Recollection of Camps 98 and 59

Of two audio recordings that I made with my father, Armie Hill, about his war experiences, this account of Camps 98 and 59 is from the first. The recording was made in February 1976.

The story begins with transport of the prisoners from North Africa to Sicily. Note how different camp conditions at Camp 98 were from Camp 59. My notations are in brackets.

“Finally one morning they succeeded in landing their planes. There were about fifty planes and they loaded about fifteen men to a plane. We flew over the Mediterranean to Sicily. We flew low and many times the plane almost touched the water. The machine guns in the fighter planes pointed up. That way the British planes couldn’t fly low enough to fire at us. Occasionally we hit an air pocket. The propellers would keep turning, but the plane wouldn’t move forward—it just dropped down ten or twenty feet. Then suddenly it would move forward again. It took about an hour to get across. When we landed I didn’t know where we were, but there the Germans turned us over to the Italians.

“I thought the Italians would treat us better, but they were poorly organized. We had to stand for hours while they counted us. Hitler and Mussolini had made an agreement that the Italians would receive the German’s prisoners. We were valuable to the Italians because their control of us helped to ensure that their men who were prisoners were treated well. Or, in case of surrender, they could use us to barter for better terms. On Sicily they loaded us into trucks while it was pouring rain and they drove us into the mountains. It was cold in the mountains. I had a field jacket but little other clothing that was appropriate for the cold climate. The other men were just as poorly dressed. We all had summer underwear and light outer clothing. Our prison camp was far up in the mountains. It was almost impossible to escape from that camp. No one lived near the camp, so even if someone managed to get out of the camp there would be no place to get food.

“Earlier, when I was captive under the Germans, they had wanted to clean straw from one of their buildings. They detailed some of the prisoners—including me—to remove the straw. It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. While I was picking up the straw I found five knives, Italian money, French money, and a lot of Arab money. I gave away three of the knives and kept two—one was a penknife and the other was a scout knife. The Germans hadn’t searched me when we boarded the train to leave.

“The camp on Sicily was Camp 98. When we first came into that camp we were unloaded from the trucks and lined up outside the gate. We were searched again. The Germans hadn’t been particular about searching us. The Italians were much more thorough about searching.

“I had a pair of pliers in my pocket that someone had given me in North Africa before I got on the plane. As it was pouring rain, I watched for a time when no one was looking. Then I kicked a hole in the mud. I dropped the pliers and the scout knife and I stomped the mud back on top of them. I thought that at least the Italians wouldn’t get them and if I should ever have the chance I could go back for them. I wanted to take the small knife with me, though—so I slit a hole in the seam of my pants beneath the belt and slid the knife in. The Italians searched me thoroughly, but they didn’t find the knife. It was only a small penknife, but it came in handy many times after that. I used it for opening cans and whittling wood.

“In the camp we had our hair cut off so that we were bald. As we stood in line we had to take off all our clothing. The clothes were put into a large barrel to be deloused in hot water. The front of my pants got scorched, so I had big holes in the knees. They gave us blankets to try to stay warm in the cold wind and rain.

“The Italian doctor had a large syringe and he used it to give us shots on the chest below the nipple. The shots hurt and our chests swelled up like women’s breasts and my armpit swelled to a shape like an egg. It was painful. We got three of these shots one week apart.

“The mountain camp was a tent camp. The tents were old desert tents and about fifty men were kept in each tent. We were given beds. The bed I was given was a platform of slats with a mattress cover over it. We were fed twice a day. In the morning we got a small piece of bread and a piece of cheese. In the evening we were fed a little macaroni or rice. In addition to being cold, the mountains were windy and damp. There was nowhere to dry our clothes. I was there about six weeks and I don’t think it was warm a single day.

“The food was dealt out so sparingly that we could hardly live on it. Many of the men had dysentery. Those who stayed there longest grew weaker, and those who just came into camp caught the illness from them. There were no inside latrines—there were only slit trenches on the outside. The prisoners dug the trenches. We simply squatted over them. There was a lot of vomiting and diarrhea. Periodically, the trenches were covered up and new ones were dug. There was no doctor to care for the sick, but those who were ill were put into a separate tent and given more rations.

“I was put in charge of some of the fellows. We had to break up stone to put on the road because all the paths there were mud. Our shoes sank into the mud when we walked around. The fellows looked around for anything to eat. There were some dandelions there. We cooked the dandelions and ate the greens.

