I interviewed Neil Torssell over the phone on May 13, 2008. He had agreed in advance to my taping him. At first, I suggested we might do a series of shorter conversations. However, once we got started he was sharp and eager to talk and in one hour and 45 minutes he covered the whole of his service experience—from enlistment to discharge!
I’m pleased to post this fascinating interview here. My questions for Neil and comments are shown in italic.
Enlistment and Training
Tell me what unit you joined, how you trained, and how you came to go overseas.
“I wasn’t drafted—I enlisted in September 1940, before the draft started.
“I went into the service to learn more about photography. The recruiters knew that the draft was coming up and they didn’t care where they sent you. So they sent me to 322nd Signal Aviation Company, which is communications. I didn’t find that out until I got up to Selfridge Field, Michigan.
“After I took basic training, I transferred over to the 3rd Air Base Group at Selfridge Field—to the photo section there. That was the time when I got up in grades from private to private first class, then corporal, and then sergeant.
“Things were going pretty good. I’ll probably skip a lot of details here because they’re not significant. After the war was declared in 1941, my group got transferred down to South Carolina—Florence, South Carolina to be exact. I was with the 3rd Air Base Group still. We were there for a few months and then we were moved up to Wilmington, North Carolina.
“From there I flew in a couple of missions—submarine control in B-25s—as a photographer. At that time the Army Air Force wasn’t well-equipped. On the B-25s I was back where the camera was and the guns were two wooden sticks.
“Wilmington was practically on the coast. After a few weeks there, we got transferred up to Fort Dix, New Jersey.”
“We got all of our equipment ready to ship overseas. We spent a couple of weeks there in preparation. Then we went up to New York and boarded the Queen Mary and sailed for England. We landed at Scotland—in the town of Greenock. We got off on the docks, and then we proceeded to get on an English train. At the depot there were girls selling cakes and cookies and things of that sort.
“I might mention, on the ship the food was lousy—period. If it hadn’t been for the American PX, I think I would have starved. We had 10,000 people aboard, and the British are not the greatest cooks to begin with, in my estimation.
“Of course, when we got to Scotland we didn’t have any English money, but we had American money—and I think we overpaid the gals in American money for the cakes, but that was all right. They tasted good. Then we went from Scotland down into England and to a place called Ringwood, south of London, where there was a British air base. The night we got there the British had a good dinner for us. Of course, they had mutton and Brussels sprouts, which is standard fare. But that was all right—it tasted good.
“I got assigned to a barracks and I gradually got acquainted there. Then we had a chance to go to London to get some equipment for our photo lab.
“And then we went up to Cambridge, north of London. We were stationed with the British troops up there. We learned about aerial photography from the fighter’s point of view, and how to interpret gunfire from fighters using gun cameras.
“Then we went back to London and stayed there a couple of days. I had a good chance to do London and learn the subways. It was a very interesting place. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Hyde Park. It’s a place where all these oddball characters have got speeches for everything—on every subject.
We went to a couple of dances there. The English girls were very sociable. In a couple of days we went back to our base. Once we got to Ringwood we all bought bicycles. When we wanted to go to town on the train, we took our bicycles on the train and we’d cruise all over town with them.
“In the evenings we would take the train in. There was a dance hall there. It was a nice place to associate with the British girls. That’s where I learned to eat fish and chips. It’s a strange thing the way they eat them—you go to the fish place and you get your fish and it’s wrapped in newspaper, and then you go next door to get the chips and the beer. It’s all very good, very inexpensive. They loved the Americans for the money we spent.
“We were there for a while and then we got transferred down to southern England, near to Southampton. It’s not too far from the coast. The base was near Bournemouth, if you know where that is. We used to get in to Bournemouth on occasion. We’d take the train in. There was a dance hall there, so we got acquainted there. We could rent a room there from a nice English lady—she had nice rooms for rent.
“It was a bed and breakfast. You know the English are famous for that.
“After we were there for a while we got notice we were moving out. We didn’t know where we were going. We sold our bicycles to guys who were coming in, we packed all our stuff, and the train took us to Liverpool. There we got on an American ship. We didn’t know it, but we were headed for Africa for the invasion.
“We circled around the Atlantic for a few days, then we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and landed at Oran, in Algeria.”
“Then we were supposed to go ashore. Of course, this was new territory. We had guns—I had a Thompson submachine gun—but no ammunition. Here we were about to go ashore in a combat area, but with no ammunition. We told them right off-hand, ‘Either get us the ammunition or we stay on the ship.’ We got our ammunition. We got off the ship and marched into Oran. At first we slept on the streets, and then we marched out to the air base on the edge of town.
