This account is from the first of two interviews with Armie regarding his experience during World War II. Armie’s son Dennis Hill taped this conversation on February 21, 1976 in Phelps, Wisconsin.
Dennis edited the transcript; Armie also made a few additions and corrections to the story.
This portrait of Armie was created by an artist in North Africa.
En Route to Invasion
“On August 31, 1942 the troops in my company left the States. Our first stop was Antrim County, Ireland. We were in Ireland for a few weeks. Then they sent us to England—to Liverpool. In England we had an idea that we would be sent someplace, but we didn’t know where we would be sent. We had been given extra training. We had spent time getting all our equipment ready. Everything had to be covered with oil and grease so that it would be waterproof, and then we covered it with canvas.
“One day we were told to be ready to load on the ships. They took us in barges out to the ships. And the ship that I was loaded on—I was a sergeant and a squad-leader at the time—wasn’t a passenger ship but an old, Russian ship that had been used to carry freight. It really wasn’t sea-worthy. All around ships were being loaded. It took us several days to load and assemble the convoy. Finally, we set off from Liverpool.
“We were given orders to stay below deck. When we were allowed on deck, we weren’t supposed to throw anything in the water that would give a clue as to the trail of the ships. When we did throw anything overboard—garbage or anything—it was always at night.
“The speed of a convoy is only as fast as the slowest ship. In our convoy I estimated there were close to 100 ships. Everywhere you looked—as far as you could see—there were ships. There were British destroyers and cruisers that stayed on the outer fringes of the convoy to watch for submarines. There was an aircraft carrier or two. A plane from a carrier flew ahead searching the seas.
“The route we took must have been quite northerly. We didn’t know where we were going, but as we traveled it got older and colder. We didn’t want to be above ship very long because it was cold and the wind was strong. The seas were rough. We paid attention to the path of the ships. Once in a while the ships zigzagged. We wondered what they did that for, and then we found out that it was to avoid being hit by torpedoes.
“If a ship traveled in a straight course, the submarine could launch the torpedo ahead of the ship so the ship would run into it. By zigzagging, the ship could reduce the chance of that happening—unless the submarine was very close. Every once in a while we heard a boom when depth charges were dropped. When the sonar in the convoy sounded that there were submarines nearby, a ship would drop depth charges into the ocean. You could feel the ship vibrate when the charges were set off.
“I didn’t ever see signs of enemy submarines. Of course, we didn’t know if there were any. But at that time the Germans were strong, because this was in the early part of the war, and the Germans had many submarines out just waiting for convoys. By that time they had sunk so many ships that the British had to get more ships wherever they could. They used anything that would float.
“If a ship were to sink, a person’s only chance would be to get in a lifeboat. They told us no one could survive in that cold water for over eight minutes.
“The food on our ship was worse than on the American ships. We had mostly mutton stew, cabbage, crackers, rutabaga soup, and mutton. It wasn’t the best of rations. They did have some American rations and some of our field rations. I ate those most of the time, if I could get them—I just ate the field rations. I also bought some British chocolate bars—they tasted really good.
“Most of the men got sick due to the rough seas. The ventilation below deck was poor, and the air was damp and foul.
“About three weeks after we set sail—as we approached the coast of North Africa—the weather finally started getting warmer. We knew we were getting into a warmer climate. Still, none of us had an idea where the ships were going—in fact, I don’t think there was hardly anyone on our ship that knew. There was a reason for this—we understood that if a ship were sunk the enemy would pick up survivors and try to find out where we were going. Then they would just wait for us to arrive. So the orders were sealed and nobody knew where we were actually going until the seals were opened.
“Now that it was warmer I stayed on deck. Being an army engineer, I was interested in watching the British sailors as they made scramble nets from strong rope. The sailors were experts at splicing rope and tying knots. The nets resembled big fishnets. We were given training in how to climb down them.
“Finally, they told us that we were going through the Straits of Gibraltar. We could see Gibraltar as we went through—we could see high rocks on both sides of our narrow channel. They told us that we were about to be the first expeditionary force to go ashore—and we were going to land in North Africa.
“We were given instruction in landing and we were told we would be landing the next day at about four o’clock in the morning—just before daylight.
“We landed in British assault boats—each of which carried about 30 men. The boats were positioned next to the ship and we climbed down on scramble nets. Early in the morning we had our packs on—food and water, rifles, ammunition, and all the other equipment we were to carry—about 60 pounds per man. Sea swells were high and the assault boats rose and fell 10 or 12 feet alongside the ship. The assault boats had motors and were secured to the ships with ropes. Lieutenant Prestridge went down to our assault boat first. Being a squad leader on this mission, I was the second man to climb down.
“When we were in the boat the two of us picked up the scramble net—which hung in the water between the boat and ship—and raised it up and put it into our boat. Then the lieutenant held one end and I held the other so the men could climb down. We were told to keep our chests as close to the net as possible, because if a person let himself lean backwards he wouldn’t have the strength to pull himself forward again.
“A captain on another ship let himself lean back and he fell off the net and onto the floor of his boat. He broke his back in the fall. We warned our men to be very careful. The 30 men on our boat boarded safely.
“The assault boat headed for land. In the meantime cruisers were shelling the beach, attempting to knock out the blockhouses that had been firing on our ships. I didn’t notice if any of the ships were hit. There wasn’t much fire from shore. The British had already knocked out most pillboxes along the beach.
“We landed near the port of Arzew, about 10 miles from Oran. When the boats were close to shore we entered the water, which was about five feet deep. I held our assault boat while the other men unloaded. The beach was rocky, so the assault boats didn’t land, but returned for another load of men. We climbed onto shore and set up the rifles and machine guns we had with us. There was litt1e fighting. The rangers had gone ahead of us, so resistance had been almost entirely eliminated by the time we got to the shore. We were some of the first troops to land in that area and the invasion—Operation Torch—was a major victory for the British and the Americans.
