Felice Domenick Rocco, known in the U.S. Army as Phil Vacca, was captured in January 1943 and taken to Camp P.G. 59. The camp had a large prison population, most of which later escaped when an agreement was reached between the Camp’s Medical Officer and the Italian Officer in charge of the camp on 22nd September 1943. Felice managed to escape the camp before this agreement on 14th September, though the details of this escape are entirely unknown. After escaping the camp, Felice walked with four other Americans and found a safe haven with the Virgili family who took him into their care from 17th September 1943 until 3rd July 1944. In July 1944, he made it back through to the British lines and later returned to the US. At home, Felice had the honour of carrying out Guard Duties at Washington and it was here that he met Denise, who he would marry upon being discharged from the Army.
Felice’s experiences are pieced together in this account by his son, Mario Vacca, using his father’s memories alongside details of the wider events of the war. Correspondence between Mario and Keith Killby regarding the writing of Felice’s account of the war are also included.
Please note that the first version is the original scanned version of the memoir. Scroll down below the original version to find the transcribed version in plain text.
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[handwritten text] Rocco Felice Alias Vacca Phil
Felice Domenick Rocco, known in the U.S. Army as Phil Vacca
Researched and put together by Mario Vacca who, together with two brothers, visited Servigliano Camp with K.K. [Keith Killby] to Giuseppe Mallozzi 2001.
Copy of note of thanks to Virgili family at Monte San Martino with whom he lived at a family members from 13th September 1943 to 3rd July 1944. In Italian with translation by K.K. [Keith Killby]
Many good pictures of Camp at Servigliano area
Some taken by another brother in 1968 (when doing Military Service in Italy)
Also copies of a leaflet dropped asking Italians to help P.O.W. for compensation money
Summary of what happened as many caught at Armistice 8th September 1943.
Also has story of Pete? An English P.O.W.
Correspondence with Mario Vacca (Jon)
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[Photograph of a letter confirming the Virgili’s had helped Phil]
[letter translation] Monte San Martino – July 3, 1944.
From September 13, 1943 until today, July 3, 1944, we, the family of Sergio Virgili – son of Settimio, assisted the undersigned in the community of Monte San Martino, province of Macerata, Marche.
P.F.C. Felice Vacca 12011751 U.S. Army
[web address – link broken]
Harold was captured shortly after 13th June which was the latest date recorded in his pay book. He told me that they were in the desert close to Tobruk and ran out of fuel. I am assuming, now that I’ve read of Operation Battleaxe, Harold and his tank crew were amongst those cut off by Rommel’s troops. The only option left to them was to wait with the tank to be either rescued by friendly forces or captured by the enemy. The enemy were the first to arrive so they abandoned the tank and set fire to it.
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[handwritten text] Definitive account, Jan 2005
Felice Domenick Rocco: The accounts of his capture and escape during WWII
Felice, known as Phil, was born in America on October 5 1919. Phil’s father was an Italian immigrant. His name, as it appears on his immigration papers, is Dominick Angelo Antonio Rocco. However, Phil’s grandfathers name was also Felice Dominick Vacca. I’m not certain why the Rocco name, where it came from, or why it appears on a legal immigration document. Phil’s mothers name was Jeanette Linico. She was born in the U.S. to Italian immigrants. Phil grew up in a home that spoke Italian – a skill that would become very useful later in life. Phil had a sister who was a year younger than him, Angelina. He also had a first cousin, Bucky, who must have been more like a friend and big brother to Phil.
He never shared much of his childhood experiences with us. I don’t think it was the happy childhood one would expect. He did have a favourite toy as a child, a horse figurine cast in bronze. He found it somewhere. It was a detached figurine from a discarded table lamp. The horse is something his sister would keep over thirty-seven years before returning it to him. Phil used to tell us that when he was a kid, he and his friends use to scrape up a nickel and go and see a movie. They would always stay for the second showing. After the movie started they would make a ruckus and get booted out. They were summarily refunded their money, only to return to see another movie next week. Phil also delivered newspapers. His daily route would take him by the famous Lindbergh house during that most famous kidnapping [Lindbergh Kidnapping, March 1932. The case of Charles Lindbergh Jr., 20 month old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, who was abducted in New Jersey. His body was later discovered nearby]. By the time he was seventeen, Phil joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). While in the CCC, he worked hard and earned enough money to open a savings account and buy some land.
Later, during his service in the war, when he became listed as ‘missing in action’ his sister and mother took his property and cleaned out his bank account. To add insult to injury, upon his return, his mother, wanting his life insurance money said to him, ‘We would have been better off if you had never returned.’ He never spoke to his mother again. He failed to attend his mother’s funeral and didn’t speak to his sister for some thirty-three years. It was by coincidence that a contracting company from Philadelphia, Franklin Engineering, would work at the plant where Phil was. From the contractor Phil learned of another Vacca family that also worked for Franklin Engineering. A meeting was arranged for Phil to meet the Philadelphia Vacca’s. That trip also brought him back home for a final visit in May of 1981. That was the first time he and his sister spoke in thirty seven years.
Over the years, we were told lots of small stories – the lead up to his capture, his treatment as a POW, and how the Italian people had sacrificed so much to help him. He was a hero, but he never acted like it. As life went on, and memories faded, he seemed a broken man; not the proud and feisty person once pictured before and just after the war. The experience of being captured at the beginning of the greatest war ever fought, humiliated and mistreated by his ‘own’ people – the hurt took its toll. He would often break into tears when he talked about the experiences. It was only later in life that he found out about the EX-POW organization. The EX-POW organization allowed him to open up and tell his story. He became friends with others who had suffered similar fates.
It has always been a mystery to me how my dad actually escaped. After reaching the American lines, he signed a non-disclosure statement, vowing never to tell the details of the escape. Years later, he would write the Department of the Army asking for permission to disclose those details. Permission was denied. It only added more to the mystery and my desire to know how it happened.
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September 1939. The U.S. Army ranked seventeenth in the world in size and combat power, just behind Romania. When the German divisions conquered Western Europe nine months later, the War Department reported that it could field just five divisions. The build up of the armed forces was likened to ‘the reconstruction of a dinosaur around an ulna and three vertebrae.’ That task had started with the 16 million men who registered for the draft in the fall of 1940. Equipment and weaponry were pathetic. Soldiers trained with drainpipes for antitank guns, stovepipes for mortar tubes, and brooms for rifles. [i]
[Colour portrait photograph of PFC Felice Rocco, smiling at the camera, in full U.S. Army uniform]
[Black and white photograph of PFC Battista Linico in full U.S. Army uniform]
Felice Domenick Rocco (Vacca) and his cousin, Battista (Bucky) Linico, enlisted in the U.S. Army at the US Post Office in Trenton, on January 3, 1941 under the Buddy System. The United States would not declare war until December 11 of that year. ‘Jobs were scarce,’ and Phil was paid $21 a month. When he enlisted, he figured there may be a war as ‘the Germans were taking over a lot of countries.’ They were sent to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York for training. Both became members of the 1st Division, 18th Infantry, Company A. The First Division was scattered across the country and was reorganized with the 16th, 18th and 26th Infantry at Fort Devens, MA. Phil was at Fort Devens when Pearl Harbour was attacked. The winter and spring of 1942 were spent first in Camp Blanding, Florida, next to Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of that time was spent practicing boat landings. From there they went on to Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, Pennsylvania. They then boarded a train to New York City.[ii]
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[Black and white photograph of Felice aiming a Browning automatic rifle] Felice practicing with the B.A.R.
[Black and white photograph of a group of soldiers advancing across a river. The caption reads ‘Behind a smokescreen, engineers cross the Wateree River and establish bridgehead in Carolina war games’] Picture found in Phil’s memorabilia
Roosevelt had had enough. The time had come to end the protracted stalemate and get on with the war. After informing both Churchill and his own military advisers on July 25th that he intended to invade North Africa, he slammed the door on further discussion. At 8:30P.M. on Thursday, July 30th, he summoned his lieutenants to the White House and announced that he was commander-in-chief – his decision was final. North Africa was ‘now principal objective.’ The African offensive was to occur ‘at the earliest possible date,’ preferably within two months.[iii]
On August 2nd 1942, the 1st Division boarded the Queen Mary for England.[ii] Craps was the game of choice while en route [A dice game which involves players making wagers on the outcome of the roll, or series of rolls, of a pair of dice]. They disembarked in Scotland. The troops continued practice manoeuvres in Salisbury, England. Phil remembers passing through Stonehenge during one of these manoeuvres. He later joked that he got to pee on Stonehenge.[iv]
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On September 5, the final decision was made to attempt landings at three sites in Morocco and at half a dozen beaches around Algiers and Oran. ‘Please make it before election day,’ Roosevelt asked Marshall. In this, the president would be disappointed. Various delays intruded, and on September 21, Eisenhower fixed the invasion date for Sunday morning, November 8, five days after the U.S. congressional elections.[v]
[Italicised text] The troop ships left England and headed for North Africa, but not before going to Greenland and across the equator in an attempt to fool German reconnaissance.[ii]
Sunday, November 8, The First Division landed at a place called Arzew in Algeria and took part in the invasion of North Africa. Driving 9,000 French defenders into a bowl twenty miles in diameter. Terry Alien and a larger portion of his 1st Division descended on Oran from the sandstone hills above St. Cloud, a key crossroads east of the city.[vi] At 3:30p.m., the battalion attacked once more down the road from Renan, joined by the 2nd Battalion trying to outflank the defenders on the south. Long, smoky ribbons of French machine gun fire lashed the grapevines, killing the Company A first sergeant with a bullet in the forehead and mortally wounding the commander in the throat.[vii]
[Italicised text] Upon landing, it was necessary to give the correct sign to avoid friendly fire (the countersign was HI HO Silver – Away). Failing to respond correctly had dire consequences. One soldier got shot for failing to do so. The bullet lodged in his B.A.R. ammunition belt. It saved the soldiers life. The Army had trained Phil well. He was an excellent marksman with a B.A.R. and a 45-caliber pistol. ‘I had a chance to take out a French soldier. We had been told the French would not fight, so I decided not to fire. Later, a sniper positioned in a bell tower had us pinned down. I used my B. A. R. and painted a cross with several rounds across the snipers window. The sniper was never heard from again. We spent one night in a cemetery. That was the scariest night of my life.’[viii] The First then proceeded to St. Cloud and onto the Tunisian front.
