with snow and we would have a harder time traveling. Trackers could follow our footprints and we would have a hard time finding anything to eat. We knew that by going south we would be getting into warmer territory.
The best way to travel was to stay up in the mountains and away from the roads, because in following roads we never knew who would come along. The Germans were traveling up and down the roads with motorcycles. Many of the roads we came to we had to cross. In daylight the best way to do that
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was to crawl on our hands and knees — get up into the ditch and follow the ditch until we came to a culvert, and then crawl through the culvert. If it were night or dark, we’d run across the road.
One time — several days after the escape — we came to a large ravine. I kind of had an argument with Ben about whether we should go along the sides, which were high mountains, or through the town.
We went through the town, and while we were going through it an Italian stopped us.
He said, “Don’t look at me — just look straight ahead.”
Then he told me, “I can speak English. This is a fascist town. They’re for the Germans here. You’ve got to be very careful when you go through this town that you don’t get caught. For one thing, don’t go in any buildings, because if they’re going to kill you — or keep you — they’re going to hide you. They won’t do that in the open because there are sympathizers here, too. They won’t get away with it, because when the Americans or British come here we’ll get even with them.”
It was getting night. We thought we could just go quietly through the town, but children started following us. We knew that there was not much choice — we just had to keep going.
Then a man came out of one of the taverns. He thought we were Germans and he saluted me. Then someone told him that we weren’t Germans — we were Americans. His face just turned black and then he tried to force us into the tavern.
He said, “Come into the tavern. You can have all of the wine and everything.”
I told Ben, “We don’t want to go there. It’s just what the Italian warned us not to do.”
When we didn’t go in, a man came barging out with a big butcher knife. His hands were covered with blood and the knife was covered with blood. He said he had just killed some Americans there. He said we’d be the next ones.
I picked up a rock and we started running down the street. Children milled around us. We ran a block or so and left them behind, and then suddenly there was a priest standing right in the middle of the street. He opened his gown and he put his hands around us. He said a prayer. He talked to some of the Italians. One of the Italians could speak English, and he said that the priest wanted us to follow the children — they would lead us away and hide us.
So we followed them and they took us up the side of a mountain. There was a nice house there and there were some people there. We were introduced to them. They were very nice — an older grandfather
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and grandmother. Their daughter lived in Canada, and her children had come to Italy to visit their grandparents. Mussolini laid down a law that nobody could leave Italy. The children had to stay with their grandparents. Their mother was still in Canada.
The grandfather got a long ladder and he told us to climb to a loft in the hay barn — which was about 20 feet high — and hide in the hay. Then he took the ladder down. The next day they put the ladder back and they gave us food. We were there for several days. They fed us, even though they didn’t have much to eat themselves. The man seemed like he was a richer Italian, and this was just his hidden camp. He owned a place in the city, but this was out in the country — kind of like a hiding place or like a resort.
They were very good to us, and they wanted us to stay with them. They said they would let us know when the Americans were coming. We expected the Americans or British to come any minute, too. But then the old man bicycled to town — to the post office — and he came back very excited. He said there was a sign on the post office wall declaring that prisoners had escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp. A reward of 3,000 lire was offered to anyone who could capture or give information on the escaped prisoners — whether dead or alive.
And he said the news was that anyone who helped the prisoners could be sentenced to death. He was pretty excited about that. Ben and I told them, “We don’t want to endanger your lives. You have been very kind to us. We’ll leave right away.”
The old man said, “I’ll get a guide who can take you over the mountains.”
Our guide was an Italian soldier who had either gone “over the hill,” or was just on furlough. We didn’t ask him which. He couldn’t speak much English, but he could speak a little. If we would follow him, he said, he would take us away from the village and farther from the prisoner-of-war camp. We knew that they would be searching for us close to the camp. The farther we could get away the safer we would be.
The Italian, his wife, and the grandchildren all hated to see us go. Even the children were saying “Stada qua! Stada qua!” which in Italian means, “Stay here. Stay here.” They wanted us to stay, but we didn’t know when the Americans would be coming. The grandparents gave us 50 lire of Italian money. And a little later the grandchildren, who had their own savings, also gave us 50 lire. They didn’t even tell their grandparents about it. They just gave it — that was really nice of them.
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We said goodbye and thanked them as best we could. I had quite a bit of French money and American money. I may have given them some of it — I think I did — and then we left there.
The Italian was really an experienced guide. He had his regular combat boots with cleats on them.
I was lucky because just prior to escaping I had taken my boots — the heels came off and they were wearing out — to a British shoemaker in the prison camp, and he nailed new heels on my shoes and also put cleats under the soles of my shoes. They were really helpful in climbing the mountains.
The guide told us that when you’re climbing mountains you have to have a stick. It was really handy to know that. Ben and I each cut a stick about eight feet long. It worked like a cane, except it was larger. In climbing I leaned against the pole and pushed myself up. When one of us was higher or on a rock he’d reach back with his stick and help the other. The person below would hold the stick and the one above would pull him up. Ben was light — he only weighed about 130 pounds. I’d lift him up and when he got higher he’d help me up. We worked that way — like acrobats.
We walked during day. Some Italians had given us food. We had two canteens that I took with me when we left the prisoner-of-war camp, and the Italian had a canteen. We found that we could go along without eating for many days, but I think a person could go only about two days maximum without water — especially in a dry climate. There were no wells in these mountains, only steep cliffs and rivers. Distance in Italy was figured in kilometers. I guessed we walked close to 40 miles that day. Then our guide told us more or less the direction we needed to travel to go south.
We weren’t too far from the Mediterranean — it was to our left and that was just how we wanted to travel. We could see the Grand Sasse Mountain — the highest peak in Italy. We could see it for days and days. It seemed we would never get up to it, or pass by it. The land was so mountainous. It was like an accordion — we went up and down, up and down.
I told Ben, “You know — Italy would be just as big as the United States if it was just stretched out!” We would climb up one mountain — climb for hours — and we would think that pretty soon we’d get to the top and maybe there would be green grass and level ground on the other side. But when we reached the top and looked ahead as far as we could see it was cliffs and bare rock.