“We were there for a few days, then we moved to a French air base, called Tafaroui, a few miles out of Oran. There was a swimming pool there. Well, none of us had had a decent bath since we left England. I think there were 500 guys in the swimming pool. It was one pool of soapsuds. Finally the medical office chased us all out. He said it was too filthy.
“We set up a photo lab there and did the general work that a photo lab has to do—film processing and printing—but it wasn’t what I eventually got into. There I was with the 99th Bomb Group.
“Then, they wanted some fellows to go out on detached service, to go up to the base near Oran. We were kind of fed up with where we were, so about six of us said, ‘We’ll go.’ We set up a photo lab up there. We could go up any time we wanted—there was no one to oversee us.
“Then the Bomb Group came in to the airport at Oran. They needed photographers because Ground Echelon hadn’t shown up yet. So they asked us if we wanted to go and we said, ‘Sure.’
“We had no orders, but the CO of the bomb group was a colonel. The CO of our service group was a captain; he was outranked and so we went. We just packed ourselves into a C-47 and we headed out east. We got to a base where Casablanca was on one side and Constantine was on the other. This was nowhere. When we got there it was just a runway. No tents, no buildings, no rations—or anything. We had rations with us, thank goodness.
“We each had pup tents, so each put up a shelter. A few days went by and some of the ground crew of the bomb group showed up. Then we got regular tents and a regular mess hall and everything. When we got there they had just put in a new runway and we had the rainy season. The first plane that tried to land got struck in the mud. So our bomb group had to land at a base a few miles east of there for a couple of weeks along, until it dried out.”
“We kind of got to know the routine and we started doing combat flying. I had never done combat flying before. I had done aerial photography of sorts. It was on-the-job training. You know, in the States, you go through six or eight weeks of training.
“Over there they said, ‘You think you can fly?’
“‘How’s your health?’
“‘OK. That’s it.’
“No medical exam—nothing. Just start work. Of course, that’s the difference between state side and combat zone.
“Then we flew to targets in Sicily and Algeria, and southern Italy, and up as far as Rome and Naples.”
So, when you flew, how many guys were on the plane?
“The plane was a B-17 and it had a 10-man crew. As the photographer, I was the eleventh man. Early in the war they sometimes flew the photographer as the eleventh man. Later on they changed that so one of the crewmembers was left out and the photographer was put in his place.
“On my seventeenth mission—I call it my sixteenth-and-a-half because I got there and didn’t get back—that’s when I went down. Four members of our crew were killed. You never saw so many holes in an aircraft for your life, cable wires hanging down. The radioman tapped me on my shoulder and I looked out the window—and you know the stars at the end of the wing? There was a big hole where a shell had gone through and hadn’t exploded. If it had exploded it would have blown off the wing and none of us would have survived.
“We got the bale-out orders. The crewmembers were standing at bomb bay and we stared at each other and considered who would go first. They pointed at me and it was no time to argue, so I pulled the ring.
“There are straps across your legs, across your chest, on your shoulder and seat back. And across the chest is a big buckle—way down on your chest. When the chute opens that buckle comes right under your chin, and you get a good jolt then. That’s why you see paratroopers wearing a chin guard.
“The chute starts swinging back and forth. Well, then I started to worry—if the chute’s going to spill, then I’ve had it. The chute leveled off and the next thing I knew there were German fighters circling around.
“I thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to put a shell through the chute.’
“But, he was a gentleman. He just brought himself to the ground troops. I landed next to a farm area. I had a few minor flesh wounds from flack and the machinegun fire.
“Incidentally, before I jumped our oxygen went off during gunfire. You have walk-around bottles of oxygen, so I was just reaching for one of those when a machine gun fired in and it exploded just before I put my hand on it. Lucky me.
“As I said, we landed next to a farmhouse. I got out of my chute, got out of my flying clothes, and went in the house.
“The people there were friendly.”
This was on Sicily?
“Yes, this was on Sicily. They were relatively friendly. They didn’t make any nasty moves toward me at all.”
“The Italian Carbinari came along. The Carbinari is kind of a paramilitary police force of the Italian army. He took me into the nearest village, and there I was interrogated by an Italian officer.
“As you know, all you are allowed to share is name, rank, and serial number. He asked all kinds of questions, and I gave the same answer over and over again. You know, Italians are very volatile in expressions. He was literally jumping up and down in frustration because I wasn’t going to give him answers.”
Did he speak English well?
“He spoke pretty good English. Then they checked the wounds I had. Well, I had a small amount of shrapnel in my shoulder. Do you know what a crochet hook is—a long metal hook with a probe at the end? They used this hook to probe out my piece of shrapnel. Shrapnel, iodine, and a bandage was all the first aid I had.