December 22, 1942. Prodded by Eisenhower, Anderson sent word to Algiers that the Allied offensive would resume on the night of December 23-24. By then, enough supplies could be stockpiled at the Tunisian railhead for a week of hard fighting, and a full moon would light the way. Evelegh’s 78th Division, with American help, would secure the left flank on the high ground above Medjerda, while the British 6th Armoured Division, just arrived from Britain, blasted through to Tunis on the southern lip of the Medjerda valley.
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‘This means a most un-Christian Christmas, but perhaps this will be forgiven in view of all the facts,’ Anderson told the commander-in-chief. He agreed with Eisenhower that the Allies could not allow ‘passive acceptance of a strong Hun bridgehead,’ although he put the odds of seizing Tunis at ‘not more than 50-50, I think. But it is also certainly not an impossible task. Far from it. With good planning and execution, stout hearts and fair weather, we will do our utmost to gain success. If we deserve God’s help, we will gain it.’[ix]
At the same time, Anderson urged Eisenhower to keep his eye fixed on Tunis. Several schemes had floated from Allied Forces Headquarters for operations in southern Tunisia; none would contribute to the paramount objective of capturing the capital and severing the Axis lifeline to Italy. First Army was already “Jiving hand to mouth, with reserves temporarily exhausted,” Anderson warned, and he planned to throw 80 percent of his strength into the Christmas eve offensive. “The essence of any plan,” he advised Eisenhower, “must be to concentrate maximum strength at the chosen point of attack.[x]
Before launching his offensive, Anderson first had to capture an annoying German outpost on an annoying Tunisian hill six miles down the Medjerda valley from Medjez-el-Bab. Djebel el Ahmera had been seized by Fischer’s men after the debacle at Bordj Tourn bridge. Two miles long and 800 feet high, the hogback ridge appeared to have been welded at the right angle onto the prevailing hill mass: it jutted into the valley within a few hundred yards of the river, creating a bottleneck at the gap where Highway 50 and the rail line to Tunis passed. The British named the hill Longstop, a cricket term. [In cricket, a Longstop is a fielding position behind the wicket-keeper intended to catch any balls that the wicket-keeper misses – a suitable name for a hill that would likely hinder the success of an offensive if not captured first]
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[map of Tunis in colour, connected to a black and white picture of Hill position 609]
[Black and white picture of Hill position 609. The annotation of this picture reads ‘Hill numbers designate height in metres above sea level; 609 metres = 1998 feet]
[map of Tunisia in colour, connected to the more detailed map of Tunis and the picture of Hill 609 above, to illustrate the location of the German occupied outpost]
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Longstop offered omniscience. From its crest, nothing in the Medjerda valley could move undetected – not a rabbit, not a man, certainly not a tank. Scented with thyme, covered with heather and scrub juniper, the hill had a dark and forbidding mien even in sunlight. It was so rocky as to seem bony, with powdery soil that covered a climber as flour covers a miller. Although modest in height, Longstop was intricately complex, with a thousand secret folds and dips. Olive groves bearded the lower flanks; a few gum trees stood sentinel on the crest. One British officer considered the terrain ‘so foul, broken, blasted, and inhospitable that the Devil himself was surely the principal agent in its creation.’ Longstop exemplified why another officer called Tunisia ‘a country of defiles.’
Had the British spent less time execrating the hill and more time studying it, subsequent events might have been different. For two critical errors preceded the attack by the 2nd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. First, Allied intelligence believed the hill was held by a single German company with four to eight machine guns; in fact, enemy strength approached a battalion and included three companies from the 69 Panzer Grenadier Regiment commanded by Colonel Rudolf Lang, another sinewy veteran of Eben Emael.
[long shot, black and white photograph of Hill 609] Hill 609, the main objective in the Sidi Nsir region, was finally captured 1 May 1943 by the 34th Division
[close up, black and white picture of Hill 609] Another View of Hill 609
Worse yet, the British had misread both ground and map. Longstop was actually two hills: Djebel el Ahmera dominated the main crest, separated by a ravine from the slightly lower Djebel el Rhar to the northeast. To capture one without the other was to capture neither. This second knoll was unseen by British reconnaissance, which was conducted by telescope at a distance of seven miles. Even so, Djebel el Rhar was plainly marked on Allied maps, and infantrymen had rambled across the hills for two weeks in November and early December. ‘We failed to realise its tactical importance,’ the Coldstreams later acknowledged. The error proved most unfortunate.[xi]
As required by the unwritten rules of military calamity, the initial attack went well. Nearly a week of fine weather had dried the ground and lifted spirits. The Coldstreams were keen to close with the enemy in their first fight since Dunkirk, where two and a half years earlier, they tramped forward in bright moonlight that filtering through scudding clouds. At 11:15 P.M., on Tuesday, December 22, a barrage by sixteen British guns confirmed the Allied assault that Luftwaffe reconnaissance had detected earlier for the Germans. For fifteen minutes, the artillery barked. Muzzle flashes reddened the olive leaves and white smoke spiralled up like spun moonbeams where the shells struck Longstop’s crest. Then the cannonade lifted, and four Coldstream companies pushed off.
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An undefended column on the northwest face of the hill fell immediately. The crest proved tougher. A sudden constellation of German flares was followed by machine-gun bursts and grenades that cascaded down the slope. Slipping on the scree and shooting from the hip, the Coldstreams scrambled toward the top even as a company commander and sergeant major fell dead. German pickets from the green 754th Infantry Regiment counterattacked with bayonets and then scuttled back through the heather with a few parting shots. Coldstreams followed. The terrain was so jumbled that some tried to navigate by the stars glimpsed behind the thickening clouds before digging in among the rocks. On the right flank of the hill, next to Highway 50, another Coldstream company seized a rail station known as the Halt and then promptly lost it to a German counterattack.
No matter: the Coldstreams held the high ground, including the highest at Point 290. All major objectives on Longstop had been taken in two hours. The Coldstream commander chose not to bring forward his reserve company or to re-attack the Halt. Soon, as planned, an American battalion from Terry Alien’s 1st Infantry Division would arrive to relieve the Coldstreams, who would get a day’s rest in Medjez before joining the main attack down the valley.
Officers set their command post beside a small white mosque on Longstop’s south face. Word arrived that the Yanks were making their way up the hill, slowly. Occasional mortar rounds gave way to silence broken only by the raspy whispers of British sergeants and the chink of entrenching tools in the bony ground. Djebel el Rhar squatted in the darkness, unseen and not sensed, 800 yards beyond Point 290. Rain began to fall.[xii]
An hour passed, then two. The moon set, the darkness deepened, the rain intensified. Finally, at three A. M. on December 23, the sound of the American challenge and countersign carried up the hill in stage whispers: ‘Brooklyn?’ ‘Dodgers.’ ‘Brooklyn?’ ‘Dodgers.’ A Coldstream sergeant shushed the newcomers as they emerged from the gloom. Bulling through the waist-high heather, each GI was as wet as if he had fallen into a lake. The Americans, one Tommy complained, always seemed as noisy as ‘Blackpool beach on a summer Sunday afternoon.’
