This official military ID was issued to Armie on July 31, 1942, one month before he left the U.S. for the invasion of North Africa. Armie carried the ID during his imprisonment and during his crosscountry escape.
Armie’s Second Account of the Escape
Of the two audio recordings of the POW experience that I made with my father, Armie Hill, this is the second, taped in 1987. Some stories from the first account are repeated here, but there are new details, too. The recall of some of the same events, such as the encounter with the man with the butcher knife in Roccafluvione and the crossing of the Pescara River, are subtly different.
Here is Armie’s 1987 account of the escape. It is a continuation of the entry describing the camp entitled “A First-Hand Account of Camp 59.”
“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.’
“They said, ‘Let’s all go.’
“I said, ‘We can’t all go together, or surely we’ll all get caught. The best way is to break up into small groups. The best way is to break up into pairs—and each go in a little bit different direction. Some of us will get through.’
“Then we debated, ‘Who should go with who?’
“There was Ben Farley. He was one of the men I was in charge of, so knew him. One day I had been dividing some tobacco—Italian tobacco—and nobody wanted it. Finally Ben said, ‘I’ll take it.’
“The next week when I was dividing tobacco again, I gave him some of the same tobacco. This time he said, ‘I took it last time!’ We kind of got in an argument. So I got to know him that way. He was kind of a little cocky guy, too.
“I said, ‘OK, I’ll just take it myself and I’ll give it to somebody.’ So I took it and gave it away to somebody—and did away with my ration that way.
“I asked Ben, ‘Well—you want to come with me?’
“We said, ‘Sure, I’ll come with you.’
“There were some other guys who said, ‘We want to come with you, too.’ Some of the guys started to follow us and it took a while to get rid of them. I finally had to tell them, ‘We’ve got to break up—we can’t go as a group.’ Some of the guys started crying there, saying, ‘We don’t know what to do.’
“I had made a map and I knew just about where we were. I didn’t have a compass, but I did have a watch that I bought when I blasting holes for the tents when we landed in Arzew. By pointing the hour hand at the sun at 12 o’clock, you can know you are traveling due south. And otherwise half way between 12 o’clock and the hour hand always points you south—as Boy Scouts are taught. So I had a pretty good idea, when the sun was up, that we were going south. According to my map, I figured that the best thing—Italy being long and like a boot—was to keep going south. Then we would be all right.
“Ben Farley and I finally got farther away from there. We came to a vineyard and we filled our pockets and ate grapes. It was a real treat! Oh—they tasted so good! We took them by bunches. We ate and ate and then filled our pockets.
“The next morning we wanted to hide out. We climbed up a steep mountainside and saw there was nobody around. We knew that the best time to walk was at night. We were just lucky that there was a full moon, too.
“We were lying down there that morning—Ben Farley was sleeping and I was sitting on a big rock—and all of a sudden it just came to me. I thought, ‘Here I am, and I don’t know where I am or what I’m going to do or anything.’ It seemed like I kind of fell asleep and all of a sudden I woke up and I thought, ‘Gee—what’s the use of being scared? Now I’m not in charge of anyone.’ All this time I’d been in the service it seemed I was always in charge of somebody. And here, now, I was free. In the prison camp I was in charge of men. Now—it seemed so funny—all I had to worry about was myself.
“Ben Farley finally woke up and he said, ‘Where are we? What are we doing?’
“I said, ‘Let’s just wait for night. Let’s just be quiet around here.’ So we had a drink of water. Nobody came around and we waited for night. We knew that when the Germans got organized, they would search around the camp.
“I learned later, in talking to some of the fellows who were recaptured, they figured about 98 percent of the fellows were captured—with dogs and by bribing or paying the Italians to turn them in. We got far enough away from the camp.