“Then they put me in a cell in the city jail. I was all by myself. They brought me some food, but I was so unnerved I couldn’t eat. Oh, I might have eaten a little—but not much.
“They collected those of us who were captured. They put us on a bus—one guard for each prisoner. We were to go inland to some town. I don’t know what the town was. There we were put in the city jail.
“They gave us a meal. It was me in the cell with two of the officers. The cell consisted of some boards to sleep on—no pillow, no blanket, no mattress, nothing—just the plain boards. The door was locked. The sanitary facilities were outside, so you had to knock on the door if you had to use them.
“The next morning they took me out and put me in a cell with a so-called South African fighter pilot. I figured out right away that he was a stoolie. He claimed that he had been shot down, that he was flying a mosquito flyer when he was shot down. It was a good story.
“So we talked, but we just talked about little stuff—nothing that was incriminating. We were let out twice a day for meals. For sanitary facilities, as far as for urinary, there was bucket in the corner that hadn’t been emptied for some days. The sleeping quarters were the same as in the other cell—boards.”
What about the other guys who had been shot down in the plane?
“In my cell, I was with this so-called South African. All the other guys were in the other cells. I was out in the morning for about an hour. There was a courtyard, and we would walk around. The Carbinari had their quarters there. The families lived in upper floors on one side. Everything was very pleasant there. We went out in the afternoon for the same thing—a walk in the evening before supper—and then we were locked up again. We were there for two or three days.
“Then we got loaded on the bus—the same bus with Carbinari, one Carbinari for each soldier. We headed towards Italy. We got going along pretty good and we got to some town along the coast. There was an air raid by a couple of fighter aircraft. They were strafing. The guards left the truck before we did. They crawled over to the house. We crawled under the beds or anything else, so we didn’t get hit by bombs.
“We got back on the bus after the raid went by and we went farther down the road to Catania. It’s a big city. We stopped a couple of miles outside of town. There was another air raid, and we watched the air raid from the bus. It was B-25s that were bombing the town. After the bombing was over, we went through town.
“Then we met these German anti-aircrafts—88’s—full-sized vehicles. They were coming out of town after the air raid was over. We got to Messina, on the closest point between Sicily and Italy. There we got caught in another air raid. When it was over we took a ferry ride across the Straits of Messina to Reggio di Calabria on the tip of Italy.
“There we boarded a passenger train. We were very lucky. I found out later there a lot of Italian prisoners were put up in freight cars—in boxcars—while we were six to a compartment with one guard for each of us. As far as cars, they weren’t worth a toot. I could look out to where we were going. One place we stopped in the middle of the night, I got up, walked to the end of the entryway of the coach. Nobody was around, so I stepped out onto the platform. I looked around, walked around—I didn’t know where to go, so I got back on the train. The guards didn’t even know I was gone.
“One time I was in the hallway of the train and I met what I think was probably a German SS troop because he was a young man, but very arrogant in his appearance. He was dressed to the nines. He just walked right by me. He didn’t know who I was and he didn’t bother to find out, either.
“We went through Naples and up to Rome. There we were taken to an internment camp outside Rome. We could see the Vatican from there, but the Vatican is a large complex, so it’s easy to check out.
“The camp was surrounded by three large coils of barbed wire, one of which was supposed to have been electrified. The camp was run by so-called British soldiers. Well, you remember, before the war Germany sent a lot of young men over to England to go to school, and they learned the English accent perfectly. They were dressed in perfect English battle dress. There never was a flaw in their speech whatsoever.
“There again, we got let out twice a day, and fed twice a day. I was in the basement of the building, which was no more than a villa. We were photographed for intelligence. The Italian photographed me with what looked like a very nice camera. He asked me what exposure I thought he should use. I gave him all the wrong information. Of course, he was very thankful for what I gave him. The next day he came back—he wasn’t happy because everything was bad. But I did that on purpose.
“After we were there for a few days, we were taken back into Rome station. We were put back on a train and we went about 40 miles north to a small village, and to what was probably at one time an Italian villa. Upstairs we were given a room. I can’t believe this—they put two of us in a room that had single beds, springs, mattresses, sheets, pillowcases. Everything you’d want, except the door was locked, of course. We had writing material. They brought our meals in to us.
“Then after a day or two the fellow I was with found out the room was bugged. So, we had to be very careful about our conversation.”
How did he find out? Did he find the bugging device?
“It was so well camouflaged in the decorations on the ceiling, you could hardly see it. I didn’t see it, but he was more observant than I was.