“We were supposed to get Red Cross parcels but we didn’t receive them. Later, I found out that they did come to the camp, but the officer in charge wouldn’t give them to us. I wasn’t in too bad a shape because I was in good physical condition when I was captured, and I had been treated fairly well until then. But finally I grew weaker and weaker, too. The larger fellows were the ones who suffered the greatest weight loss. Those that weighed only 120 or 140 pounds did all right because they needed less food to live on. Everyone was given the same amount of rations. I could almost see day by day the weight the men lost.

“While we were there one man cut through the barbed wire and tried to escape. There was a big confusion. They counted us. The lieutenant in charge, who seemed generally to be a nice fellow, broke down and started crying. I couldn’t understand why, but I found out later that any guard who allowed a prisoner to escape was sent to the Russian front. That was their lever to keep the officers and guards in line. All of the men feared the Russian front.

“ ‘What we are fighting here,’ they said, ‘is a gentleman’s war. At the Russian front we take very few prisoners and neither do the Russians.’ The escaped prisoner was caught the next day and brought back to the camp. They made a big display of him. The colonel gave a talk.

“He said, ‘This is an island. You can’t escape from here. We’ll show you what happens to escaped prisoners.’

“There was a flagpole in the middle of the yard. The prisoner was tied there by his hands and feet and forced to stay there for several days without food. Finally he got very weak and was cut loose. I don’t know what they did with him afterward. Of course, most of the fellows were too weak to try to escape.

[Read also C. Horace Maycock’s account of the miserable conditions in Camp 98 on the BBC’s W2 People’s War site.]

“I found out that we were going to be moved from this camp, but we were told the ones that were sick would have to stay.

“I thought, ‘I’m certainly not going to stay here!’

“I managed to get up to the gate where the trucks were parked. Two friends held me on either side. I used all the strength that I had to look as if I was able to walk. I just managed to get onto the truck. We were taken down the side of the mountain and loaded into boxcars again at a railroad station. Before we were put on the boxcars we were given rations. The rations I got looked like it was supposed to be meat. The can was all rusted. We were given two or three cans and they were supposed to last to the next camp, but when I opened a can the food was rotten and stunk. When we stopped in a town the guards opened the doors. Some Italians were close by. They wanted to exchange bread and other food for cigarettes. I quickly motioned to one of them that I had a can of meat. The man gave me a handful of grapes for the can of food. I don’t know whether he got sick eating it.

“We were put in the cars again. When the doors were closed the inside was total darkness. I lay on the floor and couldn’t move. They put a couple of young guards in the car with us. The men milled around and if a guard came close to them they would just kick him. I could hardly move, so they just stepped on me. It must have taken two or three days to get to the next camp, in central Italy—Camp 59 [in the village of Servigliano].

“When it came time to unload, they told us to get out of the car. But I couldn’t—I was so sick. A couple of the other prisoners carried me out and put me on the truck going to the camp. When we got to the gates the other prisoners were eager to see us so they could get the latest news. Some of the men had been at the camp for two years or longer. I was taken to a special area—like a hospital—where I spent the next three weeks. They had two British doctors. I think they thought I had rheumatic fever. They gave me aspirins, which was about all they had in the way of medicine. They gave me about six of them a day. In that area we had about double the amount of rations we would ordinarily have been given. I regained my strength there because we had better treatment than at the last camp. The officers were more humane than at Camp 98. I got to know the doctor well. I finally was discharged from the hospital and was put in a hut.

“Because I was a sergeant I was put in charge of what the British call a section. This was a camp of mostly British men. There were some Americans and some ‘Cyps’—guys from Cyprus. I was in charge of 36 men. I took down their names, their ranks, and serial numbers. It was my duty to account for these men all the time. When we had roll call I had to go along with the Italian and count the number of men. If there were men missing I had to account for their absence—explain that they were sick or whatever. We were lined up outside.

“Also, I lined the men up when we were fed. We were fed once a day. Each of us had a large earthenware bowl for our food. As section leader I had to stand by the pot where the food was being dished out and count the men as they passed by—I counted in Italian. If any of the men went through twice—if the count went over 36—then I would have to go without eating.

