After the signing of the Armistice between the Allied and Italian forces in September 1943, security was relaxed in Camp 59 and the prisoners broke out and fled into the countryside. Armie Hill was among the men who escaped camp through a hole that had been battered in the prison wall.
Armie’s Escape Map
In his dissertation on “Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano,” Giuseppe Millozzi explains that British Captain J.H.D. Millar had kept hidden during his captivity a copy of a British SAS (Special Air Service) “escape map” of Italy. The maps had been printed on large handkerchiefs.
At the time of the breakout, copies of this map were hastily drawn. When Armie left the camp he had the following map, drawn on prison aerogram stationery. Most likely this map was copied from Captain Millar’s original map. Note that rivers were drawn in blue pencil and roadways in red.
Armie’s First Account of the Escape
I made two audio recordings of the prison experience with Armie Hill, who was my father. The first recording we made in 1976 and the second in 1987. Armie felt that he had left too many details out of the first recording, and so years later he was willing to retell the story and fill in those additional details.
Here is the 1976 account of the escape:
“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.
“I saw Ben Farley. We decided to travel together. Ben was a Kentuckian. He and I hadn’t gotten along especially well earlier. Ben was among the men I had charge of in the camp. Once I was passing tobacco to the men and I had some black tobacco, which no one wanted. Ben said he’d take it. So the next time I passed out tobacco I gave the black to him and he was angry and said he didn’t like it.
“Ben hadn’t taken along supplies, so I gave him one of my canteens.
“Others wanted to come with us but we refused them. They were persistent, and we almost had to run to get away from them.
“One of the first things we ate when we were out in the country were wild grapes, which were sweet and abundant. At night we would take food from gardens—tomatoes and such. And we would fill our canteens from the streams that ran from the mountains. I had a rough idea of where we were. One fellow had smuggled in a newspaper and I had traced a map from it. I knew we had to travel south.
“I used my watch as a compass. When you face the sun at noon both watch hands point south. At each hour when you face the sun, halfway between the two hands is south. Using my knife, Ben and I each cut a club. These were our weapons and our walking sticks. We avoided towns and stopped at farms only in remote areas, where the country folk were not apt to have telephones. If they were going to notify the authorities, they would have to walk to the nearest village and that would take time, allowing us to escape. We weren’t afraid of people shooting us, for Mussolini had taken their guns away long ago—except for any guns that they had hidden.
“An Italian brought us into a town once—I don’t recall what for now. He left us for a bit and then he returned and said, ‘This town doesn’t have running water or electricity, but it does have a telephone and they’ve used it to call the Germans!’
“We left quickly and soon after we saw trucks of German soldiers arriving.
“I was never very frightened when I was experiencing danger. We stayed alert, but when you live constantly in danger you take it for granted and stop thinking about what is happening to you. The greatest shock was in returning to the States and thinking back on what had happened to me. I am convinced that there is a great strength in human endurance. When a man is in such extreme circumstances he becomes part animal. He senses and moves by instinct.
“At one place we nearly were caught. We were traveling through a small valley. There were mountains on both sides of us. Straight ahead was the village of Rochafluvia [Roccafluvione].
“I told Ben I felt we should travel through the mountains and avoid the town, even though traveling that way would be more difficult. Ben wanted to walk through the town. He said we might go right through undetected. We were in civilian clothes and our hair was long and our beards were heavy. We began to walk straight through, but soon the children noticed we were strangers and began stringing along behind us. An old man was sitting on a bench, sunning himself against a shop wall.
“He motioned for me to approach him. I did, and he said, ‘Don’t look directly at me. You are an American aren’t you? I have been in America once.’
“I answered yes. He continued, ‘I am not a fascist, but this is a fascist town and you are in great danger here. Don’t stay here tonight or they will cut your throats. You have sympathizers here, too, and if you are killed your murderers will not live to brag about their actions. But hurry through—now!’