“After a couple of days there, they took us to the other part of that so-called villa, to a big room. There was about 20 or 25 men in there. There we had a mattress cover filled with straw, one blanket, one pillow, that was it. Our luxury quarters were gone.
“We were there for a few days. And then, back to Rome, where we got a train going across to the east coast of Italy, to the Port of St. George.
“Then we got onto an urban-type train and headed to Servigliano, which was the town where the prison camp was—P.G. 59.
“All I had was my summer flying clothes. I had cut my regular shoes down to Oxfords because of the heat, so that’s all I had for shoes. I had a summer flying suit—I didn’t want to wear nothing else. Then they gave us the prison camp issue, which was British pants, Italian shirts, Italian jackets, a blanket, pillow, canteen and cooking utensils, knife, spoon, and fork, and a box of Red Cross parcels.
“In this camp, there were a variety of British soldiers, from England and from all around the British Empire. There was a building right next to us that had Cypriots in it. The guards patrolled the camp day and night.
“They were not the greatest guards. To give you an idea how inefficient they were—one day I was standing in a doorway and one of the guards dropped one of the rifle bullets out of his rifle. It hit the ground and the slug fell out. So he picked up the shell and put the slug back into it and put it back into his rifle. So you can imagine if that thing got out of the barrel he was lucky.
“There again, they fed us twice a day. The prisoners had some biscuits and some stew. And we had everything we got from the Red Cross parcels. Anything that was in a tin can of any kind—all that metal—was saved, because we made all kinds of stuff out of it. Little blowers for heating our food—like a hot cup of tea or something like that. All you need is a couple of little sticks of wood and put your little canteen cup on top of that and it would heat it in no time at all. It had a blower in it. I sent you a drawing of what the thing was like.
“During the day we were allowed to roam around the camp as much as we wanted to. Every morning we had inspection and head counting to make sure everybody was there.”
“Then we got word something was up. We got a Red Cross parcel and things weren’t punched. I don’t know if I mentioned already—everything in a can in the Red Cross parcel was punched. It kept us from hoarding in case we tried to escape.
“The prison wall was next to our building and there was a deep ditch next to the wall. On top of the wall were guard towers, and the top of the wall was capped with cement with shards of glass embedded in it to present us from going over the wall in an escape. On that last week the guard got friendly and he scrapped some of the glass off the wall in spots.
“We could get close up to talk to the guards. It was toward the end of September—I can’t remember the exact date—we got the message to put everything we wanted together.
“So I got my blanket. I used my sweater for a knapsack and put all my goods in there. I just kind of sat around. It was early evening. Then we got the word—let’s just get out of here. There were a few shots fired, and the gate was open and we called headed out.
“I might mention that while we were in prison we got to walk outside the prison camp. Of course, we were with guards the whole time. No one tried to escape. Also, at that camp, those who wanted to could help the Italian farmers do field work. Some of the fellows volunteered to do that. I was told when you are a prisoner you do not help the enemy, so I never volunteered. I probably could have, but I didn’t.
“We fled across the fields. There was stuff all over the fields where the guys were dropping stuff. I dropped my Italian jacket and picked up a British battle jacket. We crossed rivers. We didn’t worry about how deep a river was, we just crossed it and kept going. We were heading inland, toward the mountains.”
Did you have any sense of where you were? Did you have any kind of map?
“No, we had nothing—but dumb luck, that’s all. We had no maps. We got quite a ways away. There were eight or nine of us together. We huddled down in a ditch. There were trees on both sides. That first morning we heard shots from one end. Nobody moved. After awhile we heard shots from the other end. Nobody moved.”
Life with the Italians
“That was all there was in the way of someone searching for us. We had one fellow in the group from New York. He was Italian and he spoke good Italian. So he went to this farmhouse. The people brought us food. They fed us a couple of times a day. They brought us a bottle of wine to share.
“At night we would go up there—they had a radio hidden—we’d listen to BBC and forces of war. Then we would go back into our hiding place. After we were there for a few days we headed inland. The guy who spoke Italian stayed with them because he could pass himself for an Italian and he had a good place to stay.”
How many were with you?
“There were about eight of us.”
Had you known each other in the camp?
“Some of us, yeah.
“Oh, one thing I wanted to mention before this, about the escape. Some of the guys at night had been digging a tunnel. There were cement blocks for the floors of the barracks. The guys removed them, set them aside, and started digging. They had quite a tunnel, I guess. I didn’t know about it.
“One fellow who was with us—an American—told us about it after the escape.
“The next place we stayed, near there, there were three homes, different families. They took us all in. Mostly we stayed down in the brush at the river bottom. After a couple of days, when they thought everything was clear, they let us come up and sleep in the stable. Some families took two or three. One family—they were just a couple—took me in.