Later, after our guide left us, there were some open places and grass. We came across a lot of mountain roads and sheep trails. We followed one trail to a plateau where there were boys with sheep — the
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shepherds. They were real nice. We stopped with them — I knew enough Italian to ask for directions. They had big loaves of Italian bread — bread that was hollow that was baked in home fireplaces or ovens. That was their rations. Most often we paid them a little something for the food when we left. A lot of them wouldn’t even take our money. They just gave us a big slice of bread and we’d take off down the trail.
We didn’t see much of the Germans in those parts of the hills. Perhaps a plane would go by. We were fairly safe. I kept track of the days. It took us 29 days to walk a distance of — we estimated — 300 miles. It wasn’t that distance on the map, but we considered the zigzagging we had to do, and going up and down. A mile as a plane flies was probably three or four miles up and down, consider all the slipping and sliding we did, and climbing up and down cliffs.
At one time we came to the Pescara River, which we had to cross. There were several rivers that we had to wade across or else we went together upstream or downstream looking for areas to cross. A lot of bridges were probably destroyed. Sometimes there would be a narrow bridge for walking or a railroad bridge that we could walk across. If it were a smaller river, we’d just wade or swim across. But we didn’t know just how to cross this large river. It was 500 feet or so wide.
I told Ben, “We’ll pick a spot across the river where we’ll meet.” We marked out a house there, and then I went upstream and he went downstream. I said, “When we get across, we’ll meet at that house. If we can’t get across we’ll come back to this same place on this side.”
I had walked just a short ways when I came to an old bridge. I crossed it and went to the house and waited there by the shore for Ben. As I waited, it started thundering and raining hard. It was getting dark. When Ben didn’t show up, I went up to the house. An Italian couple lived there. They were real nice, they said to come in and dry out.
Just about that time we looked outside and Ben came straggling up. I’ll tell you — that was a happy moment, because I had been wondering if he had drowned or something.
I had been thinking, “Boy, when I get back to the lines what am I going to tell the officers — did I just leave him someplace or what?” Ben told me he hadn’t found anyplace to cross so he had attempted to swim. It was a lucky thing that he was a good swimmer — with his clothes on and everything. He said he got carried about a quarter of a mile downstream before he finally got on the other side. Most of the rivers
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coming down out of the mountains were really fast, but then they’d flow to a place where it was flat and would slow down again. So that was why he was late.
We decided after that we were going to stay together regardless of what happened — and we did. Most of the places that we traveled through were fairly safe, but we knew we had to get closer to the Mediterranean. We might have to walk five or six hundred miles farther south, but by getting closer to the shore we’d know if the British or Americans had landed.
We came to another village and once again we didn’t know if we should go through that village. We stopped a farmer and talked to him a little. We asked him if it was a friendly village.
He said, “Yes, I think it is kind of friendly — you could go through there.” First we walked around the village to see if there were any telephone wires. That was what we always did when we approached a dwelling, but very few of the people had telephones. Then we entered the village and walked through.
People were quite nice, but as we left the village an Italian told us, “You were lucky to have gotten through there. We don’t have running water or anything, but we do have a telephone and the mayor called up the Germans and they’re coming.” We had just left when all of a sudden we saw trucks pour in. People started shouting and squealing and the Germans opened up with gunfire. There wasn’t a sound after that. Later, a farmer said that the Germans had demanded food and then took off again.
At another farm there was an old farmer who told us to stay with him. He dug under a haystack and he came out with an old rifle that looked like a 45 Savage — like an old Civil War rifle. He held five shells in his hand. They were all covered with mildew.
He said, “Here — you will be safe. Take these with you. Mussolini ordered all of the farmers and everyone to turn in their weapons. But I hid this under the haystack.”
He was so excited, but I looked at that rifle and thought, “Boy, I’m a lot safer not having that along. If they catch me with that I’d be in a lot bigger danger — and it would be clumsy to carry that thing around.” So I just thanked him.
I said, “That’s good, but I don’t think I could use it.”
He looked so unhappy. At first he was all smiles, but then he looked unhappy. He said, “Well, I’ll have to go bury it again.”
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I was surprised how nice the people actually were in a country like that, where they had been at war for years already. They were so poor. But they were all happy. Many of them knew Americans or had relatives in America.
When you’re out like that you seem to sense danger — almost like a wild animal, I guess. Even the people — you look at them and you could almost read their minds, if they’re friendly or if they’re not.
If they weren’t friendly we didn’t ask much, we just took off. I told Ben that one thing we don’t want to do is to hurt anyone. I said that’s the last thing we want to do. We never forced anyone. The only thing was that as we went through we helped ourselves to their gardens. At a place we stopped one night there were some nice tomatoes growing right close to the house. We started eating them. They were so good and so sweet. We ate just about all the tomatoes on that vine and left just a few. I kind of felt bad about it — I still think about it and I wonder what those people thought when they woke up and went to look at those tomato plants and all the tomatoes were gone.
That was the way it was though — we had to eat what we could. We always had enough food to last us for several days. I learned a lot about saving food during the Depression years. In the homes I didn’t see any canned goods, and very little sugar or anything else. There was a lot of Italian bread and in some places there was meat and some butter.
Just about every place we went they had wine, called vino there. At just about every place they offered us wine. They had that instead of coffee. It wasn’t strong, it didn’t make me drunk, but it quenched my thirst. Just about everyplace had it — gallons of it.
It was so beautiful when we’d wake up early in the morning. We would walk and then find a place to hide out during the day. There were a lot of caves on the sides of the mountains, and there were bushes in some places. It was such beautiful country — it would be a beautiful place to be in civilian life — when there wasn’t a war going on. When the sun set on the mountains we just stood and watched it.
I don’t remember too much of what happened other than that. Most of the time we were just walking and walking. I lost both of the heels on my shoes. When I got to the lines where the British had landed, the bottoms of my feet were just about sticking through the soles. I showed my shoes to the British and they gave me a new pair of shoes. I couldn’t have walked much farther. Ben’s shoes were all worn out,
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too. They wouldn’t have worn out if we had had good roads to walk along, but our way was all sliding down mountains or climbing mountains.
Ben had civilian clothes and I had clothes I had worn in the prison camp. I had army fatigues on – just regular army clothes — and I had a field jacket on, too. As far as underclothing, when we were captured I just had a pair of shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, so those were what I wore. It was mighty cold during the nights on some of the mountains. We had matches. I don’t remember building any fires, though. We would warm up with the people. The rain was the worst thing. Then we had to try to dry ourselves out. Neither one of us had caps, but I had more hair in those days.