“We continued walking—quickly. Farther down the street a young man walked up to us and gave us the Nazi salute, mistaking us for Germans. Another said, ‘They are not Germans—they are Americans.’ The young man flushed red and turned away. Several men moved close to us—close enough to grab us. One huge man stepped onto the threshold of his shop. His arms and hands were covered with blood and in one hand he held a large butcher knife.
“He said, ‘We’ll get you. Other Americans have been through here before and we’ve gotten them, too.’ My hair stood up straight on my head.
“But they didn’t grab us, so we shot off down the street in a mad run.
“Soon we came upon a group of people, and a priest was among them. We felt safe there. One man spoke to us in English saying, ‘We’ve got to hide you.’
“They told us to follow a boy, and the boy led us to a farm. At that farm we were kept for several days. We were told to climb a ladder into the hayloft. Then the ladder was removed and it was returned only when we were to climb down. The owners of the farm were an older couple. The boy that helped us lived there with them. Two young girls, their granddaughters, lived there also. Two years earlier the granddaughters had come from Canada to visit, but when Mussolini took control of the country he forbade anyone to enter or leave. These people were very kind. They fed us and saw to our every need.
“One day the boy told us he knew of a good place to swim. We went with him and swam naked. When we returned we found the woman crying. The Germans had been through taking men and she wondered what had happened to us.
“The Germans often came through towns and machine-gunned the streets and took by force as many men as they needed. They loaded them into trucks and took them away to work or to fight for them. We had seen them do this. At first there was crying, but when the firing began all grew perfectly still. Resistance meant death.
“The Germans were offering a 3,000 lire reward for aid in capturing an escaped prisoner—dead or alive. Immediate death was dealt to anyone who helped an escaped prisoner. We didn’t want to cause trouble for these people so we left as soon as we could. They all cried when we left. The older folks gave us 50 lire to take along, and the children gave us money, too—another 50 lire—when their grandparents weren’t around. They didn’t want the grandparents to know about it.
“One night Ben and I were going to cross a road as a convoy of German equipment was going over it. It was a long train and rather than to wait for it to pass we decided to look for a culvert and crawl through to the other side. We crawled up to the ditch and slunk through the culvert undetected. But suddenly the convoy stopped and all the men lined along the roadside to urinate. We lay as still as we could as the Germans talked and smoked above our heads and peed down on us. We weren’t caught.
“We often slept in culverts.
“Ben and I came to a river once. It was a swift mountain current. We decided to swim across. It was during the night. I reached the other side safely and waited there for him. I waited for a long time until I was sure he had drowned. I never felt so lonely and alone in my whole life. I went on then and stopped in a farmhouse.
“While I was there, one of the folks looked out and said, ‘Someone is coming toward the house.’
“It was Ben. It sure was good to have Ben back with me again. We agreed then that we wouldn’t part again unless we absolutely had to—such as if we were ever attacked.
“The people we stayed with were elderly. They had been to America at one time, in their earlier years, and they could speak English fairly well. They fed us. They had a fireplace. Most Italians had a fireplace in their home—built out of rock. Ben dried his clothes by the fire and we spent the night there. The next morning the couple gave us bread and other food, and we filled our canteens. They gave us directions, too.
“We wanted to stay close to the Adriatic coast. The farther inland we went the more mountains we had to cross, and there were fewer roads inland.
“We thought by staying close to the coast there would be a greater chance of coming upon a landing of British or American troops. We continued traveling south using the sun as a compass, knowing the sun would rise in the east and set in the west. We had been walking for three weeks now. We thought soon the Allied troops would be pushing north. We questioned people along the way, but in those days there were little means of communication—few telephones and radios. The people were poor and there were no newspapers. About the only news was passed by word of mouth. If someone was traveling north, he told the local people what was happening where he had been.
“We avoided roads because there were German trucks traveling on them. At that time it wasn’t even safe to wear civilian clothes, because when the Germans needed help they took any man they came upon.