“After a few days, just three of us stayed behind. The others decided they were going to try to get through. So they headed south. We stayed put. We helped with the chores around there. We helped with the grape harvest.
“The Italians, when they make wine, they make it in huge quantities. They have masonry pits—oh, say 10 x 14 in size and approximately a couple of feet deep, with a drain at one end. The women get in there barefoot and stomp the grapes. The juice goes out the drain and they put it in barrels to ferment. They had no yeast for fermentation, so it was natural fermentation.
“After it was down to pulp, they pressed the pulp through a wine press. Then the wine was put in a cooker and cooked for a certain length of time. That made a much stronger wine.
“Our food there was pretty much ordinary. I’ll call it pasta. It was bread, cheese, wine, and this pasta. It was probably about the consistency of oatmeal. All the cooking was done over a fireplace. It cooked enough for one meal. On occasions we had boiled potatoes—potatoes cooked half the day over coals. The Italians put them in water and they simmered while we were out working.
“The fighter pilot and I decided we would head south and see what we could do. We stopped at several different places on the way. I traded my good coat for an old ragged coat for the simple reason that I could walk on the hills and wouldn’t be noticed. I would be just another one of the Italians.
“As I said, we stopped at a number of different places. One place we stayed—it was in winter—and we asked the people there if we could have a bath. We had had just one quick shower when we were in the prison camp, so we weren’t exactly smelling like roses, but we were all the same so it didn’t make any difference.
“We finally convinced them to heat the water and we took it down to the stable. We slipped down and took a bath. We had an audience at the window watching those crazy Americans taking a bath.
“And at Christmastime we were there. We had a real big dinner. We had some kind of fruit. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was very good anyhow. And we had a special wine.
“There we took the oxen down to the river to drink. The oxen were on their own—we just went along, that’s all. They took us down. After they got their fill, we turned around and headed back up to the stable. That was all there was to it. The first couple of times it was kind of a joke doing that.
“They had one girl there—oh, she was a beauty! But that was all the good it did us. She was friendly and I got close to her and talked to her. That was it, period. I remember her name was Veneria.
“There was a village nearby and so on occasion we would go into town. There were a couple of friendly people there who would inform us of what was going on. One day we were in this wine shop, having a glass of wine, and a German convoy stopped. You’ve never seen three guys disappear so fast!
“We went out the back door quick as a shot, ran down the back hills and we were gone. The German convoy had just stopped for a break or whatever.”
Had you seen any Germans at all since you broke out of the camp?
Or, did you hear anything about the Germans coming through the area?
“On occasions they would go around to all these different places to get boys 14 or 15 years old for their labor battalions. The Italians had what I call the ‘underground telegraph system,’ the guys could be 10 miles away and we knew they were coming. We’d take off and head back into the hills until the coast was clear and then we’d head back.”
It was just word of mouth—people let you know that the Germans were coming through?
“Another place we stayed—it was just Larry and me there—at this place they were very good to me. They were one of the better class of Italian farmers. I came down with a cold and they let me sleep upstairs in the bed for a couple of days to get over it.
“One morning before we got up, they woke us up and told us to get out of there quick. We looked down the road and just about of quarter of a mile from there was a German convoy and a house on fire. We didn’t question anything—we were gone.
“When we came back a few months later, we were told that there had been two Americans living in that house. This was a German SS troop. What they did was strip the house of everything they could use, set the house on fire. They took the two Americans down to the river bottom, made them dig their own graves, and shot both of them.
“That was probably as close as we had come to being recaptured.”
What happened to the Italian family that had sheltered them?
“Well, they lost their house and all their possessions. They were just a small SS troop, but they were mean SOBs, if you know what I mean.
“We moved back and forth between different places. It was when we came back to this place that I was told about this assassination.”
Were you attempting to move south, or were you just moving back and forth?
“Well, we were trying to move south, but there was no way to get through. It was the kind of country where all the good roads the Germans were using. We couldn’t travel on those. We would get close to any village and they would say ‘Tedeschi! Tedeschi!’ That was their name for the Germans.
“So, we’d go back again.
“One time I got a notion to go north all by myself and see what I could do. I came to this farmhouse and they let me move in—sleep in the stables, of course. The peasant way of life is so different from ours. This woman was very pregnant and one day she wasn’t out working. Well, come to hear she just had her baby. Well, what was nothing so unusual. Next day she was out working. Here a woman would stay home a week and recuperate.”
Who took care of the baby while she was out working?
“Oh, I suppose the older lady of the house.
“Then I went back to where I started, the fellows had moved out and had built themselves a cave. They were afraid of the Germans coming in—that in their retreat they might come through there.”