As far as sleeping, the first couple of nights we took turns sleeping because we knew the Italians or Germans would be looking for us. One of those nights I remember Ben sleeping beside a large rock. I sat on that rock trying to think of what plans to make — what we would do.
But later, when we got away farther, we would both lie down. We’d find a place to rest — in a cave or in the bushes. Sometimes we’d find a haystack or an old building. When the Italians were friendly, they would find a place for us. But I don’t remember ever sleeping in a bed. We’d sleep on the floor or in a shed. The Italians were always a little afraid that would be caught and punished.
Usually we would walk during the day if we felt it was safe — like up in the mountains. If we were close to a village, then we’d pass through at night. We were lucky when we started out that we had moonlight. Later there was no moon, because it took us almost a month to reach the British lines.
As far as meeting other prisoners-of-war — we did meet a few along the way. Sometimes the Italians would say that there were others who looked like Americans or British who were escaping, too. I do remember two of the fellows we saw several days after we escaped. I have it in my notes — it was on Wednesday, September 15. We were walking and met two of the prisoners who had escaped from the same camp we had been in. One was named Vicky and the other Crusoe. We stopped and talked with them for a while. Crusoe’s parents were Italian and he could speak fluent Italian. Crusoe got along real well with the people in the countryside.
I think they were both rangers. They didn’t seem too interested in having us go with them, and we also didn’t feel like going with them. We figured we would stand a better chance just as two. It’s easier to spot four people than two. We said, “Hope to see you later.”
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It wasn’t until we got back to the British and American lines, and had been flown back to North Africa and we were getting ready to be interviewed — when who should we see but Vicky and Crusoe. We shook hands with them and had to laugh.
They asked, “Boy, how did you guys make it? When we left you we thought you’d never make it through. We thought, we could speak Italian and you guys couldn’t so you wouldn’t get by.”
I think we saw another couple of guys who escaped, too. In one village we saw a guy and it looked like he was drunk. We didn’t even want to talk with him. We probably said a few words to him. He had civilian clothes on. Then we met a couple of British soldiers who had escaped, too. We even walked with them for a while.
Back in North Africa, when we received our orders to return to the U.S., I think there were six prisoners who had reached the line. Ben and I were the first ones to make it back to Africa — Vicky and Crusoe came in later than we did.
Being the first ones ever to have escaped, nobody knew what to do with us. They sent us from one place to another until we finally got orders by command of General Eisenhower to return to the States.
The following is a concise account of the role of the 19th Engineers at Kasserine Pass:
“The 1st Armored Division withdrew through Kasserine Pass on the 17th February 1943, as the engineers prepared to stop any enemy effort to force the pass. German patrols and preparatory artillery increased in intensity through February 18th. Their probing attacks the next morning failed to penetrate the pass, but that afternoon a strong German effort forced Company D, 19th Engineers, out of its defensive position. A counterattack to restore their position failed, but by evening, although weakened, the line remained intact. Before dawn the next day, German soldiers forced the infantry on the left to withdraw, thus exposing the engineers’ left flank. That afternoon the engineer line broke, and the Germans were through the pass. In defending Kasserine Pass, the 19th Engineers’ casualties were 11 killed, 28 wounded, and 88 missing.
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Their 3-day holding action, however, allowed time for reinforcements to take strong positions in hills, beyond the pass. These forces stopped Rommel by February 22, and the Germans began to withdraw through Kasserine Pass to their original positions the next day.”
—James W. Dunn, “Engineers in North Africa” Engineer, vol. 23, no. 2
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[Handwritten notes at the top of the page]
Motor Cycle return to Italy in search of Italian helpers in 1943. 3300 miles. Major A.A.M. Gregston MBE.
A.M. Bamford camp edge of Maize Paddock. Had been a modern Cavalry walked Battalion and back.
BY MOTOR CYCLE TO ITALY: SEPTEMBER 1988
The object of the trip was to trace again my escape route from P.O.W. Camp P.G.19 near Bologna to the allied lines near S. Pietro In Fine a few miles S.E. of Cassino.
It took two months to obtain four maps of Italy that I needed : scale 1:200,000 (about 3 miles to the inch) and I worked out an itinerary from memory and my old diary.
I hoped to meet again Francesco Loro and his family who hid and helped me at great risk to themselves within a stone’s throw of the Germans guarding the camp. My second objective was the church in the hamlet of Bruscoli high above the Bologna-Firenze road where the priest had helped me.
My third objective was a farmhouse where the aged people had sheltered me when ill with pneumonia/pleurisy.
My fourth objective was Castelnuovo, the home of the late Contessa Bianca Cavazza di Collachione and finally I hoped to climb once again the mountain above S. Pietro In Fine to see the marvellous panorama laid out to the East, South and West from the Adriatic to Vesuvius and to the Islands of Ischia and Capri, with Monte Carlo Cassino over my right shoulder that in October 1943 was all a battle field.
Sunday 4th September 1988
I departed from Shaldon after lunch and called on Miffy and Ian for a cup of tea and to see their progress in rebuilding their new farmhouse home near Sherborne; then on to Morwenna in Titchfield for the night.
Monday 5th September 1988
I was in good time to board the 8.30 a.m. Ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre. The docks were packed with cars and lorries and us three or four motor cyclists were able to worm our way past lines of traffic up to the dock gates.
The top deck afforded a grand view of Portsmouth harbour, the warships, and ‘Victory’ and ‘Warrior’.
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The channel crossing was sunny and calm. As we approached Le Havre I saw a familiar looking cargo vessel and confirmed through my binoculars that she was the ‘Karen B’, loaded with poisonous waste that had been a regular T.V. news item in recent days. She was at anchor with a French ocean going tug in attendance.
While in the ship I realized that I had left the four maps and my notes for the trip with Morwenna. I purchased a Mitchelin map of France from the ship’s shop: this would do for the journey as far as Bologna and, if I could replace the maps there, my previous study of the route should suffice as many of the towns and villages were planted indelibly in my mind.
Monday 5 September 1988 – 2.30 p.m.
(1.30 p.m. Continental time): Arrived Le Havre: I must have taken a wrong road as none of the places on sign posts appeared on my small scale map.