“We figured maybe we would see American planes or that the Americans would be coming on land—that there had been surrender. Little did I know that it would be almost a year before the Americans would get that far north. Winter was coming—already it was November. It wouldn’t be long before the mountainsides would be covered with snow and we would have a harder time traveling. Trackers could follow our footprints and we would have a hard time finding anything to eat. We knew that by going south we would be getting into warmer territory.
“The best way to travel was to stay up in the mountains and away from the roads, because in following roads we never knew who would come along. The Germans were traveling up and down the roads with motorcycles. Many of the roads we came to we had to cross. In daylight the best way to do that was to crawl on our hands and knees—get up into the ditch and follow the ditch until we came to a culvert, and then crawl through the culvert. If it were night or dark, we’d run across the road.
“One time—several days after the escape—we came to a large ravine. I kind of had an argument with Ben about whether we should go along the sides, which were high mountains, or through the town. We went through the town, and while we were going through it an Italian stopped us.
“He said, ‘Don’t look at me—just look straight ahead.’
“Then he told me, ‘I can speak English. This is a fascist town. They’re for the Germans here. You’ve got to be very careful when you go through this town that you don’t get caught. For one thing, don’t go in any buildings, because if they’re going to kill you—or keep you—they’re going to hide you. They won’t do that in the open because there are sympathizers here, too. They won’t get away with it, because when the Americans or British come here we’ll get even with them.’
“It was getting night. We thought we could just go quietly through the town, but children started following us. We knew that there was not much choice—we just had to keep going.
“Then a man came out of one of the taverns. He thought we were Germans and he saluted me. Then someone told him that we weren’t Germans—we were Americans. His face just turned black and then he tried to force us into the tavern.
He said, ‘Come into the tavern. You can have all of the wine and everything.’
“I told Ben, ‘We don’t want to go there. It’s just what the Italian warned us not to do.’
“When we didn’t go in, a man came barging out with a big butcher knife. His hands were covered with blood and the knife was covered with blood. He said he had just killed some Americans there. He said we’d be the next ones.
“I picked up a rock and we started running down the street. Children milled around us. We ran a block or so and left them behind, and then suddenly there was a priest standing right in the middle of the street. He opened his gown and he put his hands around us. He said a prayer. He talked to some of the Italians. One of the Italians could speak English, and he said that the priest wanted us to follow the children—they would lead us away and hide us.
“So we followed them and they took us up the side of a mountain. There was a nice house there and there were some people there. We were introduced us to them. They were very nice—an older grandfather and grandmother. Their daughter lived in Canada, and her children had come to Italy to visit their grandparents. Mussolini laid down a law that nobody could leave Italy. The children had to stay with their grandparents. Their mother was still in Canada.
“The grandfather got a long ladder and he told us to climb to a loft in the hay barn—which was about 20 feet high—and hide in the hay. Then he took the ladder down. The next day they put the ladder back and they gave us food. We were there for several days. They fed us, even though they didn’t have much to eat themselves. The man seemed like he was a richer Italian, and this was just his hidden camp. He owned a place in the city, but this was out in the country—kind of like a hiding place or like a resort.
“They were very good to us, and they wanted us to stay with them. They said they would let us know when the Americans were coming. We expected the Americans or British to come any minute, too. But then the old man bicycled to town—to the post office—and he came back very excited. He said there was a sign on the post office wall declaring that prisoners had escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp. A reward of 3,000 lire was offered to anyone who could capture or give information on the escaped prisoners—whether dead or alive.
“And he said the news was that anyone who helped the prisoners could be sentenced to death. He was pretty excited about that. Ben and I told them, ‘We don’t want to endanger your lives. You have been very kind to us. We’ll leave right away.’
“The old man said, ‘I’ll get a guide who can take you over the mountains.’
“Our guide was an Italian soldier who had either gone “over the hill,” or was just on furlough. We didn’t ask him which. He couldn’t speak much English, but he could speak a little. If we would follow him, he said, he would take us away from the village and farther from the prisoner-of-war camp. We knew that they would be searching for us close to the camp. The farther we could get away the safer we would be.