These were the fellows you had been with earlier?
“Yes. They built this cave nearby and camouflaged it real well. You would never see it. During the day we wandered around. One day I went into a village. There was an Italian soldier in there. I asked to see his rifle and he gave me his rifle to look at. A lot of Italian soldiers had deserted after the Germans took over. In fact at this one place we stayed there was an Italian noncommissioned officer living there. He had resigned and everything. But he got out of the army, period.
“After a few days of that questionable living I heard the Germans were going around us—they were moving back up. So I decided to move on.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to move south.’
“The other two fellows said, ‘We’ll wait. Knowing the forces of war, it might be a retreat or something and we’ll be caught in it again.’ They decided to stay, so I went by myself. The couple of them gave me a hunk of sausage, a chunk of bread, and a piece of cheese. They wrapped it up for me and away I went.
“I walked to the nearest village and caught a ride with an Italian army truck that was going south. They let me off, but I didn’t know where I was. I started hitchhiking again, and I caught a ride with an Italian truck driver.
“Now, the only thing that Italians know about driving is they’ve got an accelerator and they’ve got a horn. The brakes they don’t use.
“We had to take all the back roads, which in many cases were single track, and we went around hills with sharp curves. More than once we almost met head-on with another truck. But we finally got through and got to Chieti.”
The Allied Forces
“There I met my first American officer, and I had been with the British so long I gave him a British salute. He told me where to go—where there was a place that I could stay. It was a big, old warehouse. I went in there and it was filled with men and looked like a mess. I told myself, ‘I’m not staying there.’
“I went back into town and I went to a local hotel and got a room. The room consisted of a bed, a mattress, and a pillow, and that was it. Then I went to a restaurant to eat.
“In my wandering around I met a Polish paratrooper. The only thing he could say in English was ‘no smoking.’ But we went around the town all night and we sure got snockered. The next morning I went down to this collection point and we got on Army trucks and headed south. All the roads were closed because the good bridges had been mined, or blown up, or whatever.
These were Italian army trucks?
“No, they were Allied trucks.
“We got to the seacoast and there was a camp that was run by British soldiers. It was the end of the war line. They told us to get rid of our clothes. It was right on the seacoast, so we took a bath in the Adriatic. Then we came back and took a freshwater shower and they gave us British-issue for army clothing.
“And then we got a meal.
“On the railhead going north the German’s had what I call a ‘super plow.’ It went on the last car of the train. It’s huge. It’s sharp. It digs down way below the wheels, so as it’s pulled on the train it splits all the ties. It ruins the rail bed.
“But, going south the rails were all OK.
“I was on the train all night and got up in the morning at Bari, Italy. There were American troops there, and a hospital. I was put in the hospital overnight. I just had a preliminary check to see that I was OK. As long as I had nothing seriously wrong with me I got to sleep in a pup tent out in the yard. It was on a cot, with blanket and so forth.
“In the morning a nurse came in—a nice, white American nurse. She probably was ordinary looking, but she was the best American woman I had ever seen. Come to find out, she was from my home state. She was from Milwaukee. So we had a real nice talk. I got a physical exam. They checked me out OK. Incidentally, I changed back from the British uniform to a uniform with American khakis, as this was in July.
“I was shot down July 5, and returned to Allied territory on June 31. It was almost a year that I was gone.
“I monkeyed around there for a while, and they said, ‘Your outfit’s up the road. You’re supposed to go up there.’ I was on my own, so to speak. I was booked to a flight in the morning—then I missed it.
“Well, I finally got there.
“One unit was the First Armored Division and the other was the Royal Canadian Air Force. They were in different places. We went down south on a landing craft—we didn’t go by train or on trucks.
“Of the guys in my photo section, some of them had completed their missions and had gone back. Some of them had got shot down and were captured, some of them had got killed. So there were only a few from the original numbers left, including my tech sergeant.”
“They said, ‘Well, you got your orders to go back to the States. So, you go back to Bari.’
“I got back to Bari and they said, ‘Well, you can go to the Isle of Capri first,’—that was a rest camp for the air force—‘or, you can fly back.’
“Knowing the fortunes of war, if I went to the Isle of Capri I might get sent back to my outfit and I’d start flying again. I said, ‘I’m going home.’
“So, I flew a C-47 from Italy to Catania, and I ended up in Algiers. I stayed there overnight. And then I flew from Algiers to Casablanca. First I flew to Rock of Gibraltar. We landed there and had lunch. Of course, flying out of Italy I was flying a C-47 with bucket seats—it wasn’t a luxury flight. But, it was getting me home.