“We got Red Cross parcels in the camp. The parcel was about the size of a shoebox. Everything that came in the package was dried—dried fruit, a can of powdered coffee, chocolate bars, and so on. It was compact. Each parcel was divided between two men. It was difficult to divide this equally, so we arranged everything according to a value system. The system was according to cigarettes—everything in the package was worth so many cigarettes. Using this system the men could trade rations. We got Red Cross parcels from America, Britain, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. There were quite a variety of foods, so we set up a trading post. I didn’t smoke, so I would trade my cigarettes for something to eat. The trading post was held behind one of the huts everyday. Anyone who wanted to trade anything would go there at a certain time. That way we used up everything and nothing was wasted.

“One of the New Zealanders built blowers out of tin cans. We weren’t allowed knives in the camp but we were allowed scissors. So the guys used scissors to cut apart our cans and make things out of them. The blowers had gears, with shoelaces for pulleys. Turning a crank made from wire would cause another gear to turn. The blower had a propeller-like fan and a forge. We used the blowers for making tea and coffee. There were few matches in the camp, so someone would go to the kitchen and get a few coals in the morning to get his blower started. One man would cook his meal and then empty his coals into another man’s blower.

“Nothing was wasted. We burned up the wooden boxes that the Red Cross supplies came in, we picked up branches that blew down in the yard from trees, and we’d strip bark off the tree trunks. We lived fairly well there because things were organized. Every night before we were locked up in our cabins we walked around the camp. At first it seemed strange to see everyone walking around the camp, but after awhile I got used to it. Just before dark we’d walk about an hour. It was good exercise and it was relaxing. We paired off as we walked. We talked about the towns we came from and what we would do when we got out. We wondered what was happening back in the States. Some of the men who had been in the camp longer than I had been got mail, but all during the time I was a prisoner I didn’t get mail.

“I hadn’t received mail for a year, so didn’t know what had happened at home during that time. My relatives did write to me. Some of their letters were returned marked ‘missing in action.’ Those that weren’t returned probably reached the camp after I left.

“I was allowed to write once a week—a form letter—and only to my mother. The fellows were allowed to write only to their parents or to their wife. The letters were censored, so about the only thing I could write was that I was OK and looking forward to coming home.

“There were no newspapers or magazines in the camp. We had what we called the library, although it contained only a few books. The British ran the library. Some of the books came through the Red Cross. They had all been censored. We checked out books and read them. We read them carefully and studied each page. We organized activities to amuse ourselves and pass the day, because the days could be very long.

“One of our pastimes was telling stories. Every week we’d meet in one place and someone would tell a story. An Australian might tell about his ranch in Australia where they raised sheep. Each man would talk about his home country and his background. I talked about logging in northern Wisconsin. I talked for about an hour while the men took notes. I had worked in a cordwood camp with my dad and I had worked in some other camps, too. I explained the various ways of logging—the equipment and techniques. The fellows were interested in my stories because many of them were from the city and they had never been in the country. Some had never seen a crosscut saw or an ax. Some of the fellows told me they would like to visit northern Wisconsin when they got out. I haven’t seen any so far, but most of them probably wouldn’t know my address if they did want to look me up.

“Some men were constantly plotting ways to escape from camp. They tried to think of ways to use sugar or lemon powder or other common goods for explosives to blast a hole in the wall. The camp—there were about 1,500 of us—was divided into groups. The Americans were in one section, the British in another, and the Cyps in another. We would get together and talk only once in a while.

“In trying to keep from getting bored, it was interesting for me to stand back and watch the doings in the camp. Some of the fellows followed regular exercise routines, others made their own playing cards from paper, and other guys made a checkerboard on the ground and used rocks for checkers. They found all sorts of games to play to pass the time.

“When we first came to the camp we were all deloused. We had to strip all our clothes off. They were put into a large boiler that had steam rolling out of it. This was to kill lice, bedbugs, fleas, and other pests that were in them. But when we got them back they were partially burned and so crisp that they fell apart, and they shrunk so much that they hardly fit. The camp was overrun with bedbugs. They were vicious and would even come out in broad daylight.

“At night we weren’t supposed to talk. When the guards came around if they caught someone whispering they would put that fellow into solitary confinement. Solitary was in another building. There they kept food from disorderly men for a day or so. Sometimes they came in and just picked someone out, whether he was the man who had been talking or not—they might even wake someone up who was fast asleep and call out, ‘Solitary! Solitary!’ And then take him away. Some fellows would start laughing because it seemed so funny to wake someone up and take him to solitary. And then they would then be taken away, too.