“At one farm we learned there was heavy bombardment at Termoli. The farmer gave us directions to Termoli. When we got closer we heard the heavy naval guns and knew that there was either heavy shelling or an invasion. Many of the German trucks, instead of traveling south, were going north. The Germans must have been trying to escape before the landing forces cut off the roads. Perhaps paratroopers were landing and blowing up bridges. The Germans had to move before they became trapped.
“We were confident that the landing had taken place. We stopped at a farm late one evening—after first circling the place to make sure there were no telephones. We approached with caution. The farmer had news that the British had landed and were moving inland.
“We thought that in the night we could a move close enough to the line to distinguish where the British forces were. When we got close it seemed Germans were everywhere. We had to run across several roads. We hated to run across. It was dangerous because we might be seen. So we crawled through the brush to the road and lay in the ditch. When the German convoys went by we were still. A lot of motorcycles went by—motorcycles were used for scouting.
“When we reached a culvert we crawled through to the other side. When we were on the other side we again crawled along the ditch until we found a place to proceed. It was slow movement, but it was the surest way of not getting caught.
“We met an Italian farmer on the road who said the British had made a commando landing. We began to wonder how we were going to make it through the lines. First we would have to make it through the German lines and through the no-man’s land. Even when we were to the British lines, the British might think we were approaching Germans and shoot us.
“We debated our options and decided we would sneak as close as we could to the British lines.
“Suddenly the sky grew dark and it started to rain. We got soaking wet. The thunder rolled and lightning flashed. We knew this was the best thing that could possibly happen. The storm would make it easier for us to move undetected. The thunder rumbled and the lightning flashed, and when it flashed we could see ahead and tell if the road was clear. If it were, we would dart forward again.
“In this way we got through the German lines.
“When we got near to the British lines we noticed the British had a machine gun set up on the road. We decided it was best to not surprise them at night or they would rake us with machine gun fire. We lay down about a quarter or eighth of a mile from the machine gun and waited for morning.
“When morning came we looked toward them and saw three British soldiers with machine guns. We studied them for a while. We didn’t see any Germans around so we thought now would be the best time to approach them. We thought the best way to go to them would be to walk and not crawl or sneak, because if we did they would think we were the enemy. We got up, picked up our things, and walked up to the road. Right away they noticed us and trained the machine guns on us. They noticed we didn’t have rifles. We waved our hands to show we were friends.
“We walked right up to them and said, ‘Hallo! Are you British?’
“They couldn’t figure out what we were doing there. We told them we were Americans who had escaped from a prison camp.
“They said, ‘What the heck you American blokes doing here?’ They were Scottish troops from the British regiment. They were wearing their camouflage desert uniforms. The Scottish were some of the best troops the British had and they used them quite often. The Germans called them the ‘ladies from hell,’ because of the kilts they wore. And they wore short desert khaki pants. They were tough troops. They had well-built arms and legs.
“They told us to follow the road and we’d come to a village where we’d be safe. We walked farther down the road and met some other men. We told them who we were.
“They said, ‘We landed here a couple of days ago.’ They told us American planes had bombed them—’Your blokes boomed us last night.’ The Americans didn’t know that the British had landed in that area. We looked around and saw that several buildings had been destroyed. There were dead chickens and donkeys lying in the streets. We were invited to squad headquarters—or company headquarters. They gave us tea and told us to fill our canteens with tea. They told us they would make arrangements for us to stay with them in one of the buildings they were occupying. There were still German troops south of us. They told us it would be at least a week or ten days before we could go farther south.
“The British called their trucks lorries. They said when they leave for the southern tip of Italy we could ride along with them. But at that time it would have been dangerous. First they would have to clear away mines and roadblocks. So for the time we stayed with the British there in Termoli. We talked to the commander, who questioned us about what we saw along the way. We told him that, in coming through the lines, there didn’t seem to be many Germans and no heavy artillery pieces, and that it appeared all the trucks were heading farther north.