“From Gibraltar to Casablanca I was still on a C-47. From Casablanca—luxury flight!
C-54s. Nice upholstery seats, stewardess, lunch—the whole bit. We flew from Casablanca to the Azores. Stopped there for refueling. Had a meal there. Then we flew from the Azores to Bermuda. Landed there. Had a meal.
“And we flew from Bermuda to Washington, D.C. and landed at International Airport there. I checked in at the base. I had to go the Pentagon the next day. So I went there for an interview. They said, ‘Well, tomorrow you’ll go someplace else.’ I went into Washington, D.C. that night. What took place was a dance, and all the servicemen were there. And I ran into a fellow from my hometown.
“He was shocked, because everybody from my hometown thought I was dead.”
That was Waupaca, Wisconsin?
“Yeah. You see when you’re shot down you were declared either dead or missing in action. I was declared missing in action. The International Red Cross sent the address of the camp, but of course the camp broke up before any letter could get to me—so they didn’t know where I was or whether I was dead or alive. Most of them thought I was dead.”
They didn’t get any letters from you?
“Yeah, they did—because they had my address. What you were allowed was like a postcard.”
Did they write to you?
“Yeah, they wrote to me. All the letters went back to them. I’ve got the whole pack of letters upstairs.
“Then I went down to a camp in Virginia for interrogation. Stopped for a day down there. Talked with different officers. We talked about prison life and all that sort of stuff. All the information they wanted to know, I gave it to them. Then, I went back up to Washington, D.C. and got my travel orders.
“I headed for home. I went to Chicago and visited Ft. Sheridan, Illinois.
“The officer at the camp said, ‘You want to be a guard at the prison camp?’
“‘If you want me to,’ I said. ‘The first Jerry who’s gotten near the fence is dead.’
“He didn’t pursue it any further.
“I went back to Chicago on furlough, and I went home. I had two weeks furlough. I don’t think I had too many sober days while I was home. It’s just that it was a super-release from all the tension I had gone through.
“Then, I had my travel orders to go to Miami Beach. I took the train all the way to Miami Beach. We had Pullman accommodations all the way down. In the afternoon we had the bar car all to ourselves for as long as we wanted it. We had to pay for our drinks, of course, but we only had two or three drinks and we enjoyed ourselves.
“We arrived in Miami Beach. I went for a medical check-up, interrogation, and indoctrination—to see where you wanted to go, what you wanted to do, and so forth. The examiner didn’t feel I was in too good a shape, so he sent me over to St. Petersburg, Florida to John Cesar Hospital, which is a mental hospital, because they thought I’d slipped a few gears.
“There I met one of my buddies from the outfit. He was in the hospital, too. It was real nice there. You could come and go as you pleased. We had regular mealtimes, of course. But we’d go into town and go to dances and eat in good restaurants and have a good time.
“There were social activities at the hospital. We went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. There were dolphins a few hundred yards out.
“There were classes on different things. It was a nice place. There was a similar place up in New Jersey that got hit by a hurricane, so they had to move those characters to where we were and we had to get out. I went back to Miami Beach, and I went back to the same hotel. I was supposed to go through more processing.
“In the morning, I’d look at the bulletin board. Nothing on it. So, I’d go for a swim.
“At that time I was living like a citizen. There were plenty of times we’d have
beer and pretzels for breakfast. Not my idea of an ideal diet, but we did it anyhow.
“There were some nice girls who invited us to their apartment to have dinner with them. We stuck to socializing. They were really nice girls.
“I asked if I could get a three-day pass.
“They asked, ‘Have you finished processing?’
“I said, ‘No.’
“‘You can’t have a pass until you finish processing.’
“I finished processing and the next thing I got travel orders to go to Oklahoma City—to Will Rogers Field. I never did get my three-day pass.”
What was involved with processing?
“Interrogation. Checking to see if you are still fit for service, or whether you should be discharged—all that sort of stuff.
“At Will Rogers Field, I found out that the CO of the outfit was the guy who had been master sergeant, or tech sergeant, of the photo section we had when I was with the 99th Bomb Group.
“So, one morning I went over to his office and I asked permission to see the commanding officer. And of course, we had all these recruits around who had been indoctrinated with the military doctrine on how to treat an officer. He tried to open the door and I said, ‘Hall, you old son-of-a-bitch, how are you?’
“You don’t call the CO an old son-of-a-bitch. That was the only time I got away with something like that. He invited me over to his house once for dinner. Socially, we couldn’t get together—because officers and enlisted men weren’t supposed to associate.