“The Italian, his wife, and the grandchildren all hated to see us go. Even the children were saying ‘Stada qua! Stada qua!’ which in Italian means, ‘Stay here. Stay here.’ They wanted us to stay, but we didn’t know when the Americans would be coming. The grandparents gave us 50 lire of Italian money. And a little later the grandchildren, who had their own savings, also gave us 50 lire. They didn’t even tell their grandparents about it. They just gave it—that was really nice of them.
“We said goodbye and thanked them as best we could. I had quite a bit of French money and American money. I may have given them some of it—I think I did—and then we left there.
“The Italian was really an experienced guide. He had his regular combat boots with cleats on them. I was lucky because just prior to escaping I had taken my boots—the heels came off and they were wearing out—to a British shoemaker in the prison camp, and he nailed new heels on my shoes and also put cleats under the soles of my shoes. They were really helpful in climbing the mountains.
“The guide told us that when you’re climbing mountains you have to have a stick. It was really handy to know that. Ben and I each cut a stick about eight feet long. It worked like a cane, except it was larger. In climbing I leaned against the pole and pushed myself up. When one of us was higher or on a rock he’d reach back with his stick and help the other. The person below would hold the stick and the one above would pull him up. Ben was light—he only weighed about 130 pounds. I’d lift him up and when he got higher he’d help me up. We worked that way—like acrobats.
“We walked during day. Some Italians had given us food. We had two canteens that I took with me when we left the prisoner-of-war camp, and the Italian had a canteen. We found that we could go along without eating for many days, but I think a person could go only about two days maximum without water—especially in a dry climate. There were no wells in these mountains, only steep cliffs and rivers. Distance in Italy was figured in kilometers. I guessed we walked close to 40 miles that day. Then our guide told us more or less the direction we needed to travel to go south.
“We weren’t too far from the Mediterranean—it was to our left and that was just how we wanted to travel. We could see the Grand Sasse Mountain—the highest peak in Italy. We could see it for days and days. It seemed we would never get up to it, or pass by it. The land was so mountainous. It was like an accordion—we went up and down, up and down.
“I told Ben, ‘You know—Italy would be just as big as the United States if it was just stretched out!’ We would climb up one mountain—climb for hours—and we would think that pretty soon we’d get to the top and maybe there would be green grass and level ground on the other side. But when we reached the top and looked ahead as far as we could see it was cliffs and bare rock.
“Later, after our guide left us, there were some open places and grass. We came across a lot of mountain roads and sheep trails. We followed one trail to a plateau where there were boys with sheep—the shepherds. They were real nice. We stopped with them—I knew enough Italian to ask for directions. They had big loaves of Italian bread—bread that was hollow that was baked in home fireplaces or ovens. That was their rations. Most often we paid them a little something for the food when we left. A lot of them wouldn’t even take our money. They just gave us a big slice of bread and we’d take off down the trail.
“We didn’t see much of the Germans in those parts of the hills. Perhaps a plane would go by. We were fairly safe. I kept track of the days. It took us 29 days to walk a distance of—we estimated—300 miles. It wasn’t that distance on the map, but we considered the zigzagging we had to do, and going up and down. A mile as a plane flies was probably three or four miles up and down, consider all the slipping and sliding we did, and climbing up and down cliffs.
“At one time we came to the Pescara River, which we had to cross. There were several rivers that we had to wade across or else we went together upstream or downstream looking for areas to cross. A lot of bridges were probably destroyed. Sometimes there would be a narrow bridge for walking or a railroad bridge that we could walk across. If it were a smaller river, we’d just wade or swim across. But we didn’t know just how to cross this large river. It was 500 feet or so wide.
“I told Ben, ‘We’ll pick a spot across the river where we’ll meet.’ We marked out a house there, and then I went upstream and he went downstream. I said, ‘When we get across, we’ll meet at that house. If we can’t get across we’ll come back to this same place on this side.’