The relief in combat of one battalion by another is difficult for kindred units in daylight and fine weather; between strangers of different nationalities at night in a downpour, the task is infinitely harder. The British guides posted to intercept the American companies either missed them completely or were uncertain where they should go. The commander of the 151 Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. York, lost his way near the Halt and was pinned down by enemy machine-gun fire. He eventually stumbled into the Coldstream command post near the white mosque, but with his staff officers still wandering the night and 800 of his infantrymen scattered across the hill. At 4:30A.M., their duty done as they defined it, the Coldstreams decamped. Back through Medjez-el-Bab they hiked in squelching boots, sleepless and hungry. A thousand men sang ‘Good King Wenceslas’ as they marched.[xiii]
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Dawn on Longstop revealed the full peril of the American battalion. Half the hogback remained in German hands. The Coldstreams had abandoned several forward positions before American troops arrived, and enemy soldiers quickly reoccupied them. They were told by the British that only a few Wehrmacht troops remained to be mopped up. Colonel York learned from enemy prisoners that in fact an entire battalion of panzer grenadiers invested Longstop, with reinforcements coming. Flashes of field gray and occasional coal-scuttle helmet could be glimpsed among the boulders to the east.[xiv]
[italicised text] Phil Remembers; ‘on the night of 22 December 1942 we climbed up the mountain to take our position. At which time we put up a battle on the morning of 23 December 1942. The Germans, Afrika Korps were waiting for us.’[ii]
The enemy struck. ‘They just appeared out of nowhere,’ Captain lrving Yarock later recalled. Panzer grenadiers on the right flank near the Halt surrounded Company A, which in the night had become separated from the rest of the 1st Battalion. Grenadiers built fire lanes with their mortar and machine-gun fire, paring away and destroying one piece of company at the time before starting on another wedge. One American officer and thirteen enlisted men escaped death or capture.[xv]
[italicised text] A sergeant wanting Phil’s shooting position made him move – moments later, he saw the sergeant get killed in that very spot. During that battle he also witnessed his cousin, Bucky, get killed. Bucky’s mother would receive news by telegram that he was killed in action in the ‘Western European Area.’ Bucky was 38 years old.[ii]
[italicised text] At about 7:30 or 8:00A.M in the morning on December 23, 1942 Phil became a POW. He remembers that the weather was cloudy and misty in the mountains of Tunisia, the hill called Longstop, later renamed Hill 609.[ii]
[italicised text] In Phil’s words, ‘Of our Company of roughly 250 men, half to two thirds were gone. Upon orders of the Captain most of the men surrendered. In our platoon, I was the gunner with the B.A.R. rifle. My squad sergeant was killed in the action. Before he was killed, he ordered me to move to another spot. Upon my capture, I dislodged the trigger mechanism, which fell apart and could not be used. I did have two hand grenades in my overcoat pocket. I gave them to the German soldier who handled them very carefully.’[ii] The German also threw my bipod for my B.A.R. well out of reach. It weighed around 15 lbs.[xvi]
Ralph Hoag’s story was similar, ‘We attacked at night, took the hill and found our unit was isolated when dawn came. Though a Corporal, I was the rifle squad leader due to the illness of our Sergeant. After several hours of rifle and grenade fire, low on ammunition and with several casualties, we surrendered.’[xvii]
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Along the crest, German gunfire rattled ‘like a boy drumming a stick along an endless iron fence,’ wrote a chronicler. Brown mortar smoke foamed over ridges ‘leaping with light’ from enemy artillery. Rock splinters sliced the eyes and noses of men unable to dig in more than a few inches. Shell fire severed telephone wire; messengers dispatched from the battalion command post simply vanished. ‘The mud would foul your rifle after a few clips, and you’d throw it down and crawl around hollering for another rifle,’ Sergeant Charles C. Perry of Company C said. ‘There were extra rifles–by the dozens–after the first day and night of Longstop.’[xviii]
Pinned in a cactus patch a thousand yards behind his Company B, York pleaded for artillery counter fire. British gunners responded slowly, uncertain of the Yank positions and hampered by the incompatibility of British and American radio. A few shells finally detonated in delicate white puffs that reminded an observer of ‘a gigantic white chrysanthemum.’ Hardly deterred, the Germans, by three P.M., had seized all positions held before the original Coldstream attack, including Point 290. By last light, the 1st Battalion had edged back into defensive positions on Longstop’s west and south faces. [xix]
[italicised text] ‘The Captain of our company was Jewish. After being captured, we managed to lose his dog tags – otherwise, the Germans would have treated him differently.[xx] We were ordered to march in a group to the city of Tunis. We were herded into a large barn. The German Major who was there said to us, ‘We are going to lose the war but we are going to make it hell for you.’ The German Major had gone to college in Montana and still had a girlfriend there. We received no food the night of 23 December, 1942. On the 24th December, we were interrogated by the German officers. Questions asked were ‘When did we leave the USA? How many men were in the outfit, etc.’ The Germans knew more about the war then we did. They told us – when, where, and the dates of our leaving the USA. Our meal that night consisted of bread and jelly.’[ii]
Ralph Hoag’s, also of A Company 18th Infantry Regiment 1st Infantry Division, fate was very similar, ‘We were made to leave our wounded behind and instead made to carry German wounded to the rear. I was interrogated in Tunis by a German who had been a butcher in Chicago and returned to fight for the fatherland. In Tunis, on Christmas day, I was put into the anchor chain locker of an Italian destroyer which made the run to Palermo, Sicily. I spent a month at Campo 98, cold and with little food, before being moved to Campo 59, Servigliano, Italy.[xxi]
[italicised text] ‘Our Company Commander, a Captain, was taken with us to Tunis. That was the last we saw of him. He was flown to Germany. All soldiers and non-coms were with us. It was assumed all officers were taken to a camp of their own for special interrogation. The difference in rank had no effect on me. At the time of our capture, they told us our family would be notified. At that time, the Germans made a recording, having each soldier give his name and state that he was from the front lines. There were gun sounds in the background.’[ii]
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[map of Italy in colour, showing Tunis, Palermo, Foggia, Rome and P.G. 59]
[italicised text] ‘The Germans split the captured prisoners. Although we were captured by the Germans, we were handed over to the Italians. The Germans flew theirs to Germany and the Italians took theirs to Italy. We were loaded on an Italian destroyer and taken to Palermo, Sicily, arriving there late that same night. To the Germans, we were soldiers. To the Italians, we were traitors. As we disembarked, the Italian soldiers had to keep the Italian people away. Our names were called out as walked down the gangplank. The Italian mob was jabbing their fingers trying to hit us in the eyes and spit on us as they heard our names being called. Us, being of Italian descent, did not agree with them. They shouted, ‘COM e combattete la vostra propria anima!’ (You come and fight against your own blood!) At Palermo, they placed us in a riding stable and we were checked out by a doctor. On December 25, 1942, we had soup for Christmas dinner.’[ii]
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[italicised text] ‘When we arrived in Palermo, we received orders that all those of Italian decent will be sent to Rome for interrogations. We were later taken by truck to Camp P. G. 98 near Monreale, Sicily. It was out in the country near a mountain pass about 20 km from Palermo. Camp P.G. 98 had tents about 75 to 100 feet long and 30 feet wide. There were two tents per one unit with about 2 feet space between them. There was no heat. The beds were made of wood frames, double deckers with straw mattresses. Food was rice soup with a slice of bread. The latrine was an open pitstyle. Wire enclosed the camp.[ii] Sometimes, the tents were blown down by the high winds in the mountain pass. The conditions were very poor, with dysentery, lice and malnutrition. Some POWs ate grass and others fought each other when ‘food’ was distributed. The camp was visited by Red Cross officials in February or March 1943 but they did not contact the POWs. The POWs were bedraggled, except for a British RSM whose boots were always spick and span despite the mud in the camp.’[xxii]
[italicised text] ‘In January of 1943, we were taken by passenger car to Rome, Camp P. G. 50. Approximately twenty of us American-Italians spent about a month there being interrogated. The questions they asked were the same as before (and they already had the answers to them). There was a German planted in among us who spoke American English quite fluently. The interrogators were an Italian Calvary and Mountain Troops (The Alpine Post). While I was there I saw Mussolini’s Arabian horse. It was a beautiful horse. Our group of American Italians remained together for the rest of our trip by passenger car to Camp, P. G. 59.’[ii]
[black and white photograph of Mussolini on horseback] Mussolini and his horse
[italicised text] ‘When we were captured we had regular uniform on. We had our heavy coats, since the nights were cool, even in North Africa. After our arrival at our permanent Camp P. G. 59, we were given gray jackets with a red 4X4 inch patch on the right side of the back of the jacket. On the pants they had sewed on another 4X4 inch red patch between the knee and hip. They let us keep our uniform except for the gray jacket which was theirs.’[ii]
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[handwritten text] Taken with entrance gate behind
[illegible handwritten text in left margin of page]
[colour photograph of P.G. 59 in 1968] 1968 P.G. 59 – Barracks on the left, prison wall on the right.
[colour photograph of the prison grounds of P.G. 59 in 1968] 1968 P.G. 59 – Prison grounds made into a soccer field. Prison wall in distance.
[italicised text] ‘Camp P.G. 59 had wood frame buildings (barracks) with windows and two doors, one at each end of the building. The barracks were intact, but again, no heat of any kind in the buildings. The beds were tiered and wooden, covered with straw and the prisoners were given no blanket. The windows were open to the outside. Bugs and lice were plentiful. ‘You’d go in for delousing and come out worse than when you went in. We passed time with bedbugs and body lice.’[ii]
[colour photograph of the barracks at P.G. 59 in 1968] 1968 P.G. 59 – Barracks
[colour photograph of the barracks at P.G. 59 in 1968. A few pigs are visible in the foreground on the photograph] 1968 P.G. 59 – Barracks. Note the pigs in the foreground.