However, once across the Seine the roads straightened and the traffic dwindled and the speedometer reeled off the miles at 60-80 mph to Evreux and on to Dreux, Chartres and Orleans.
As dusk was falling I ‘phoned home and asked Margaret to ‘phone Morwenna for the address near Florence of the Hotel recommended by Humphrey Mann and to let me know when I ‘phoned again. My friend Humphrey Mann bases his spring holidays on the Bencista Hotel and walks the country round about in Emilia and Tuscany.
A cafe in Orleans provided an excellent ham omelette and cafe au lait and on I went on the road to Nevers.
I turned off on to a side road before it became too dark, then on to a farm track alongside a copse. I camped under the trees in absolute quiet except for a dog barking some way off and an occasional croak that might have been a fox. Mileage from Le Havre 245.
My double sleeping bag kept me warm and a plastic cover kept off most of the heavy dew.
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Cramp in my legs was a nuisance as I had to jump up three times in the early hours, don shoes and walk around. Breakfast was bread roll, butter and marmite and orange juice.
Tuesday 6th September 1988
Took me to Aosta in the Italian Alps via Moulins, Dompierre, Paray-le-Mondial, Macon, Brou, Annecy and through the Mont Blanc Tunnel along the s-shore of Lake Annecy.
The mountain road was superbly engineered, wide and fast.
The descent to Aosta was picturesque, past Italian mountain villages and the rapids of the river Dora Baltea (jumping torrent).
It was dark in Aosta and I stayed the night in the large and comfortable Hotel Valle D’Aosta.
After several attempts I ‘phoned Margaret who had meantime ‘phoned Humphrey for details of Bencista. (Morwenna had my maps but not my notes). It was not as late as I thought, only 9 p.m. as I had forgotten to subtract the hour of continental time, and while awaiting a large ham omlette I chatted over a glass of insipid beer to a group of young Englishmen. They were the crews of several huge vehicles parked outside and advertising finance and racing tyres.They were enroute for the Monza grand prix car race. Mileage this day:380.
Wednesday 8th September 1988
The ‘Orte’ took me at 75-80 mph to Bologna, direct alongside the River Po. Barriers with ticket booths bar the way in a mystifying way until I was shown a large button to be pressed whereupon a ticket appeared which I clipped to my windscreen until it was presented for payment some two hours later: the cost was a prodigious number of Lire, in the thousands, but so was any purchase in Italy where £1 is worth L.2,300.
It took me a while to reach the centre of Bologna which is now a great sprawling city. After several inquiries and many ‘sinistras,
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‘destras’ and ‘direttas’ I reached a main street. The sun was blazing hot and the shops all closed for siesta. I walked around the streets keeping to the shady side, called at a pizzeria for lunch and noted a camera shop as the camera that I borrowed from Morwenna had a vital screw missing.
I purchased a camera when the shop opened at 3.30 p.m. and tried to buy maps in several ‘tabacceria’s’ and in the Italian Tourist Office and in the Bibliotheca Nationale, all to no effect.
So as the afternoon wore on I searched for Loro Francesco and his farmhouse, La Due Maddonne and the P.O.W. Campo 19, which lay a few miles east of Bologna.
It was disappointing to find that most of that area is now an industrial estate. I found one old farmhouse in a tiny rural pocket but the old people there did not know of the Francesco family.
[handwritten note. 5 years later finds them]
This family had fed me, clothed me in ‘borghese’ clothes and hidden me for five days within a stone’s throw of the Germans and the P.O.W. Camp.
Reluctantly I set off towards M. Calvo and the village of Bruscoli. It was cold riding along the narrow mountain road over the passo di Raticosa and into Bruscoli. The little place seemed deserted and my knocks on the door next to the church were unanswered.
In September 1943 the priest here gave me food, wine and begged me to stay and help organize partisans to fight the Germans. My priorities then were, one, to get home, two to re-join my regiment, so the priest had given me a lift in his little car down the road a few miles towards Firenze.
Now in 1988 it was evening and I hoped to reach ‘Bencista’ in Fiesole a mile or two N.E. of Firenze.
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My friend Humphrey Mann recommended Hotel Bencista having spent several spring time holidays there, walking in the Emilia and Tuscany.
My small scale Michelin map did not show the minor roads and instead of driving direct to Fiesole, I found myself once more on the ‘Orte’ bound for Firenze. It was stop-go through the several tunnels with traffic nose to tail and I despaired of reaching ‘Bencista’ at a reasonable hour. By trundling between the stationary lines of cars and lorries, I reached a likely turn-off, paid my Orte dues and was soon in the flare of night time Firenze. A few enquiries and a long narrow switch back road and I found ‘Bencista’, high on a hillside above the City.
In my heavy anorak and dark blue working trousers I was clearly no big ‘catch’ for ‘Bencista’ where I found the family gathered around the reception table. On enquiring for ‘Una camera per una notte’, I was told that the hotel was ‘complete’: however the passwords ‘Humphrey Mann’ – Oh! Mr. Mann! and all was well. Signore Simone himself showed me up to a charming room looking out over the city all ablaze in lights with, I was glad to see, my Moto Guzzi parked just below the window.
Having discussed Mr. Mann and his walking habits in glowing terms. Signore Simone left me to sleep soundly. Mileage this day 390.
Just before going to sleep I looked through the contents of my pockets and found, to my delight, Humphrey’s letter describing ‘Bencista’ and the family Simone (no wonder Morwenna had been unable to find it). So I was able to ‘mug up’ on the family and staff.
Thursday 8th September 1988
Breakfast on the veranda in warm sunshine with a zephyr of breeze consisted of fresh rolls, butter, jam, coffee, fruit juice etc. ad lib.
After breakfast I was taken in hand by Signore Simone and conducted around.
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He was tall, grey haired and spoke good English. I was introduced to Anna-Liza, to Roberto in the kitchen and his fiancee Norma, all were charming. Briefed by Humphrey on the Signore’s love of things technical. I enquired about his fast motorboat and was shown photos of the craft. It is a very powerful 34 footer with two x 240 horse power Fiat motors. He kept her in Portiglione on the west coast opposite Elba. She was obviously a very important part of Simone’s life although I gathered that his wife’s opinion of boats and time wasted thereon coincided with that of my own wife! I was shown his garage, cars and workshop, all crammed with odds and ends like my own, “that are sure to come in useful some time”.