“Of course, he was glad to hear about that. We told him where our prison camp had been.
“He said, ‘I’ll pass the word on and we’ll try to send some men in to help the escaped prisoners.’ He said they would probably drop paratroopers in that area, behind the lines, to organize a rescue squad. I thought there were about 1,500 prisoners. I knew many of them wouldn’t get through. I told him that most of the prisoners were British. We were the first prisoners they knew of to come to that area.
“Ben and I stayed with the British for about a week. There wasn’t much fighting going on. It was more of a reorganization of forces. They sent out patrols and received supplies. I was impressed with their troops, most of which had been in the desert for about three years. They attended to their duties in very orderly fashion. These were the specially trained commandos who were the best troops in the British army. They were all selected volunteers for this special sort of action.
“Finally, the commander said the way was clear for travel south, and he told us we could ride on one of the lorries to an airfield that the Americans had captured at Taranto.
“At Taranto we spoke with the American commander.
“He said, ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with you. We’ll fly you back to Tunis when one of our planes goes for supplies.’
“He wrote out an order for us to travel aboard the plane, and we took the next plane out—a large cargo plane. We were the first prisoners of war to escape and to return to safety, so at Tunis they didn’t know what to do with us.
“They said, ‘We don’t know what to do with you. We’ll fly you to Algiers.’ Eisenhower’s headquarters was at Algiers, and other American escaped prisoners of war had been flown directly there. Altogether there were about eight of us. In Algiers, an intelligence officer interrogated us. We were questioned about our escape—how we had escaped and the routes we had taken. Each of the escaped prisoners had taken different routes and arrived in different places.
“The officer told me, ‘I am recommending that you be given a Silver Star medal for bravery in action.'”
“At Algiers they didn’t really know what to do with us either. While we were fighting our papers were lost, or they had been sent back to the United States when we were reported missing in action. The officer there wrote up temporary papers that we could use until our others were relocated. Our units had been reassigned. Some had lost so many men or suffered such heavy casualties that they were comprised of altogether new men now.
“At that time there were no regulations regarding prisoners of war, so new rules had to be made. The new rules had to come from Allied headquarters. I did not have a chance to see General Eisenhower, but a couple of the other fellows were told to go right to headquarters and talk with him. I understood he was impressed by our escape.
“We had walked about 300 miles in 30 days. Many of the miles were through mountainous country. Sometimes we crawled on hands and knees and sometimes we fording rivers. Some days we walked just a little. Other days we walked 20 miles or more.
“General Eisenhower wrote out and signed special orders for us to return to the United States. The orders stated that we would be sent back to the United States and given a delay en route before we were assigned to a permanent station. I think it was a delay en route of about 30 days—that is, we could go home for that length of time. After 30 days, we would each report to the section center nearest our home and there be assigned to a new unit.
“We were given orders to fly from Algiers to Casablanca. There we were put on the SS Brazil and sent back to the States. The danger of submarines was much less than when we had invaded North Africa almost a year earlier. The ship sailed alone—without escort. We landed in Newport News, Virginia about a week later. I was allowed to go home to Phelps.
“I got off the train in Eagle River. In those days there was a bus that ran from Eagle River to Phelps, so I took the bus to Phelps. I felt so good when I got to Phelps that I walked most of the way home from town. I had sent a telegram to my brother Vernon letting him know what day I would be arriving, but he didn’t know exactly what time to expect me. Mother and the boys were sure surprised to see me. They didn’t know I would be coming home.
“Mother had a great deal of confidence that I would get through. My sister Sylvia told me later that even when she received the telegram reporting I was missing in action, she had said, ‘Oh, he’s probably hiding out there someplace.’ She was sure I was safe. When I came back it was as if she was expecting me. All of my experiences seemed like a dream then—when I was back in the security of home.”