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[italicised text] ‘We were placed with other Americans, but us American Italians were kept as a separate group. English, Australians and Greeks were also in the same compound. The English, and some of the Greeks, had been there for quite some time. The camp was enclosed by a ten foot wall with glass shards embedded on the top. Manned guard towers along the wall approximately 100 feet apart. The barracks were set up in sections. A sergeant was in charge of about 25 to 30 men.[ii]
The lights in the barracks went dark at 10 P.M. Roll call was at 8:00A.M. Every morning, we lined up on the parade ground in a section, being counted by the Italian guard and our section sergeant. The guards carried rifles, pistols and machine guns. I never played any tricks on the guards.[ii]
The latrine was a small building. No stools -a hole in the concrete was used to do either business. A water faucet served for all needs, drinking and washing. The beds were a wood frame, four on the bottom and four on the top with straw mattress and one blanket.’[ii]
[black and white photograph of the latrines at P.G. 59 in 1968] 1968 P.G. 59 – Latrine
[black and white photograph of the water supply at P.G. 59] 1968 P.G. 59 Water supply
[italicised text] ‘The day began with black chicory each morning. The daily afternoon meal was a bowl of undercooked rice soup and about 200 grams (7 ounces) of dark bread formed into a bun. Sometimes, there were greens added in the rice soup. On Sundays, all of the prisoners received a very small, very thin piece of meat. Our eating utensils consisted of fork and spoon. We had a bowl and a cup to eat out of. I made a knife from a harmonica slide. We made little forges like those used by a blacksmith to heat water and warm can goods on. The forge consisted of a fan and a firebox with a crank to blow air into the firebox. Although Red Cross parcels were received once a week, the cans were punctured by the guards with a hammer to make two holes. That would make the food spoil in a day or two. My buddy and I shared one of those Red Cross parcels.’[ii]
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[italicised text] ‘I received a few letters from home but no packages. We didn’t see much of the enemy in combat or other doings. We received some news about the war outside through the guards. We felt we would win the war but it would take time. Once in awhile, the enemy would circulate a propaganda paper through the camp. Among other things, it said the Allies were losing the war. We were told Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were dead. ‘Camp P. G. 59 was never bombed or attacked while I was there.’[ii]
We were not assigned any responsibilities of any kind other than to keep clean and stay out of trouble. Although they had work details, I chose not to work. One detail was to cook. Another detail ran the wheel barrow. The wheel barrow detail consisted of one man pulling and the other pushing a wheel barrow full of rocks. The rocks were used to keep the paths and grounds level. Those that worked in details were given an extra loaf of bread Recreation consisted of walking around the compound.[ii] Phil passed the time playing battleship with others.[xxiii] A few of the non-corns held classes on languages, painting, etc.[ii]
The men that I knew very well were mostly in our platoon and squad. Most men got along very well, although the love between the English and the Americans wasn’t too good at times. There was a jail house or stockade for those who poked fun or cursed the guards. There were a few who made it rough for themselves. ‘They would cuss the soldiers up and down and were then thrown into the guardhouse with bread and water.[ii] One lucky guy took it upon himself to pass gas as the guard walked by. He nearly had his eyes gouged out by the guard’s thumbs. Another gentleman was hung by his thumbs for the night. They cut the buttons off his coat after hanging him up. He was dead from exposure by morning. Another unlucky soul was shot in the mouth while in prison. He survived the gunshot. I remember him having to plug the hole in his face with his finger in order to smoke a cigarette. The Germans and Italians wanted to kill the POW’s.[xxiv]
Although we had to contend with body lice and bedbugs, I never was aware of any epidemics or sickness in the camp. There were a few sick and irrational men in the camp but they were kept in the same area, watched by fellow GIs.[ii] Out of hunger, a few men decided to eat corn cobs. It made them very sick and tore up their insides.[xxv] Those that were wounded received the usual first aid treatment. My age, family and religion kept me going. Our medical care was provided by a British Major. While in camp, we did receive a booster shot of some kind. It was given in the chest below the heart. Two or three prisoners died while I was there, two British soldiers and one American. We all stood at attention for their final burial. Being close to death was the least of my thoughts. I did not suffer any wounds except for my pride.’[ii]
Back home, his mother, living in Lambertville, NJ, was informed twice that Phil was missing in action. She later received word from the underground Catholic Church that he was a POW. Felice still had his prayer book, the only item not confiscated when he was taken prisoner. May 3rd 1943, Private Vacca listed is captive in Italy. Although previously declared as ‘missing’, this new notice from the War Department to Phil’s mother notifies her that her son is a Prisoner of War in Italy.[xxvi]
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In July of 1943 the U.S., British, and Canadian forces invaded Sicily under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Over 2,000 vessels were employed to convoy 160,000 men, and landings were carried out along the southern coast. The Americans seized Gela; the British Eighth Army and Canadian troops, disembarking at Cape Passaro, drove along the east shore.
Following the Allied invasion of Sicily on 10 July of 1943, anti-fascist feeling in Italy, which had been rising to a head, burst out into the form of a palace revolution. On July 24th, a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council voted to restore the pre-Fascist system of government and return command of the armed forces to King Victor Emmanuel. On the following day, after an interview with the king, Mussolini was arrested and exiled to the island of Ponza. A new government under Marshal Badoglio was set up which at once began secret negotiations with the Allies.
On 3 September an armistice was signed secretly at Syracuse and publicly announced on 8 September, the day before the landings at Salerno.
The Germans had suspected for some time that Italy might make a separate peace and had laid plans accordingly. Reinforcements had been moved into northern Italy and on 10 September German troops seized Rome after some opposition by Italian troops, and set up a military administration in the country. The Germans swiftly disarmed the Italian Army and took over its defensive positions. Badoglio, the government and the King escaped to Allied-held territory but Mussolini, who had been moved to a mountain top hotel at Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi, was rescued by German parachutists led by Otto Skorzeny. He resurrected his regime under the title of the Italian Social Republic safe within the German held north. The Germans recognised it but denied it effective powers.
Wednesday, September 8, 1943, there was commotion around the around the water tower. The Italian soldiers, who had just come in to relieve the patrol were rushing around wildly shaking hands and shouting ‘Finata! Finita!’ It was learned from them that Italy had signed a peace agreement with the Allies. Silence soon came over a loud speaker. The news was peace hadn’t been signed but the Colonel would let us know soon. We were told to keep calm. They seemed worried that some 7000 prisoners might go on a rampage.[xxvii]
After landing near Salerno on Sept. 9, 1943, the American troops entered Naples. Thereafter, however, winter weather, the mountainous countryside, and stubborn German resistance stopped the Allied advance on a line south of Cassino.
Tuesday, September 14, the British soldiers are informed that they were under British rule and would follow the Kings Regulations. Their Colonel tells them that although the Germans were still fighting, if the Jerrys came near they would escape and hide out in the country. The Italians rescind the British Colonel’s orders and informed the British prisoners that they (the Italians) are in control.[xxviii]
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[faded and almost illegible picture – it appears to be a map, possibly of the area surrounding P.G. 59]
[faded and illegible picture]
[italicised text] September 11th, 1943, 3:00P.M , Phil escapes along with Tony Spicola of the Bronx, NY, Peter Calvagno of Brooklyn, NY, Edmond Petrelli of New Haven, CT, and Joe Mandese of Jersey City, NJ.[xxix] (To this date, exactly how they got out is still not known) They hid in the hills like fugitives with the Germans right behind them. All were with the First Division, Company A of the 18th Infantry except for Joe Mandese. Phil first met Joe at Palermo. He was a member of a mechanised unit and had been captured around the same time.[ii]
Keith Killby very clearly remembers that day, ‘I was in a hut with mostly Americans. There was arguing among ourselves and with the Italians on what to do for some days after the Armistice was announced. Then, on the fifth evening, September 14(??), I heard sounds behind our hut which was against the back right hand corner and I went out to find some of my fellow SAS trying to make a hole in the wall. I rushed back to get my things (including the Red Cross parcel food) and got in the queue. As soon as the hole was made, one or two SAS went out. There was firing – but in the air. Then came one of the clearest orders I have ever heard over the loud speakers in Italian ‘Nonli inforni, non lasci vanno!’ (Do not fire, let them go!) I had always imagined that everyone else had followed through the hole but, of course, immediately every gate, etc., had been opened and all streamed out in the growing darkness.’ Many years later, a folded piece of paper would be found in Imperial War Museum by Giuseppe Millozzi. It documented that the Italian OC and Dr. Millar, the British Medical Officer of Camp P.G. 59, had made an agreement to let the prisoners go. The order was signed at 9:30P.M., September 14(??).[xxix]
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[colour photograph of Keith Killby pointing to the wall in which he and many other prisoners escaped P.G. 59] 2001 Keith Killby, former British S.A.S. [xxx] Pointing to the hole used to escape P.G. 59
[a long shot, colour photograph of the Virgili farm] 2001 Virgili farm in distant valley
[colour photograph of the top of the prison walls of P.G. 59. The glass embedded on top is clearly visible in the photograph] 2001 Glass shards embedded in top on prison wall, P.G. 59
The next morning Keith Killby found himself on a hillside overlooking Monte San Martino with two Americans. ‘For five weeks he walked with John Tucker of Cleveland, Ohio and Frank Fawbush of Louisville, Kentucky. Keith could not keep up with his fellow SAS because of malaria. The three walked down to within ear shot a battle between the Allies and the Germans.
‘I could see the flickering windscreens of our vehicles in sight.’ All three were recaptured. I told my companions, John and Frank, to take the opportunity to escape without thinking of the others. Keith explained in his schoolhouse German that he was a medic with his Red Cross armband, and the two Americans were ill. They were placed in a house with three German medics.