Simone gave me a map of the City and marked my route to the Touring Club D’Italia where I would buy maps.
I found the Touring Club, bought the maps which were identical to those I had left in England. I then cruised round the City, past the old City walls, around the Duomo, the magnificent marble faced Cathedral and through narrow passages to the River Arno. A motor cycle was ideal for sightseeing as cars were frequently held up by traffic jams.
The Arno appeared muddy and sluggish with no hint of the ferocious river that flooded the city and my Contessa’s town house, some years ago.
I crossed the Arno by a modern looking bridge and had a look at the Ponta Vecchio with houses on its back.
Now half way through my 8 day holiday and with many miles to the south still ahead it was time to go for my third objective: to look for the farmhouse above a railway tunnel where I had been cared for by an old man and two old ladies for three days.
September 1943. Sleeping out on the mountains brought on a recurrence of a school time illness, pleurisy: every limb and joint ached and my legs would take me no farther.
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I remember that the railway below the farmhouse ran into a tunnel and was not far from Borgo San Lorenzo. One of the old ladies insisted on my reading the family Bible, a beautiful illuminated old book but written of course in Latin. She threatened to turn me over to the Germans in Borgo if I did not read!
September 1988 – Now almost exactly 45 years later I searched the map: there were several tunnels marked on the line from Borgo north-eastwards to Marradi so thither I went. No such combination of road and railway tunnel could I find so objective No. 3 also was a failure.
From Barradi I followed a mountainous little road S.E. to S. Bernedetto in Alpe and thence to Dicomano crossing, somewhere, my path of 1943. I was continually amazed that I could have walked and climbed all this way on mountain tracks in 1943 with minimal food and a glass bottle which I refilled whenever I met any spring or stream (infrequently in September as streams were dry and it was very hot).
The country brought back memories of familiar scenes but nothing specific as the views from the roads were inferior to those from the mountain tops.
From Dicomano I rode past M. Falterona of sweaty 1943 memories to Bibbiena and on by hundreds of ‘S’ bends across M. Penna to Pieve S. Stefano.
A mile beyond Pieve I turned off up a gravelly lane to Castelnuovo the home of dear Contessa Bianca Cavazza di Collachiori. This was my fourth objective. Mileage: 240.
The Contessa died several years ago. I was welcomed by her daughter and her husband, Pinetta and Marino Rocco Di Torrepadula. Forty five years ago I was introduced to Pinetta and Marino in the drawing room and to another young man, I think he was a son, both just home from the Italian Army. Pinetta has been sent to the back door to have a look at me as in those topsy-turvey dangerous days they thought that I might have been a German with ill intent.
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Castelnuovo had been pointed out to me the evening before from a tiny farmhouse away up the valley as being the home of the “Contessa Missi”, who spoke English: so down I came off M. Vavallo to meet this “Contessa Missi”. The Contessa Bianca explained in her beautiful English that “Contessa Missi” was their Scottish Governess for the children and had taught them all to speak English.
The Contessa Bianca had spent many happy holidays in Scotland with Scottish friends. Nanny was known as “Miss” in the family and Contessa Missi in the neighbourhood. She, poor thing, had been interned when Mussolini declared war in June 1940.
Pinetta spoke excellent English although she had never been to England, or Scotland.
I was invited to stay to supper and overnight, and lost no time in accepting.
I was the first of several British officers to call at Castelnuovo in the Autumn of 1943 and the Contessa had kept their names and addresses in the visitors book (with fictitious pre-war dates). But they were visited by Germans up from the Valley and they burned the visitors book before it could incriminate them.
Rumours of British escapees must have reached the Germans and a Fascisti reported having heard Pinetta listening to the B.B.C. So one fateful day a carload of German S.S. arrived and with much teutonic shouting and waving of pistols the household was bundled into the study for grilling.
They were all imprisoned in Pieve. When they were eventually released they found the house in ruins, just a heap of rubble: the Germans had mined it. With amazing vitality they rebuilt the house very much the same as it was before.
In 1943 they could not have been more kind or more practical. It would have been dangerous for them if I had stayed long and I felt their
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anxiety. For the young men, recently in the Army, the surrender, the death of Mussolini, their country now a bone to be fought over from South to North must all have been difficult to bear.
They gave me first a hot bath, my first since leaving the troop ship in Suez two and a half years before – what luxury! – then clean underclothes, shirt and woolly pullover that remained a favourite garment for many years. I was then sat down to a plate of sizzling bacon and eggs such as P.O.W.’s dream of. I was set on my travels again soon after, up the M. de Luna with money in my pocket and, most valuable of all, a tourist map of Italy which I still treasure – some tourist! With renewed vigour I climbed M. de la Luna in the clear autumn sunlight still scarcely able to believe that I had escaped and was free provisionally. I kept reminding myself that my freedom depended upon my alertness, in seeing danger before the danger saw me.
Back to September 9th 1988. Having slept well in a Victorian bedroom I took photographs after breakfast, promised to contact daughter Signorena Svera in London and said goodbye to Pinetta and Marino and to the little man who had been with them since boyhood: he was too small to be a fighting soldier but played his part as a stretcher-bearer. He had been serving on the Russian Front in 1943.
My escape route along the crests of the Appennines was clearly inaccessible by motor cycle, even if time had permitted, so I headed for the towns that I had seen down below me in 1943 and whose names are an indelible memory: Sansepolcro, Apecchio (a hamlet), Scheggia (village), Fabriano, Castelraimondo, and Camerino.
In passing through Gubbio I made a note that I must return and explore this lovely old town, one day, with its Roman ampitheatre and ancient architecture.
The country I motored through seemed familiar though I could not expect to recognise views that had been, in 1943, from the mountaintops. The
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broad valley with railway leading towards Fabriano brought back memories.
I wondered continually, as I rode along, how had I managed to thread my way in 1943 along and up and down the mountains, from one to the next, all of them covered, it seemed, in impenetrable pine forests. It occurred to me that at about this time of the year 45 years ago I had been an escaper free for just on a month, that the feelings of sharp amazement were by now beginning to wear off and I was becoming more ‘professional’ and learning to live as an individual making all my own decisions with no one to argue. My wife says that I am eccentric: I am sure that two months training in eccentricity as an escaped P.O.W. is the reason.
