A First-Hand Account of Camp 59

I made two audio recordings with my father, Armie Hill, about his war experiences. This account of Camp 59 is from the second recording he made, on August 1987.

I just learned today, in reading Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi’s dissertation on the prisoners of war, that the doctor Armie refers to is actually J. H. D. Millar, not A. B. Miller, as Armie recalled. My corrections are in brackets.

“I was in a prison camp in Tunis until we were flown across to Sicily. I was in prison camp on Sicily—Camp 98.

“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 Millar—his name was A. B. Millar. [Note: The doctor’s name was J. H. D. Millar, and the three initials help to explain why the men called him ‘Alphabet Millar.’] In time he was put in charge of the camp. In got to know him when I was sick.

“This camp was an old camp, probably built in World War I. Or maybe it had been a large prison. It had high stonewalls 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 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. Then 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. Millar 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 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.’