‘Around midnight, I managed to escape through a window next to the toilet in the house while the Germans snored. A week later, within sight of our troops, I was captured for my fourth time by a German patrol. I was taken to Civilian Prison in Rome for two weeks prior to being shipped to Mooseburg, Germany.’ Because of a further attack of malaria, caught outside of Algiers, he got to see Frank and John briefly before he was taken to a German Prison hospital. [xxix]
Thursday, September 16th, A British soldier recalls that in twenty four hours the guards have changed sentries three times. The day before, all except for three officers of the Italians had disappeared. The British were ordered to ‘stand by.’ About midnight, a party of Germans arrived and put sentries on. They were a small party detached from the main column, which was
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retreating up the East Coast road. They had roll call. There were some 6000 prisoners still left. The Germans did return and the rest did not escape. They arrived in Germany on the 26th of September.[xxxi]
It was near the end of Mussolini’s reign. However, the Germans would return. They killed or re-captured as many of the escapees as they could. Whole villages were massacred as punishment for helping escaped prisoners.[xxxii]
An American soldier, Ralph Hoag, wasn’t as lucky either. ‘I was free 9 days, recaptured by German paratroopers. The rail trip from Italy to Germany took 6 days due to the frequent bombing of the rail yards. We were packed so tightly in the boxcar we took turns laying down. We were given soup and bread once. We arrived at Muhlberg, Stalag IV-B where my head was shaved. I was bathed, deloused and dog tagged. Finally, rid of the lice that had plagued us in Italy. Next move was deluxe-a passenger train through Berlin (1943) to Stalag II-B at Hammerstein. Again, we moved by train to Stalag III-B Furstenberg on Oder for the next 14 months. In January 1945, to keep us out of the hands of the attacking Russians, we were marched west in the snow and freezing cold for 10 days. Some guards on horseback, others walking with dogs. Those few GI’s who could not or would not go on when told, were shot. We were in bad shape when we arrived at Stalag III-A at Luckenwalde.’[xxxiii]
Another American, Frank Mancinelli, of E. Company 47 Infantry 9 Division, also escaped during the confusion. His freedom lasted ten days. During his attempt to reach American lines, he was re-captured by German troops and taken back to Campo 59. He was held there until a train of boxcars arrived to transport him and the other POW’s to Germany. The trip lasts for six days and five nights in a boxcar with no food or water. He arrived in Mooseberg, Germany and after a short stay there he was transported to Stalag 2 Bin Hammerstein, Germany. That lasted one and one half years. During that time, the POW’s were sent out on daily work details. With the Russians pursuing the Germans, he was transported to different camps. He was put in a Camp in Hamburg, Germany. After a few days he was taken to Cologne, Germany.[xxxiv]
It was subsequently confirmed, at Allied insistence, of the Italian acceptance of unconditional surrender on 28 September 1942.
[italicised text] Phil and his group had escaped from the camp. The five hid out for several weeks in a nearby shack Phil’s grandmother lived in Italy ‘but it was better off that I didn’t see her.’ When the soldiers were taken prisoner and interrogated, those that knew ‘what was going on’ may have lied to the Germans about relatives in Italy. ‘They tried to find out where we came from. If you knew their plan, you gave false information.’ And he dare not see his grandmother or the Germans ‘may have taken it out on her.’ Around that time, American planes dropped leaflets by the thousands in the area, offering 5000 lire to any Italian that would help hide and care for the escapees. ‘There were so many leaflets it looked as though it had snowed.’ Phil and his group didn’t know what to expect from the Italians. They were found hiding out in an old stone building by some Italian farmers, near the Virgili farmhouse. They took them in and hid them from the Germans.[ii]
[italicised text] The Virgili family who lived six miles from the prison camp befriended them and helped them elude capture from the Germans. Mrs. Virgili, a widow had, on one occasion, risked her life in order to prevent Felice’s capture.[ii]
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[italicised text] Luisa Virgili, then about 27 years old, hid Felice and two other American prisoners of war in a crevasse. The Germans were patrolling and shooting along the creek, trying to drive out or kill escapees. Luisa wanted to stay with the Americans until the immediate danger was over. They talked her into going home.[ii]
[colour photograph of one of the crevasses used for hiding] 2001 Behind bushes one of the crevasses used for hiding.
[colour photograph of the Virgili’s shed, used as a hiding place by Phil] Virgili’s shed where Phil hid out Inside Virgili’s shed.
[colour photograph of the inside of the Virgili’s shed] Inside Virgili’s shed.
[italicised text] The German soldiers had orders to shoot the escaped prisoners on the spot. The lucky ones were shipped back to Germany. But, through a ‘grapevine’ they knew where they German soldiers were a tall times. Once, the Germans came within five miles of where Vacca was hiding. The Virgili family took Phil in and the family’s sharecroppers cared for the other four soldiers.[ii]
On 13 October 1943, the Badoglio government declared war on Germany, and Italian troops, henceforth known as ‘cobelligerents’ joined the fighting on the Allied side. A greater military threat to the Germans was presented by the partisan movements which began to organise and act behind their lines.
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[italicised text] Luisa’s mother had become particularly attached to Felice. He was also befriended by the older Virgili daughter, Lelena, 30 years old, and her brother Sergio, 32 years old. The Virgili’s had a second son who was a POW in Russia. ‘That’s one place the Italians didn’t like to go, to fight against the Russians,’ Felice would later recall. Twenty-five years later, Sergio would say of Phil, ‘Rocco lavoro duro, mangi piccolo, bevanda. Dove eil vino?’ (Rocco, work hard, eat little, drink. Where’s the wine?) Phil stayed close to the Virgili farm, only seldom did he dare venture out. He basically stayed away from the house, sleeping where they kept the cows and sheep. ‘The family put itself in danger while helping us.’[ii]
]black and white photograph of a smiling women outside a house] (mother?) Virgili
[black and white photograph of Luisa, Sergio and Lelena Virgili. Sergio Virgili is pictured seated and pouring wine into two glasses. Luisa and Lelena stand behind him] Luisa, Sergio, Lelena Virgili (years later)
[italicised text] ‘The ‘grapevine’ did let the escaped soldiers know when it was safe to visit the houses. The food given to us in camp kept us alive, but when I escaped, I weighed 98 pounds. (Phil had lost 80 pounds.) I had sores on my body from the lice and bedbug bites. ‘They took us in, fed us, clothed us, took care of the Nazis and the Fascists.’ Two months after leaving camp, Phil began having stomach problems and vomited frequently. He was fed raw eggs and wine to help heal the severe bedbug bites. The rich Italian food helped him regain his weight and health.[ii]
[italicised text] ‘The Germans would ride up and down the roadways, shooting into crevasses and thickets’ Phil said, ‘and once killed an Italian boy.’[ii] ‘We were told to stay low.’ Children were sent from place to place to report on the Germans’ whereabouts ‘so we knew who was travelling the roads.’ The Italians gave them odds and ends to wear. Years later, he would still have the mismatched cufflinks he was given to wear.[ii]
I never had any news about the war while in hiding but spent most of my time trying to get back to the American lines. The five escapees made an attempt to leave over the mountains to Switzerland, 200 miles to the north. Switzerland was a neutral country. However, ‘the Germans got wind of it. The intent failed.’ Through contact with the Patriots, underground Italians who helped the Americans, the soldiers learned the Germans had found their plan ‘and we were told to stay put. Another attempt was made with the help of the Patriots to get out by boat. The Germans massacred the Patriots on the beach. Our first sergeant kept us informed and told us to stay put. We had no arms.[ii] One farmer wanted to give me a shotgun that he had hidden beneath a drain trough for the barn. When retrieved it was rusted so bad that it fell apart. There was a pile of bricks near. If the German or Italian soldiers were coming the family would
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[italicised text continues] start whistling a particular song, giving the Americans enough time to hide in the brick pile. The Germans made an example of one twenty four year old Patriots who was caught. He was shot in the head in front of his parents. So, for ten months the men played a dangerous game of hide and seek and the Virgili family endangered their lives to protect them.’[ii]
As the Allies advanced up the mountainous spine of Italy, they confronted a series of heavily fortified German defensive positions, anchored on rivers or commanding terrain features. The brilliant delaying tactics of the German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, exacted a high price for every Allied gain. The campaign in Italy became an endless siege, fought in rugged terrain, in often appalling conditions, and with limited resources.
Allied efforts to blast a way through the enemy’s mountain defences proved futile, despite the use of medium and heavy bombers to support ground attacks around Cassino. Finally, in May 1944, a series of coordinated attacks by the Fifth Army and Eighth Army pried the Germans loose, and they began to fall back. On June 4, 1944, two days before the Normandy invasion, Allied troops entered Rome.
The Normandy invasion made Italy a secondary theatre and Allied strength there gradually decreased. Nevertheless, the fighting continued. The Allies attacked a new German defensive line in the Northern Apennines in August but were unable to make appreciable headway through the mountains.