From Fabriano my road led south through Castelraimondo and Camerino, and on through Visso where in 1943 I was nearly cornered by Fascist Carabinieri – then across the ‘piano grande’ which I remember crossing on foot with relief after the continual slog in the mountains.
The great plain was, and still seems to be, deserted but for a few sheep. Incredible zig-zags led me down into Amatrice where in late afternoon sunshine I purchased bread, butter, fruit and ham and a bottle of wine at the village “Alimentari”.
From Amatrice I took a small and tortuous road close to my war time route and stopped by the roadside for a snack. Nearby was a copse of young oak trees. It looked so attractive, and as the sun was low in the West, that I decided to camp among the oaks. I lit my little gas stove and made a mug of hot Bovril, with bread, butter and ham to follow and, for dessert, peaches and grapes.
With a pile of dry oak leaves for a mattress I slept soundly: I kept my shoes on my feet, wrapping each in a plastic carrier-bag in order to avoid the pains of cramp while searching for and putting on the shoes. And – the good Lord be praised – the warmth, thus provided, cured the cramp!
Mileage this day, mostly on mountain roads was 250.
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Saturday 10th September 1988
I took the road before the orange sun rose over the eastern hills: 7.15 a.m. and it was cold!
Poggio Cancelli was the first village I drove through, by a large lake, and the road skirted the lake. I wondered why I had not remembered this lake from 1943 until on comparing with an old wartime map I realized that Lago di Campotosto and several others in the Abruzzo had been man-made since the war.
With six of my ten days holiday gone I was still some way from my target S. Pietro, beyond Cassino, so I pressed on along mountainous little roads between M. Mozzano, M. Stabiata and M. d’Aragno and M. Calvo past the ruins of Amiternum of the Abines where Sallust the Roman historian and friend of Caesar was born: alas I had no time to stop.
L’Aquila was the next town then on through Rocca di Mezzo, past il Piano di Pezza which I remember crossing on foot in 1943. The mountains were now bald, bereft of trees and in various shades of light brown and grey. The Piano was at an altitude of some 4,000 feet and covered by a light sheen of frozen mist.
It was very cold on the motor cycle; I could warm my left hand on the cylinder head but my right hand froze on the throttle. The road then descended tortuously through Celano to the Piano Del Fucino.
In 1943 I had been intrigued by the area of blue parallel lines running, on my road map, (the Contessa di Collachions’) due North and South and on gaining the crest near the hamlet of Bussi had seen this great plain below. Now in 1988 I descended, from Celano, a gulley full of pine trees.
The Piano was hazy with industrial smoke and I could only just make out the hills beyond. It was just the same as I remembered it, with crops growing or being harvested between the water ways but now it was spoiled by what looked like a petro-chemical plant belching smoke and steam. It took me and Moto Guzzi perhaps eight minutes at 60 m.p.h. to cross to the little town of Trasacco, where in 1943 it must have taken nearly three hot and vigilant hours. (I could see German military transport on the
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main road to Avezzano). About half-way across the Plane, in 1943, I was bitten in the leg by a farm dog and still bear the marks: he knew that I was no local!
The Piano Del Fucino was, in Caesar’s time, a Lake 65 feet deep. His plan to drain the lake was carried out by the Emperor Claudius. In eleven years a workforce of 30,000 made a tunnel 3 and a half miles long with 40 shafts at intervals draining into the The tunnel fell into disrepair in the next reign but was repaired by Trajan. Several attempts to re-open the tunnel were made from 1240 a.d. onwards but by 1852 the water level had risen to 30 feet above its original level.
In 1854-75 Prince Torlona, the great Roman banker, drained the lake at a cost of £1,700,000.
Moto Guzzi and I motored on between two mountain ranges to Villa Vallelonga. In 1943 I had met a party of Indian Army Soldiers also ex P.O.W. in the foothills. They slept in the village and moved out into the hills by day being fed by the buxom village girls who carried the midday meal in basins on their heads into the hills. 1943 – we could now hear the guns, away to the south, engaged in the battle for the Volturno river, some 40 miles away. The Indians spoke no English, and I no Urdu, so we conversed in the little Italian that we had picked up.
I pointed out the dangers of the battle field, surely approaching, and the rigours of winter in a war-torn country. Fifteen Indians came on with me. Also tagging along were an Italian Warrant Officer heading for his home in Naples and a young Italian Officer just commissioned from the Tank Training School in Turin: he was making for his home in Palermo.
Still Saturday 10th September 1988
I talked to two old men in Villa Vallelonga. They said that there was no track possible, even for a motor cycle over the M. de Rocca ahead, so I turned back down the valley, then westwards to Avezzano, now a big industrial town dominated by an atomic power station.
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Time did not permit me to travel the mountain roads close to my route with the Indians; I could but note on the map the familiar village names, Campoli, Alvito, Settefrati, M. della Meta, S. Biagio and Aguafondata.
So I took the main road (No. 82) through S. Vincenzo, Sora and Cassino.
I stopped for petrol in Sora and was speeding up on the outskirts of the town when there was much tooting on a horn some way behind: a small Fiat came rushing past the cars behind and drew level – in it were two young men with broad grins, one with arm extended handed me my Barclaycard! All I could do was shout “Molto Grazie”!
The monastery above Cassino shone white in the sunlight. Beyond Cervano I turned off too soon for S. Pietro and, realising my mistake, stopped in an open space to turn. I took a brief rest to eat some of the delicious grapes from my pannier.
A few miles farther on I turned off on to the tiny road to S. Pietro – my target at last! only to realise that my bedding roll was missing.
This loss of nocturnal freedom, and the tiresome thought of time wasted in and looking for hotels, was vexing: it then occurred to me that I would have noticed if the bedding roll had been missing at my stop for grapes back near Cervano so off I went back down the road looking for the bright blue of the ground sheet. Back at the ‘grape stop’ and no sign of the sleeping bags so I started back to S. Pietro as the roll might be 100 miles away. Passing a builders yard my eye glimpsed blue and at the same time two young men ran out waving madly: my bed roll and I were reunited and the men produced strong cord to secure it. Such kindness twice in one morning confirmed my love for the average Italian.