“I had walked just a short ways when I came to an old bridge. I crossed it and went to the house and waited there by the shore for Ben. As I waited, it started thundering and raining hard. It was getting dark. When Ben didn’t show up, I went up to the house. An Italian couple lived there. They were real nice, they said to come in and dry out.
“Just about that time we looked outside and Ben came straggling up. I’ll tell you—that was a happy moment, because I had been wondering if he had drowned or something.
“I had been thinking, ‘Boy, when I get back to the lines what am I going to tell the officers—did I just leave him someplace or what?’ Ben told me he hadn’t found anyplace to cross so he had attempted to swim. It was a lucky thing that he was a good swimmer—with his clothes on and everything. He said he got carried about a quarter of a mile downstream before he finally got on the other side. Most of the rivers coming down out of the mountains were really fast, but then they’d flow to a place where it was flat and would slow down again. So that was why he was late.
“We decided after that we were going to stay together regardless of what happened—and we did. Most of the places that we traveled through were fairly safe, but we knew we had to get closer to the Mediterranean. We might have to walk five or six hundred miles farther south, but by getting closer to the shore we’d know if the British or Americans had landed.
“We came to another village and once again we didn’t know if we should go through that village. We stopped a farmer and talked to him a little. We asked him if it was a friendly village.
“He said, ‘Yes, I think it is kind of friendly—you could go through there.’ First we walked around the village to see if there were any telephone wires. That was what we always did when we approached a dwelling, but very few of the people had telephones. Then we entered the village and walked through.
“People were quite nice, but as we left the village an Italian told us, ‘You were lucky to have gotten through there. We don’t have running water or anything, but we do have a telephone and the mayor called up the Germans and they’re coming.’ We had just left when all of a sudden we saw trucks pour in. People started shouting and squealing and the Germans opened up with gunfire. There wasn’t a sound after that. Later, a farmer said that the Germans had demanded food and then took off again.
“At another farm there was an old farmer who told us to stay with him. He dug under a haystack and he came out with an old rifle that looked like a 45 Savage—like an old Civil War rifle. He held five shells in his hand. They were all covered with mildew.
“He said, ‘Here—you will be safe. Take these with you. Mussolini ordered all of the farmers and everyone to turn in their weapons. But I hid this under the haystack.’
“He was so excited, but I looked at that rifle and thought, ‘Boy, I’m a lot safer not having that along. If they catch me with that I’d be in a lot bigger danger—and it would be clumsy to carry that thing around.’ So I just thanked him.
“I said, ‘That’s good, but I don’t think I could use it.’
“He looked so unhappy. At first he was all smiles, but then he looked unhappy. He said, ‘Well, I’ll have to go bury it again.’
“I was surprised how nice the people actually were in a country like that, where they had been at war for years already. They were so poor. But they were all happy. Many of them knew Americans or had relatives in America.
“When you’re out like that you seem to sense danger—almost like a wild animal, I guess. Even the people—you look at them and you could almost read their minds, if they’re friendly or if they’re not.
“If they weren’t friendly we didn’t ask much, we just took off. I told Ben that one thing we don’t want to do is to hurt anyone. I said that’s the last thing we want to do. We never forced anyone. The only thing was that as we went through we helped ourselves to their gardens. At a place we stopped one night there were some nice tomatoes growing right close to the house. We started eating them. They were so good and so sweet. We ate just about all the tomatoes on that vine and left just a few. I kind of felt bad about it—I still think about it and I wonder what those people thought when they woke up and went to look at those tomato plants and all the tomatoes were gone.
“That was the way it was though—we had to eat what we could. We always had enough food to last us for several days. I learned a lot about saving food during the Depression years. In the homes I didn’t see any canned goods, and very little sugar or anything else. There was a lot of Italian bread and in some places there was meat and some butter.