[italicised text] At last the Americans and English had driven the Germans pass Amandola, Italy. Luisa’s mother had become particularly attached to Felice and wanted him to stay in Italy after the war. He later recalled, ‘I would have been a deserter, wouldn’t I?’ Luisa gave Phil one lire for good luck, and some bread and eggs. We emerged from our hiding places. Dressed in English clothes and headed south.[ii]
[black and white photograph of Felice with 4 other POWs, dressed in overalls] Rear (Left to Right) Peter Calvagno, Edmond Petrelli, Joe Mandese Front (Left to Right) Tony Spicola, Felice Vacca
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[italicised text] The English troops were on the east side of Italy where we were located. On July 2 1944, nine months and 21 days after escaping, we joined up with the British lines. It took some convincing to get the Americans to believe that they too were Americans. A first sergeant that knew Phil from the Camp P.G. 59 verified that he was indeed an American soldier. When we arrived at Torino Di Sangro, we were given new English uniforms. Felice was found to be in satisfactory condition upon examination. We boarded box cars and rode to an American air base in Foggia, Italy. At Foggia we were issued new American uniforms.[ii]
My reaching the American line was the happiest day of my life! We boarded an airplane and flew to Oran, Algiers. On July 25 1944, we boarded a ship bound for America. We landed at Boston, MA, on August 22, 1944. From there we were shipped to Camp Upton, Long Island, NY. At that time, we were given a thirty day vacation. After the thirty days, August 31, 1944, I reported to Camp Butner, NC for duty. There was a rule in force at that time that forbade Ex POWs from returning to the same theatre of action once repatriated. The military had the choice of sending him to the Pacific theatre or keeping him in the US. He became a guard at the White House. ‘At that time I was picked out by Captain Minns, from the 250th Military Police (SP) stationed at 17th and E behind the State Department in Washington, D. C. We had four machine guns. Two that were located on the grounds in front of the White House near the Washington Monument and one each on the East and West Wings. We patrolled around the White House on foot. I had the honour of guarding two presidents, Roosevelt and Truman. Eleanor Roosevelt would often come out and visit us soldiers.’[ii]
‘I was handpicked to stand honorary guard at President Roosevelt’s last inauguration.’ Felice was thoroughly investigated before he was made an honorary guard along with several other POW’s for special service. After the investigation, he was told his last name was no longer Rocco, he was to us the Vacca name. ‘I was also an honour guard when dignitaries such as General Eisenhower or General DeGual visited.’ President Franklin Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945. That same day, Harry S. Truman is sworn in as President. ‘I also was an honorary guard at President Roosevelt’s funeral.’ We remained there on guard for President Truman.[ii]
[black and white photograph of the White House during Roosevelt’s last inauguration] Franklin Roosevelt’s last inauguration
[black and white photograph showing two American soldiers standing to attention at Roosevelt’s funeral] Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral procession
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On April 18 1945, A British Tank Battalion liberated the Moosburg POW camp. All the men, including Frank Mancinelli, were admitted to a hospital in France where they were treated for yellow jaundice, malnutrition and dysentery. All were then moved to Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre, France to await shipment back to the USA.[xxxv]
Russian tanks liberated Ralph Hoag on April 22 1945. He walked 3 days to get to the Elbe River and was rowed across and met by GI trucks picking up ‘kriegies’ [Allied POWs] that were getting across.[xxxvi]
The Germans made their next stand along the so-called Gothic Line in the north Apennine Mountains. The Allied force, although reduced in strength by the necessity to relinquish some divisions for use in France, initiated a drive in September that broke the Gothic Line after a three-month campaign. In the spring of 1945 the Allies pushed across the Po Valley and, when German resistance began to crumble, made spectacular advances, which ended with the surrender of the German forces in Italy on 2 May 1945. Mussolini was arrested again. He and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were removed from the jail and lynched, by the local Communist partisans.
The Italian campaign involved some of the hardest fighting in the war and cost the United States forces some 114,000 casualties. But the campaign played an important part in determining the eventual outcome of the war, since the Allies, with minimum of strength, engaged German forces that could possibly have upset the balance in France.
Ralph Hoag, ‘Free after 28 months. Four days later, May 7, 1945, the war in Europe is over.’[xxxvii]
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[italicised text] Around that same time, while standing guard over the Constitution in the Congressional Library, Phil met the woman he was to marry, Donna Olson, who worked at the Pentagon as a clerk in the court marshal division.[ii]
[black and white photograph of two American soldiers, one being Felice Vacca, guarding the U.S. Constitution] Felice Vacca (right) standing guard in front of U.S. Constitution
[black and white photograph of Felice Vacca in full U.S. Army uniform, including a helmet, standing guard] Felice Vacca standing guard at the White House (?)
[italicised text] September 29 1945, Japan surrenders, signalling the end of the war. When the war ended, the unit, which had temporary barracks behind the State Department was disbanded. At this time, President and Mrs Truman held a party at the White House for the Ex-POW’s guards. ‘They served beer, limburger cheese and crackers and showed a movie in the White House theatre.’ Phil’s mementoes include a label of Tommer’s White Label beer, ‘it was good,’ he recalled later, ‘I will always feel most honoured to have been selected to guard two of our greatest Presidents of all time.’[ii]
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[picture of the Beer label from President Truman’s party that was kept as a memento by Phil] Beer label from President Truman’s party
[italicised text] ‘I was the second soldier to leave the Company on points. I returned home. My appetite slowly came back as time went on.’ (Felice learned to live with the stomach problems that persisted for the rest of his life.) Phil received the Bronze star, Good Conduct Medal, POW Medal, American Defence Medal, EMAE medal, World War II Medal, Bronze Service Star for the Algerian campaign, Bronze Star for the Tunisian campaign, Bronze Arrow Head for amphibious landing and Combat Infantry Badge.[ii]
[italicised text] Upon his discharge, Phil married Donna. The two travelled between North Dakota and New Jersey three times before settling down in North Dakota. Phil went to school under the G.I. Bill for two years. At that time, there were still German prisoners being held at Ft. Lincoln in North Dakota. Phil applied for a job there but was rejected when they learned of his POW history. Twenty five years later, Felice’s son, Tony would return to visit the family.[ii]
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[black and white photograph of Felice in full U.S. Army uniform and his wife, Donna] Felice (Phil) and Donna
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Squad 10 enlisted personnel under a staff sergeant 10
Platoon 4 squads under a lieutenant 41
Company Headquarters section and 4 platoons under a captain 160
Battalion Headquarters and 4 or more companies under a lieutenant colonel 750
Brigade 3 or more battalions and headquarters under a colonel 2300
Division Headquarters and 3 brigades with artillery, combat support and combat service support groups under a major general. 10,000
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[Two tables of military service information for Pte [Private] Peter J Calvagno and Pte Edmond]
[Digital page 32]
[Two tables of military service information for Pte Joe C Mandese and Tony Spiccola]
[Digital page 33]
[Table of military service information for Felice D Vacca [aka Felice Rocco]
[first section of handwritten dates image]
[two words illegible – writing has faded]
Ascoli [one word illegible]
Felice D. Vacca Lelena Virgili
[two words illegible]
[second section of handwritten dates image]
[one word illegible] – July 2nd ‘44
Ascoli – July 3rd ‘44
Perscara – July 4th ‘44
Ontorna – July 4th ‘44
[place name illegible] – July 4th ‘44
Teverola or Tivoli [?]
Foggia – July 5th ‘44
[three words illegible]
Foggia, left the city July 6th ‘44
[image caption] Recorded dates of Felice Vacca
[image of a letter in Italian to Sergio Virgili] Letter to Sergio Virgili: ‘Monte San Martino 3 Luglio 1944
Io per la durata dal 17 Settembre 1943 a oggi 3 Luglio 1944 o trascorso la mia vita in piena? assistenza di tutti della famiglia di Virgili Sergio fu Settinio?, nel commune di Monte S. Martino. Privinicia Macerata Monte?
P.F.C Felice Vacca
12011751 U.S Army
[Caption: Letter to Sergio Virgili]
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[List of footnotes]
[i] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 8
[ii] Recorded accounts by Felice Vacca
[iii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 16
[iv] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[v] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 29
[vi] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 124
[vii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 125
[viii] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[ix] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 240
[x] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, pp. 240-41
[xi] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 241
[xii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 242
[xiii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 243
[xiv] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 243
[xv] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 243
[xvi] Tony Vacca’s recollections of Phil’s accounts
[xvii] Ralph Hoag, Ex-POW, biography http://www.axpow.org/bios/hoagtemp.htm
[xviii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, pp. 243-244
[xix] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 244
[xx] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xxi] Ralph Hoag, Ex-POW, biography http://www.axpow.org/bios/hoagtemp.htm
[xxii] [Web address – link broken] Mr Yves Jaulmes, formerly with the 67th Regiment d’Artillerie d’Afrique
[xxiii] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xxiv] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xxv] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xxvi] Lambertvill newspaper clipping
[xxvii] Peter’s diary, a British soldier’s story, found on the web
[xxviii] Peter’s diary, a British soldier’s story, found on the web
[xxix] Felice’s only written record with the time and date of escape. Exact details on how he escaped are not known.
[xxx] The history of the SAS can be traced back to WWII. The idea was developed by a Captain David Stirling. He thought of the concept while recuperating from a parachute accident in Cairo. The British SAS was created as a desert raiding force to weaken Rommel’s North African logistics network. It would also be used to hinder aircraft operations. The first successful SAS operation happened December 1941. Two SAS groups destroyed 61 aircraft at two airfields. Another raid destroyed 27 airplanes. In another operation, 144 men were parachuted with jeeps and supplies into an area close to Dijon. France. The SAS inflicted 7,733 German casualties in Europe. 4,784 prisoners were captured. 700 vehicles were destroyed or captured. 164 railways were cut. Seven trains were destroyed, thirty three were derailed. David Stirling was knighted in 1990.
[xxxi] Peter’s diary, a British soldier’s story found on the web.
[xxxii] Keith Killby’s account of the escape, British SAS
[xxxiii] Ralph Hoag, Ex-POW, biography http://www.axpow.org/bios/hoagtemp.htm
[xxxiv] Frank Mancinelli – WWII POW – CAMPO 59, Moosburg, Stalag IIB.htm
[xxxv] Frank Mancinelli – WWII POW – CAMPO 59, Moosburg, Stalag IIB.htm
[xxxvi] Ralph Hoag, Ex-POW, biography http://www.axpow.org/bios/hoagtemp.htm
[xxxvii] Ralph Hoag, Ex-POW, biography http://www.axpow.org/bios/hoagtemp.htm
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[this page partially repeats digital page 34]
[i] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 8
[ii] Recorded accounts by Felice Vacca
[iii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 16
[iv] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[v] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 29
[vi] The Battle for Oran
[vii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 124
[viii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 125
[ix] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xi] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 240
[xii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, pp. 240-41
[xiii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 241
[xiv] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 242
[xv] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 243
[xvi] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 243
[xvii] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 243
[xviii] Tony Vacca’s recollections of Phil’s accounts
[xix] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 243-244
[xix] An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, p. 244
[xx] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xxi] prionersofwar.freeservers.com/autumn_2001.htm Mr Yves Jaulmes, formerly with the 67th d’Artillerie d’Afrique
[xxii] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xiii] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xxiv] Jim Vacca’s recalling details told by Felice
[xxv] Lambertbill newspaper clipping
[xxvi] Felice’s only written record with the time and date of escape. Exact details on how he escaped are not known.