Now able to enjoy revisiting S. Pietro I parked the Guzzi by a ramshackle house at the foot of the village one of the very few houses still lived in. Two men emerged: they were home from work for their midday meal of
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vegetable soup with a little meat in it which they had heated on their wood fire. They offered me a share but it looked little enough for two working men so I declined but joined them in a glass of vino.
A big ‘boom’ went off from the direction of Cervano: it was exactly 12 o’clock and marked the commencement, they told me, of a Fiesta.
I knew that S. Pietro was a ruin but still felt sad that the picturesque little village of 1943 at the foot of M. Sambucano had been the scene of a long and destructive battle culminating in the bombing by the Americans of Monte Cassino Monastery. The village was a complete and deserted ruin with large pine trees growing up within its shattered walls.
I climbed the cobbled steps of the main street and looked into remains of windows remembering my night time visits in the war with the people crouching over shaded oil lamps and cooking on small charcoal fires – and the battle lines only a mile or two away.
The fine old church with its dome was still standing but its eastern wall was blown out.
Although short of food themselves the villagers of 1943 had found food for our foraging parties that crept down to them at night.
Our little party of Indians and the two Italians lived in the mountain above S. Pietro from 29th September 1943 to October 5th watching the battle as the allies crept slowly towards us. Our food was mainly bread and dried figs and the cattle, sheep and goats were tethered among the scrubby trees away from the marauding Germans.
1988 – I intended to climb M. Sambucano with my camera to take ‘photos of the stupendous view I remembered; from the glimmer of the Adriatic in the East along the River Volturno battle lines to Mount Vesuvius, smoking, in the south 50 miles away, to German engineers laying mines and ripping up the Rome to Naples railway line to Giaeta and Capri and the glittering
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Mediterranean to the south-west and to Monte Cassino over my right shoulder. Perhaps I might find the heliograph, amongst the rocks on the summit, that I made from a broken mirror in an unsuccessful attempt to set up a forward observation post (very forward!).
I started climbing the mountain at about 1 p.m. with the sun at its zenith. The first part of the climb was up and over little terraces of stone walls and stony soil recently cultivated; then up through scrubby slopes that had been burned off leaving blackened bushes that looked like small oaks. By the time I reached the bare rocky mountain side I looked like a charcoal maker.
By now I was carrying most of my clothing but with protection against sunburn and was thankful for a gentle breeze.
After two hours climbing, by 3 p.m., with stops more and more frequently to calm the heart thumping, I seemed to be only halfway to the top, and surrendered to the mountain.
Even from here the view was magnificent although limited by haze.
I took a round of photographs and started back down to Buscoli.
The standpipe and tap at the top end of the village still gave water, rusty at first then clear as crystal and cool.
On my way down through the ruins I was surpised by a dapper young man with a super cine camera photographing a demure young couple who, he told me were just Findanzato, so I was able to wish them ‘buona Fortuna’.
With my final objective achieved, if only partly, it was time to ‘high tail’ for home.
I gained the motorway, Orte, for Rome thinking that I would take the coast road north of Rome. My map did not show the latest Orte bypass
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and I found that the evening sun was on my right instead of left so – about turn – and change of plan. I would try once more to contact the priest of Bruscoli.
The Orte Rome-Firenze-Bologna-Milano was my quickest way home. I stopped at the Orte service station in Umbria for petrol and had supper – a fat ham omelette as usual, in the comfortable and spotlessly clean restaurant. Returning to the car park I asked a dark-skinned family, around a nearby car, if perchance they had a ‘cavatappi’ (corkscrew) to uncork the bottle of wine purchased in Amatrice. They were of Dutch East Indian origin and returning from holiday to Amsterdam: father shook his head but the elder son leapt forward and with a screw driver pushed the cork into the bottle. So I had to climb the stairs to the restaurant again where the Senorina had a lovely smile but was unable to produce another cork. I had to make do with an ill fitting plastic cap. The vino was excellent and well worth the trouble.
It was dark as I bypassed Firenze and too late to visit the priest so I turned off the Orte onto the by road for Bruscoli. Just short of the little town of Barbarrino I found a quiet field for the night.
Mileage for the day was 450 the greatest so far but over half of it was covered on the Orte at 60-70 mph.
The night was clear and cool with a heavy dew and I and my well covered feet slept soundly.
Sunday, 11th September 1988
Next morning I was back in Bruscoli by 8.45 a.m. and rang the bell at the door next to the church. A young priest appeared and I enquired after the old priest who had been so kind in the war.
The young priest was glancing at his watch as elderly villagers were walking up to the church for the 9 o’clock Sunday Service. The old priest was living in a ‘Convitto Eclesiastico’ in Florence. I noted his address and the young priest promised to telephone him. Mons. Elio
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Ballini, and send my best wishes. I left money to cover the gift received in 1943 plus suitable interest and proceeded on my way.
Bypassing Bologna on the Orte I was tempted to search again for Loro Francesco and his family but I had been away from home for 8 days so I sped on back up the Po valley to Milan and onwards by Lucerne and Basel over the Alps.
The several tunnels through the Alps were wonderful except for the long one beneath the St Gothard. This tunnel seemed to go on and on for ever becoming hotter and hotter like Dantes’ inferno and more and more fume laden.
The traffic did not slacken its pace; the car drivers with their air-conditioning were alright but when we eventually emerged into sunlight my eyes were streaming.
The lovely Swiss mountains, green valleys and chalets entranced this my first visit.
Now into France, through Mulhouse I stopped unsure of my road in the little town of Thann.
While awaiting my customary ham omelette and cafe au lait in the estaminet I made a very quick phone call home.
Black clouds were gathering in the dusk outside and it started to drizzle.
I asked for a room for the night but alas the Hotel was full.
If I had mentioned Thann to Margaret in that phone call I could have spent a comfortable night with our friends the Binder family. They were pre-war friends of Margaret’s and their children had spent summer holidays with us.
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Margaret did not recognize my pronunciation Mull-House – in French Moul-ouse!
So I continued my journey now in darkness. The clouds rolled away and I found a nice quiet spot to camp.
My camp site was just beyond a canal, crossed by a wartime Bailey bridge with gravel pits full of water nearby.
I had a good night, hardly disturbed by the croaking of a heron nearby.