“As soon as the men were taken out of the building the bedbugs streamed out of their bunks in rows. They must have sensed when a fellow left, because then they marched into the other fellows’ bunks. The beds were in tiers—one on top of the other—and the bugs crawled up the posts. You could try to kill them but there seemed to be so many of them that it didn’t make much difference.

“Our clothes were so destroyed by the delousing process that in order to try to save them we usually wore just our underwear shorts. The climate in central Italy was quite mild anyhow. It didn’t seem unusual to us because it was what everyone wore. No one could see in because the walls were of solid rock, perhaps two feet thick and 16 feet high.

“On top of the walls were broken bottles and glass that was angled inward so no one could climb over. Also, there were guard towers on each corner and men posted at intervals as watches. Searchlights were trained on the camp. Escape from this camp would have been nearly impossible. This camp had also been used as a prison camp during World War I.

“When we arrived I noticed the shutters were gone from some of the windows.

“I asked the guys ‘Why are the shutters missing?’ The hinges were still on the frames.

“They told me that British commandos in the camp had dug a tunnel underneath the wall. They used the shutters to keep the dirt from falling into the tunnel. They had taken them one at a time and the Italians hadn’t even noticed they were gone. They used them to shore up the escape tunnel. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but they told me that when they tried to escape the Italians got wind of it and shot them right in the tunnel and then they closed it up. I can believe it.

“The fellows were digging tunnels all the time but the Italians would inspect occasionally. You never knew when they would come. They moved the cots and searched underneath the stoves. They tapped the floor with metal bars to find out if there were hollow areas beneath, and they looked for any tools that might be used for digging.

“When we first got to camp, we had all our hair cut off as part of the delousing process. Everyone’s head was shaved clean and everyone had to take a bath. All the time we were in the camp we had to have our hair cut real short, though later on we had some British barbers who didn’t cut it quite as short. At the camp I recognized some of the fellows who had escaped from the boxcars en route to Tunis in North Africa.

“I said, ‘I thought you had escaped.’

“ ‘Oh, no,’ they said, ‘We all got captured again. The Arabs turned us in.’

“I asked what had become of Major Sage. They said he was also recaptured, but he wasn’t brought to our camp because the officers were separated from the enlisted men.

“Later, when I escaped and was flown to Algiers and interrogated by an American officer there, I mentioned Major Sage.

“The officer said, ‘Who did you say?’

“I told him again, and he said, ‘Why—I knew him!’

“He asked me if I knew where he was now and I answered, ‘No.’

“He said, ‘He is in a prison camp in Austria—in Germany.’ It seemed ironic that he had wanted to escape so badly and now I was back with my own troops and he was still a prisoner.

“Also, when the intelligence officer questioned me I mentioned a conversation I had in North Africa with one of the German guards who could speak English. We asked him when he thought the war would end. He said, “The war will end as soon as we get our bomb built.” I asked him what bomb, and he said, ‘It’s a water bomb. When we get this bomb built, that will end the war because it will be powerful. Your country is working on this bomb, too—and so are the British.’

“I didn’t think it was awfully important, but the intelligence officer seemed to think it was very important. After I returned to the States the U.S. exploded the first atom bomb and then there was talk of the hydrogen bomb—and that was what the German had been talking about.

“The night of the escape was a mass confusion. I don’t really know how the escape came about, but at 10:30 in the evening men were running through the camp, calling out, ‘They have come to take us to Germany.’

“Someone must have taken control of the gate, and someone had battered a hole in one wall that was large enough for a man to escape through. Many of the men had slipped through this hole soon after the confusion began. I had been without food and water at Kasserine when I was separated from the army. I knew enough to prepare for this escape. I found two canteens—a British one and an American one—and I filled them with water. I found a sack and threw all the food I could find into it, and then I then crawled through the hole.

“On the outside the confused men didn’t know which way to go. I told them to just begin walking—to get as far away as possible before day. I felt it would be wise to either pair up or travel alone, but not to move in large groups. Numbers are easily noticed and captured, and if one or two were caught at least we wouldn’t all be recaptured.”