[xxvii] The history of the SAS can be traced back to WWII. The idea was developed by a Captain David Stirling. He thought of the concept while recuperating from a parachute accident in Cairo. The British SAS was created as a desert raiding force to weaken Rommel’s North African logistics network. It would also be used to hinder aircraft operations. The first successful SAS operation happened December 1941. Two SAS groups destroyed 61 aircraft at two airfields. Another raid destroyed 27 airplanes. In another operation, 144 men were parachuted with jeeps and supplies into an area close to Dijon. France. The SAS inflicted 7,733 German casualties in Europe. 4,784 prisoners were captured. 700 vehicles were destroyed or captured. 164 railways were cut. Seven trains were destroyed, thirty three were derailed. David Stirling was knighted in 1990.
[digital page 36]
[letter from Mario Vacca to Keith Killby]
Monday, December 6, 2004
Monte San Martino Trust
It is so good to hear from you and I am glad you are doing well. I have done some looking on the web for John Tucker and Frank Fawbush but have not had any luck. I will keep looking. I will write Michael Davis soon. In the meantime, I have written the four other prisoners my dad escaped with. I am waiting for a reply or returned mail.
I have enclosed three items. The first item is what I have compiled concerning my father’s experiences. I have reviewed most of his notes and interviews, including a video that I took of him years ago, and have compiled it with some history into a rather large document.
The second item is contained in the paragraphs below and that document I created on my father’s experiences. I have taken what you sent to me in your last letter and I have rearranged a few of the words. I hope you don’t object to me doing so. I am not any good at English, but I am trying to eliminate any confusion I might have.
Questions for you include:
- Did you escape on September 14th? My father has a note which said he escaped at 3:00 P.M. and you said you escaped at 9:30 P.M. [handwritten answer] if 3:00 P.M. on his own. Definitely 14th K.K. remembers – it was getting dark when we went
- What day did the Italian O/C and Dr. Millar sign the agreement? [handwritten answer] was announced on camp speakers, ‘Do not fire, let them go.’ That could have been about 9:30 p.m. or 22:22 p.m.
- What day was the Armistice announced? [handwritten answer] 8th September evening on radio, 9th September 9:30 a.m. in camp. Heard cheering from s.[surrounding?] villages
The third item is something I had found some time ago. It is a diary from a British soldier named Peter. I am unable to locate the source anymore, the web being as it is. I printed a copy when I found it, because it happened at P.G. 59. Thought you might like to read it or know more about him.
[digital page 37]
[Mario’s description of Keith Killby’s experience, using information provided by K.K. in a previous letter]
Keith Killby very clearly remembers that day, ‘I was in a hut mostly with Americans. There was arguing among ourselves and with the Italians on what to do for some days after the Armistice was announced. Then, on the fifth evening, September 14th?, I had heard sounds behind our hut which was against the back right hand corner and I went out to find some of my fellow SAS trying to make a hole in the wall. I rushed back to get my things (including my Red Cross parcel food) and got in the queue. As soon as the hole was made, one or two SAS went out. There was firing – but in the air. Then came one of the clearest orders I have ever heard over the loud speakers in Italian, ‘Nonli inforni, non lasci vanno!’ (Do not fire, let them go!) I had always imagined that everyone else had followed through the hole but, of course, every gate etc. had been opened immediately and all streamed out into the growing darkness.’
Many years later, a folded piece of paper would be found in the Imperial War Museum by Giuseppe Millozzi. It documented that the Italian O/C and Dr. Millar, the British Medical Officer of Camp P.G. 59, had made an agreement to let the prisoners go. The order was at 9:30 p.m., September 14th. [handwritten text under time] 10:20
The next morning, Keith Killby found himself on a hillside overlooking Monte San Martino with two Americans. For five weeks he walked with John Tucker of Cleveland, Ohio and Frank Fawbush of Louisville, Kentucky. Keith could not keep up with his fellow SAS because of malaria. The three walked down to within ear shot of a battle between the Allies and the Germans and Keith recalled, ‘I could see the flickering windscreens of our vehicles in sight.’ All three were recaptured. I told my companions, John and Frank, to take the opportunity to escape without thinking of the others. Keith explained in his schoolhouse German that he was a medic with his Red Cross armband, and the two Americans were ill. They were placed in a house with three Germans medics. ‘Around midnight, I managed to escape though a window next to the toilet in the house while the Germans snored. A week later, within sight of our troops, I was captured for my fourth time by a German patrol. I was taken to Civilian Prison in Rome for two weeks prior to being shipped to Mooseburg, Germany.’ Because of a further attack of malaria, caught outside of Algiers, Keith was able to see Frank and John briefly before he was taken to a German Prison hospital.
Please let me know if you approve of the above paragraph or might want to add anything.
Until later, your friend.
[handwritten text] Merry Christmas!
[handwritten text] Keith – please feel free to mark up any corrections – I’ll send you a complete document. Thanks so much. Mario.
[digital page 38]
[letter from Keith Killby to Mario Vacca]
Mario Vacca, WA
Too late to send you my Christmas greeting, but I hope in time to wish you a Happy New Year and very many thanks for all you have sent me. The excellently assembled bits and pieces of your father’s story are fascinating to read and, of course, of particular interest to me, as a co inhabitant of the prison camp at Servigliano – and then as a frequent visitor to Monte San Martino, freeman of the village and founder of the Monte San Martino Trust.
You have certainly made a good story from the many pieces that you had. I enclose a copy of my summary of it before placing it in the Archive of the Trust. There is no other quite so closely connected to it.
As you can see, I have tried to summarise it before putting it in the archives. May I presume to suggest that if you are representing it that, from the bottom of page 18 and most of 19, that you put a separate section. It is, for us, very useful material, but it does not come into your father’s story.
You will see that I have corrected the one mistake – that Giuseppe found the paper about Capt. Millar in the Public Record Office at Kew – not at the Imperial War Museum. It is only in case someone at the IWM asks for it. The best reference book written about POWs on the run in Italy was ‘A Strange Alliance’. It was later published in English in Italy. It makes little reference to Servigliano but on one page it says there were 300 + POWs in the Camp and the next page that 1000 escaped from Servigliano. So, when I placed the plaque outside the camp – now a playground – I put on it that 3000 Allied POWs escaped and were immediately helped by Italians everywhere. So an error was perpetuated.
As regards the very excellent book you have sent me – via Germany – it will certainly prove very interesting reading – I never read fiction and it will add to the huge collection that I have about the war – but nothing about the war in North West Africa. I was captured for five days in the desert and, being medical corps, we worked for German wounded. Rommel walked through the camp before letting us walk back to our lines. I was later behind the lines – dealing with the most seriously wounded – at Alamein and then joined in the advance from it. (The tanks specially sent out by Roosevelt certainly helped). I remember shortly after, we heard of the BBC that ‘Allied landings had been made in North Africa!’ We thought that we, in Egypt and Libya were already there!
When I have read it, I will lend it – before it goes into my library of many books beside the Trust library, with some 80 books on escaped POWs in Italy – to a man who publishes a newsletter regularly, based in
[digital page 39]
Manchester. He has published his own book ‘A Green Hill Far Away’ – his own account of capture in North Africa. It ended by being in the bombing of Munich liberation there.
The head of the British Red Cross always says that if his father had not, dangerously, been taken in by Italians when seriously ill and nursed back to health, he would not have existed. Recently, a young woman got in touch with us. Her father had been ‘on the run’ in Italy and he had died only recently a Lord and head of Oxford College. She sent me a brief account he had left – for I could not recognise the name Lord Blake – but suddenly I recognised a bit of the story and went to a manuscript – but he was only referred to as Bobby. On one of the Trails, he said his father had taken civilian clothes to those in the Hospital nearby. It was often wondered how there were civilian clothes available in hospital before his escape.
The story that you have pieced together of your father is of great interest to me, as one who escaped from Servigliano, and a valuable addition to the archives of the Trust.
[digital page 40]
[letter from Mario Vacca to Keith Killby]
Thursday, December 30, 2004
Monte San Martino Trust
I’m glad you received the book I had sent to you from Amazon. I have written Giuseppe but, given the season, I have not yet received a reply.
I have found another piece of documentation in my father’s memorabilia that I thought you would like to see. My father mentioned the leaflets the Allies dropped, ‘so many that it look as though it had snowed.’ I have included a copy of the front and back of a leaflet. I also found his ‘receipt’ to the Virgili family for helping him. I have edited the earlier document I sent you, removing any stories other than Phil’s. I am also returning a copy of your summary with some corrections. I really do appreciate your interest and help. I have a copy of the book you recommended coming, A Strange Alliance.
I have found more documents on the web (internet). One piece that caught my attention was the ‘currency’ used in Campo P.G. 59. Do you remember such ‘currency’? What would it have been used for? How was the currency earned? Notice to that he states that Campo P.G. 59 was near Bologna not Servigliano, obviously a mistake.
Another document is a list of POW Camps in Italy, although it doesn’t appear to be complete. Does it appear accurate(?)
The last document is from New Zealand’s website which contains much more information than I have included. It is very interesting to read. I have provided the links with each document.
Wishing you a Happy New Year,
Until later, your friend.
[digital page 41]
[letter from Keith Killby to Mario Vacca]
11th January 2005
Very many thanks for your letter of 30th December and all the documentation in it.