Mileage this day was 580, mostly on the Orte.
I avoided the motorways in France as I found the old main roads excellent, and very little traffic and plenty of interesting sights.
Monday, 12th September, 1988
My route was Epinal, Nancy and beside the Marne to Chalon and on to Reims. Here I drove round this magnificent Cathedral, parked on the cobblestones outside and spent an hour enthralled within.
The Cathedral suffered terrible bombardment and bombing in holding off the German offensives of 1914 and 1918. Many of the great windows are now of plain glass or of modern unattractive glass in pastel shades which do however enhance the superb deep colours of the original stained glass.
On to Soissons on the R. Aisne where I walked round the ruins of the Abbey of St Jean-de-Vignes where Thomas a Beckett resided, and where Pippin the Short was crowned King by St Boniface.
In 923 A.D. Soissons under Charles the Simple was sacked by Rudolph of Burgundy, burned by Hugh the Great in 948, captured and recaptured during the 100 years war, sacked by Charles V in 1544, and again in 1565 by the Huguenots. In 1814 Soissons was captured by the allies and
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retaken by Napoleon. In 1870 it was bombarded for 3 days by the Germans and once more captured by the Germans and retaken by the Allies in 1918.
I arrived back at Le Havre, with several hours to spare awaiting the night ferry, by way of Compeign, Beauvais past vast fields of stubble, and Rouen. Mileage: 390.
Aboard ship I ate a large and excellent plate full of beef stew, changed my money, bought some duty free spirits and retired to a bunk and oblivion to a rough crossing.
Breakfast was with Morwenna and grandson Teddy in her wee house in Titchfield: then to school with Teddy riding pillion on the Guzzi.
In the afternoon I drove to Buster’s school by the sea in Christchurch Bay.
He, aged 10, was playing centre forward in a soccer game. He had three good shots at the opposing goal and succeeded with the third. Buster showed me round the school before I left for home.
I was lucky in avoiding a drenching on this the last lap of my journey: thunder clouds and squalls of rain were all around.
Total mileage for the trip: 3,300.
My holiday on the continent had been warm and sunny all the time and I enjoyed the open countryside and almost traffic free roads such as one rarely finds now in England.
I made a resolution to visit Italy again next September, with Margaret, to search out the Francesco family, to see Mons Elio Ballini in Florence, to find the farmhouse by the railway tunnel above Borgo S. Lorenzo and to get to the top, somehow, of M. Sambucaro.
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[photograph of Via Caserine in Roccafluvione. In my dad’s address book, Angela Bianchini’s address is listed as Caserine N118, Roccafluvione, Ascoli Piceno. I had hoped to identify the farm where my dad and Ben Farley stayed on this road, but the house numbers had changed over time.]
[Handwritten note at the top says See photo descriptions on separate sheet]
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[photograph of View from Via Caserine. It rained heavily the day we visited the village.]
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[photograph of Marino Palmoni is interviewed by Filippo Ierano at Anne and David’s home.]
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[photograph of Marino and Antonello Palmoni show Filippo Ierano and Ian McCarthy photos and letters related to the escaped prisoners the Palmoni family protected. The American servicemen, Luther Shields and Louis VanSlooten, have keep in contact with the Palmoni’s since the war. Luther returned to visit them in 1983. Both Luther and Louis are alive, and I am in touch with Luther’s daughter Cindy Jackson and Louis’ son Tom VanSlooten.]
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[photograph of The Palmoni home in Montefalcone (now owned by a British couple). Escaped servicemen hid in their stable and in caves in the rocky cliff above the house.]
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[photograph of The stable in the ground floor of the Palmoni house. During the winter, Luther and Louis hid in the niche beneath the stairwell and straw was piled over them so they would not be seen if the house was searched.]
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[photograph of Caves atop the cliffs near the Palmoni home. From left to right are: Marino Palmoni, Anne Copley, Mark Randolph, Steve Dickinson (holding the camera) and Aat van Rijn.]
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[photograph of View from the cliff above the Palmoni home.]
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[photograph of We all have a delicious meal at a restaurant after our tour of the old Palmoni home.]
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[photograph of Sign at the entrance to the site of Camp 59 – Il Parco della Pace, “the Park of Peace.”]
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[photograph of A crumbling wall of the former camp infirmary. Lush vegetation covered nearly all of the walls of the camp, so in some places the walls looked more like hedges than stone.]
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[photograph of A vine-covered wall of the camp and the landscape beyond.]
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[photograph of Near the infirmary.]
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[photograph of Our tour group poses for a photo by the escape “hole.” The couple in sunglasses joined the tour—I don’t know their names. Otherwise, we are (left to right): Aat van Rijn, Anne Copley, Ian McCarthy, me (Dennis Hill), Steve Dickinson, Filippo Ierano, and Mark Randolph. David Runciman took the photo.]
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[photograph of I am in a doorway of the infirmary.]
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[photograph of The Servigliano train station just outside the camp wall.]
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[photograph of On a street outside the camp wall.]
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[photograph of Aat picked these apples just outside the camp.]
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[photograph of A delicious salad—featuring the apples—that Aat made the evening of our camp visit.]
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[photograph of We enjoy the apple-salad first course of our meal. Aat is Anne and Davids housekeeper. He also is a gourmet cook and a painter, whose canvases are displayed on the walls of the house.]
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[photograph of Steve Dickinson at the camp. He is holding his uncle’s camp diary.]
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[photograph of Robert Dickinson kept this diary, titled “Servigliano Calling,” from the date of his capture by the Germans until six months before his death (November 23, 1941 to September 3, 1944). Robert arrived at Camp 59 on January 18, 1942, and a year later—on January 24, 1943—he was transferred to Camp 53 in Sforzacosta. In carrying “Servigliano Calling” with him to the camp, Steve was allowing the book to come full circle—to the place of its origin and where most of it had been written.]
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[photograph of Steve is interviewed by Ian McCarthy and Filippo Ierano.]
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[photograph of Anne Bewick-Copley and husband David Runciman—very sweet people.]
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[photograph of David and Anne in sunglasses with my partner Mark on a lovely day of touring.]
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[photograph of More stunning Marche landscape. I am eager to return as soon as possible.]
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[photograph of My father Armie J Hill]
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[photograph of My Mom and Dad. October 1999]
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