“I was there for quite awhile. They came up with this idea that anyone who had been prisoner of war could be assigned to a base near their hometown. I didn’t want to go back to that territory. So, they gave me three choices. I named three different places I would go, and they would take up the request through Madison, which is only 75 or 80 miles from my hometown.
“I got to Madison and in getting my uniform together I got a cap more like an officer’s cap. More like an overseas-type cap. It had all kinds of braid on it.
“I had to register when I got there. The officer at the desk said I was restricted to camp for one week. That was a great greeting after being a POW.
“For a couple of days I just wandered around the camp. They knew I was supposed to come, but they didn’t know who I was or where I was on camp. I checked back in a couple of days and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure—he’s still looking around.’
“I was the senior NCO in the photo lab. After I had been in the barracks for a couple of days I found out the previous guy who had been there had made a bunk in one of the desks. I checked it out and said, ‘That’s for me.’
“So, I checked out of the other barracks and moved into the photo lab. I had to get up early, before anyone else—that was the only difference.
“I was there until mid-September. We were getting all these guys in from overseas that had lots of points to get out. While they were waiting they got assigned to the photo lab. They got broken in, and then they were gone. I did that for a while and then I got tired of it. Since I was the senior NCO, I said, ‘The H with that, I’m getting out, too.’ I had almost five years of service at that time.
“They sent me with a whole bunch who were going up to Camp McCoy to get discharged. I got up there and got discharged out of the service. I got on a train and headed for Milwaukee, and naturally had a drink.
“The MPs came through the bar and said, ‘Soldier, you’ve got to get out of here.’
“I said, ‘I don’t belong anymore. I’ve been discharged—I’m out.’
“I had relatives in Milwaukee. I stayed with them for a couple of days. And then I went home. That was the end of my military career. It was worth a million, and I wouldn’t take a million to do it again.”
Was the war over at that point, or was it still going on?
“The war was over. Finished. Everything was over. I enlisted for three years when I went in. I enlisted—I wasn’t drafted.”
How long had you been in when the war started?
“I joined in 1940, and the war started in ’41. I had been in a little over a year before the war started. I remember the time we got word on the radio the war had started—I had told a buddy of mine, ‘We are going to Detroit.’
“Tours were restricted, but we went to Detroit. Of course, naturally I was barhopping. You couldn’t buy a drink that night. Everyone was buying us a drink because the war was on.
“The MPs would come along: ‘You’ve got to get back to your barracks.’
“We didn’t argue with them. We just left and went to the next bar.”
Where were you stationed then?
“Selfridge Field, Michigan.
“When I enlisted, I never thought I would go through all I did, because it was peacetime. We knew things in Europe were not good, but we just didn’t anticipate war. Of course, I had never thought of Japan at that time, when I enlisted.
“When we first got orders to move from Selfridge Field, I thought, ‘Oh shoot, are we going to the Pacific? I hope not.’
“We lucked out and went to Europe instead. It was quite different—the different cultures you live with. The British homes are very nice. They’ve got fireplaces. They all had little bomb shelters in the backyard. They had little victory gardens in the backyard. They were very nice people. Of course, I imagine it’s changed so much since I’ve been there. Sometimes I think I would like to go back, but I never will—I know that. At my age I don’t do well with long-distance traveling.
“I’ll mention one thing about the camp—I probably didn’t mention before. The camp used southern European style of sanitary facilities—‘squat and strain.’ That’s not only in prison camps, but it’s also out in public. Stalls like that you see in streets in Oran. But a lot of things in Europe seemed strange. It’s a whole different culture.”
You said that you had addresses of some Italian families?
“I had one, but it wasn’t a complete address. I’ve never written. I should try and see whether I get an answer or not. Chances are they’ve all gone to the great beyond by now.”
Were there any children who might remember you, or younger people—maybe even someone close to your own age?
“Well, this one daughter I mentioned—a very nice-looking young lady. She might still be living. It might be a possibility. But she probably would be the only one of those from where we stayed.”
Do you remember the name of the town?
“I have it written down someplace. I don’t have it handy.
“I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think of something in regards to the service. I don’t go around talking to people about it. It just goes through my mind, that’s all. It’s just one of those things. Once you’ve been through what I’ve been through you never forget it.
“A lot of men won’t talk at all—they just can’t. I may have mentioned to you, I never told my wife about service too much—just the good times. We were at a meeting in Rochester one time and the speaker didn’t show up.
“The commander of that group said, ‘We’ll do it different today. Will each of you tell us something of what you went through?’
“When it came to my turn, I gave a very brief resumé. I think it shocked the daylights out of my wife because I hadn’t told her that before.
“After that, I could talk freely to her.”
Note: You can read another interview with Neil Torssell online at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Project.