We have a copy of the leaflet but it is a bit war battered and, at the fold, it is not possible to read so now we can correct our interpretation of the few words. I am not sure whether I have, in my own ‘box’, an example of Camp Money. By the time we were in Servigliano – and only for two weeks – I think it had become valueless. The currency, once Red Cross parcels came in, was cigarettes. Those fortunate to receive cigarette parcels became millionaires. Certainly, in Germany, they were invaluable in raising our standard of life. Getting to Muizenberg, where all POWs coming up from Italy went through, and getting both a Red Cross parcel and cigarettes, I bought a German loaf and sat down with jam and butter from my parcel until the loaf was finished!
As regards the map or list of POW Camps, it certainly has most of the main camps and some unknown to me. We, however, have all – those of the Trust and others who have written books –relied on the one printed and distributed by the British Red Cross in September 1943. Enclosed is a small copy.
The one you sent has some names unknown to me. For instance, Torviscosa, with all its subsidiaries is a mystery – but then it might be for Russians and Yugoslavs. Gruppignano 57 was for New Zealanders (the highest percentage of POWs of any due to the fact that whenever there was a difficulty the ‘kiwis’ were called for). I am surprised to see so many working camps attached to Padda (now restored to its glory as an old monastery) as it ended up as being for Allied officers only. Naturally, as being so far south, it was one of the first to be closed before the Armistice.
The Imperial War Museum informed me that the one book that gave so much detail about POWs was the 500 page last volume of the NZ War History devoted to POWs by W.W. Mason. Fortunately, I had picked up a copy in a street market. I expect that summary, especially about NZ POWs and the amps they were in, was extracted from that book (there was only two or three ‘kiwis’ in Servigliano by the time I was there).
The archives of the Trust contain accounts from virtually all the Camps at the Armistice of what happened at the Armistice, but it would take many pages to recount the various actions and reactions. There were of course two other larger Camps further down the Tenna Valley. At
[digital page 42]
Monturano, I visited some ten years ago when it was still a tannery (I saw nine months ago that it is now up for sale). At the camp, just below Fermo – a trading estate – the numbers were much more numerous than at Servigliano, but a very small number in comparison got away. Sforza Costa is the name of the other camp.
You have done a marvellous job of sorting out what little your father told you and what you could trace into a coherent story and one which sounds very feasible to me.
If I think of any more sources or find any other information I will let you know.
Unfortunately, only after Christmas did I hear that Capt. Millar – the M.O. [Medical Officer] responsible for pushing the Italians into letting us go died last November. I very much regret that I did not meet him, thought I had spoken to him on the phone. Giuseppe, who of course did the research that showed us how he was responsible, did meet him about a year ago – when at 90, he was still playing golf and driving his jag.
[handwritten text] Also added that the author of ‘An Army at Dawn’ is writing a trilogy he should buy. The Italian book is about Italians helping POWs
[digital page 43]
[letter from Keith Killby to Rick Atkinson, author of ‘An Army at Dawn’]
If, as I sincerely hope, you are writing a definitive book on the war in Italy then I hope you may include a brief testimony to the Italian Contadini. Also, perhaps you will mention the disastrous release of mustard gas when ships in Bari harbour were bombed.
Again, many thanks for your tremendous research and presentation of so much small but human detail.
1st January 2005
Mr Rick Atkinson
New York, USA
Dear Mr Atkinson,
Through the generosity of an American researching the story of his father, who escaped as I did with some 2000 Allied POWs from a prison camp in Italy, I have received a copy of ‘An Army at Dawn’.
Other than 300 manuscripts and books on Allied POWs ‘on the run’ in Italy, I have some two hundred books on the war, but my knowledge of the war in Algiers and Tunisia is very limited. I am enjoying filling that book.
The heading of this paper and the enclosed literature briefly summing up its work will show you why I am writing.
Unless your book on the war in Italy is already in print, may I ask you to include – if only one paragraph – a small piece on the Italians who gave such tremendous support to some 20,000 Allied POWs, of whom 10,000 probably got through the lines.
Churchill, in his ten books on the Second World War wrote:-
‘Out of about 80,000 of these men, conspicuously dressed in battle dress, and in the main with little knowledge of the language or geography of the country, at least ten thousand, mostly helped by the local population with civilian clothes, were guided to safety, thanks to the risks taken by members of the Italian Resistance and the simple people of the countryside.’ Volume 9, Chapter 11 – first page.
Only a year ago did one of three Italians, presenting their thesis to obtain their degree on Allied POWs and the Italians, find at the Public Records Office at Kew, a slip of paper showing that it was a British Medical Officer who negotiated for the release of 2000 POWs – the largest number from any camp. Over half of them were American.
Though I was only climbing over the hills of Italy for about six weeks, those weeks left a deeper impression than the four times I was captured. First in the desert (see enclosed photo) then in Sardinia as one of the 30 (SAS) who were the only military forces to go there before the Italian Armistice, then twice more while ‘on the run’ in Italy.
We had experienced the ill equipped and unenthusiastic and badly officered Italian army – except for artillery. We were astounded by the generosity and courage of the Italians of the countryside – many of them paying for their help with their lives.
[digital page 44]
Summary and comments (pieced together by son, Mario Vacca)
Born USA, 5th October 1919 to Italian immigrants. When reported ‘missing’, his mother and his sister took his property and bank account and, when he returned, admitted they would have been better off had he not returned. He never saw his mother again and only saw his sister after 53 years when he came across a Vacca family in Philadelphia. He spoke to his sons very little about his former life but sometimes told pieces from his capture and especially his time ‘on the run’ and the generous and courageous help of his Italian family – Virgili of Monte San Martino.
He left this note with the family when the Allies arrived.
‘Monte San Martino 3 July 1944.’ I, for the duration from 17 September 1943 to today 3 July 1944? Spent my life with the full assistance of all the family of Sergio Virgili (formerly?) Settimo, in the commune of Monte San Martino, Macerata Province, Marche, P.F.C., Felice Vacca 12011751 US Army.
With difficult family relations on his return, he never later gave his full story to his sons, but did – from time to time – recount bits and pieces. His eldest son, Mario, himself in the American Army in Italy in 1968, returned to Servigliano to find the camp abandoned and in disrepair, with a few farm animals in it (As had K.K. in 1961). Mario returned again in 2002 and by good fortune, K.K. heard of his visit back to the family Virgili. With Giuseppe Millozzi, he turned to Servigliano so K.K. could give his version of the ‘exit’ from the Camp.
Subsequently, G. Millozzi found in the National Archives at Kew by chance, the pieces of paper which Captain (Medical Officer) Millar that he and the Italian Officer in charge signed at 10, 22 September 1943. (K.K. thought it was still light and therefore earlier that the SAS started to go through the hole in the wall which they made when the very clear order in Italian came over the loudspeakers, ‘Do not fire, let them go!’. All 2000 American, British and others streamed out of every gate possible. Phil Vacca says that he escaped with other Americans who also had Italian names. (As they spoke some Italian and looked similar one might have been able to slip out with the help, say of a friendly guard, but for the five of them to slip out at 3 p.m. on 14th September, seems strange. There is, however, a very clear photo of them all in seemingly Italian clothing. They could have later met up after escape).
Vacca had joined up with his cousin – Bucky – whom he was to see killed in battle in January 1941. In the US 1st Division went on to the Queen Mary and disembarked in Scotland, but was later manoeuvred to Stonehenge. A convoy of troopships headed for North Africa, via Greenland – for deception – before landing in Algeria on Sunday 8th November 1942. Under Eisenhower, British General Anderson started an advance towards what was known locally as Longstop Hill (South of Bizerta). Both armies were fighting for the first time in a modern war and much confusion reigned. A sergeant took over Vacca’s position and was immediately killed and there he saw his cousin Buck killed. Captured by the Germans and handed over to the Italians, Vacca and fellow POWs were taken to Sicily and then via Rome to Servigliano the evening before. Page 188 of account by Mario Vacca, last paragraph, must refer to the Camp.
[digital page 45]
Continued summary by K.K. of account put together by Mario Vacca, Eldest son.
It would seem that the last paragraph on page [one word illegible] refers to incidents and individuals at the Camps at Monte [two words illegible] Costa further east in the Teena Valley. In both camps, several escaped in the confusion but the greatest majority were taken to Germany. Most probably, all to Mooseberg first as was K.K. – here Vacca saw the 2 Americans he had walked with. They said K.K. had caused confusion as whenever they were handed over it was asked where the third POW was. (K.K. who had escaped the night after capture).
The next page describes extremely well the life of POWs living with the local population, plus a very good photo of them looking like Italians and speaking Italian.
Felice Vacca, after being returned to USA, was among other former POWs who were given Guard Duties at Washington.
On discharge, he married Denise.
On page 31 is a reproduction of the excellent note left by Phil Vacca to record the help they had given to him in Monte San Martino by the Virgili family.
It is hoped that the family used this note to get some recompense from the allied Screening Commission which was set up in Rome immediately after it had liberated in 1944 and that they were paid some of the million pounds paid out by the British and Americans to the Italians who helped POWs. With it, they should have received an ‘Alexander Certificate’ – a printed declaration of thanks given to all families who helped POWs and signed by General Alexander.
Many of the Italian students to whom the Monte San Martino Trust have given Bursaries since it was founded in 1990 have had an Alexander Certificate as a valued reminder of what their ancestors had done for the Allied POWs. By the end of 2004, some 300 bursaries had been given to Italian students and they had come to England for a month to improve their English – their study at a Central London school and their stay with a family being paid for by the Monte San Martino Trust.