“Just about every place we went they had wine, called vino there. At just about every place they offered us wine. They had that instead of coffee. It wasn’t strong, it didn’t make me drunk, but it quenched my thirst. Just about everyplace had it—gallons of it.
“It was so beautiful when we’d wake up early in the morning. We would walk and then find a place to hide out during the day. There were a lot of caves on the sides of the mountains, and there were bushes in some places. It was such beautiful country—it would be a beautiful place to be in civilian life—when there wasn’t a war going on. When the sun set on the mountains we just stood and watched it.
“I don’t remember too much of what happened other than that. Most of the time we were just walking and walking. I lost both of the heels on my shoes. When I got to the lines where the British had landed, the bottoms of my feet were just about sticking through the soles. I showed my shoes to the British and they gave me a new pair of shoes. I couldn’t have walked much farther. Ben’s shoes were all worn out, too. They wouldn’t have worn out if we had had good roads to walk along, but our way was all sliding down mountains or climbing mountains.
“Ben had civilian clothes and I had clothes I had worn in the prison camp. I had army fatigues on—just regular army clothes—and I had a field jacket on, too. As far as underclothing, when we were captured I just had a pair of shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, so those were what I wore. It was mighty cold during the nights on some of the mountains. We had matches. I don’t remember building any fires, though. We would warm up with the people. The rain was the worst thing. Then we had to try to dry ourselves out. Neither one of us had caps, but I had more hair in those days.
“As far as sleeping, the first couple of nights we took turns sleeping because we knew the Italians or Germans would be looking for us. One of those nights I remember Ben sleeping beside a large rock. I sat on that rock trying to think of what plans to make—what we would do.
“But later, when we got away farther, we would both lie down. We’d find a place to rest—in a cave or in the bushes. Sometimes we’d find a haystack or an old building. When the Italians were friendly, they would find a place for us. But I don’t remember ever sleeping in a bed. We’d sleep on the floor or in a shed. The Italians were always a little afraid that would be caught and punished.
“Usually we would walk during the day if we felt it was safe—like up in the mountains. If we were close to a village, then we’d pass through at night. We were lucky when we started out that we had moonlight. Later there was no moon, because it took us almost a month to reach the British lines.
“As far as meeting other prisoners-of-war—we did meet a few along the way. Sometimes the Italians would say that there were others who looked like Americans or British who were escaping, too. I do remember two of the fellows we saw several days after we escaped. I have it in my notes—it was on Wednesday, September 15. We were walking and met two of the prisoners who had escaped from the same camp we had been in. One was named Vicky and the other Crusoe. We stopped and talked with them for a while. Crusoe’s parents were Italian and he could speak fluent Italian. Crusoe got along real well with the people in the countryside.
“I think they were both rangers. They didn’t seem too interested in having us go with them, and we also didn’t feel like going with them. We figured we would stand a better chance just as two. It’s easier to spot four people than two. We said, ‘Hope to see you later.’
“It wasn’t until we got back to the British and American lines, and had been flown back to North Africa and we were getting ready to be interviewed—when who should we see but Vicky and Crusoe. We shook hands with them and had to laugh.
“They asked, ‘Boy, how did you guys make it? When we left you we thought you’d never make it through. We thought, we could speak Italian and you guys couldn’t so you wouldn’t get by.’
“I think we saw another couple of guys who escaped, too. In one village we saw a guy and it looked like he was drunk. We didn’t even want to talk with him. We probably said a few words to him. He had civilian clothes on. Then we met a couple of British soldiers who had escaped, too. We even walked with them for a while.
“Back in North Africa, when we received our orders to return to the U.S., I think there were six prisoners who had reached the line. Ben and I were the first ones to make it back to Africa—Vicky and Crusoe came in later than we did.
“Being the first ones ever to have escaped, nobody knew what to do with us. They sent us from one place to another until we finally got orders by command of General Eisenhower to return to the States.”