“One of the ships hit a mine or was attacked by a submarine, and sank off shore.
“As combat engineers it was our job to clean up barbed wire entanglements and fix up the roads and docks so ships could come into the port—then the other men wouldn’t have to come ashore by assault boat. It was our duty to go ashore first.
“When the other ships got to the docks we helped to unload trucks, jeeps, tanks, and supplies. The dock at Arzew was a real good one. The French had built it. We encountered the Arabs and French there, who did not give us much resistance. We worked for a week unloading ships. We used the cranes on the docks, which hadn’t been damaged. We set up a field kitchen and our tents. The weather was mild—like in California where I had been stationed. Arzew would have made a nice resort town. It was November, but the weather was in the 70s and we worked in our short-sleeve shirts.
“Soon the Arabs came around trying to sell us eggs. They didn’t care for money, as it was of little value to them. However, they were eager to barter for cigarettes, canned food, and any other rations. The Arabs also brought large, sweet oranges with them. In Arzew, the Arabs were very friendly.
Armie recorded on the back: “12/10/42 North West Africa—Oran, Algeria. Myself with an Arab friend—thats me on the left”
On back: “Oran-Africa—Dec 1942. [Frank] Ziller, Jorgenson, Hill”
“Some of us were sent off to build a field hospital, or tent city, about ten miles away. I was detailed to go on that job. We worked there for a couple of weeks. We did a lot of blasting, as there was only about a foot of dirt covering solid rock. We did large scale blasting using dynamite and TNT. We drilled holes, lowered the TNT into them, and set it off using electrical wires and batteries. We blasted the holes to loosen ground so we could secure tent pins. When we finished our work we were sent back to the docks.
“We were informed that we would be moved to western Tunisia by truck. The trip was 500 or 600 miles. We heard reports that the British were advancing on the Germans and the German forces were withdrawing to Tunis, where they had been evacuating troops. What we didn’t know was that the Germans had been bringing in fresh men to reinforce their troops around Tunis. On the way north, we passed through the city of Algiers and followed the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains. When we arrived at Tunisia, we learned that Montgomery was pushing the Germans toward Tunis. It was General Patton’s plan to reach Tunis first and shut off the supply routes.
“Where we were now, near Kasserine Pass, it was desert country. It was our responsibility to guard Kasserine Pass, which was one of the major passes in that area. German planes came by now and then, but they did no damage to us. Ahead of us were infantry and tank units that had fought against the Germans and Italians. Our units had not yet been in combat. Meanwhile, we worked on building roads and setting up camps for the infantry, which we understood would be coming to reinforce us. Also, we were sent to guard a nearby airfield.
“One day the first sergeant came to me and said, ‘Sergeant Hill, you and your squad—along with some other men—have been selected for a special mission. You are being sent to guard Allied headquarters.’
“Major-General Lloyd Fredendall was stationed at the Allied headquarters for the Center Task Force of the North African invasion. There were British, French, and American forces there. We were to set up Cossack posts. At a Cossack post you don’t move at all—you don’t walk the post, but only listen and stop anyone who comes through. We had a sign and counter-sign as passwords. The sign was ‘Hi-ho, Silver.’ And the countersign was ‘Away.’ When anyone approached the post one of us shouted ‘Hi-ho, Silver.’ If they answered ‘Away,’ they were told to advance. The Germans were landing paratroopers behind the lines and it was their main objective to get someone into Allied Headquarters. But we didn’t encounter any Germans there.
“When I was in California I had a fellow named Bommarito in my squad. He was the first of a bunch of new men to come in after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He had been a boxer. He was sort of a punch-drunk fellow. He was brilliant—he worked his way through college, but he didn’t like the service and I couldn’t make a soldier out of him. The officers didn’t know what to do with him. They didn’t want to put him in the guardhouse.
“So the first sergeant said, ‘We’ll put him into Hill’s squad. We’ll see what he can do with him.’ I talked to Bommarito and looked him over, and then I told the first sergeant, ‘Well, I’ll do the best I can.’
“One way or another, Bommarito took a liking to me. But I always had to cover up for him. He slept late in the morning. We just couldn’t get him up. I’d go to roll call in the morning and call to the men, and everyone would be there but Bommarito. I’d look in his tent and he wasn’t there. Then, we would go out looking in the brush and there we’d find him.
“I’d shake him and say, ‘Hey, Bommarito, what’s the matter? You’re supposed to be on roll call.’ So he’d wake up and pull on his underwear and slip on a pair of pants. We were supposed to have leggings on and our shoes polished, so I had to hide him behind the other men so no one could see the way he was dressed. I gave him a lot of breaks—and he appreciated them.
“When we were in California we would sometimes go on ten- or fifteen-mile hikes. The weather was hot and we’d stop to rest along the way. First thing, Bommarito would come over and ask someone to give him a drink of water.
“I got wise to him one time and said, ‘Where’s your water?’
“He answered, ‘You know—that water is heavy to carry.’ He had been traveling with an empty canteen all the time.
“I told him, ‘You know, when we get into combat one of these days you’ll have to make sure you have a canteen full of water. You’re not going to go bumming water from the other guys then. Water is going to be scarce where we’ll be at.’
“When we landed near Arzew, it was still dark and we were lying in the sand close to the beaches where the firing was going on, when someone crawled behind me and patted me on the back. I turned around and there was Bommarito.
“He said, ‘Hey, sergeant, want a drink of water?’
I said, ‘You got some water there?’
“He answered. ‘Yeah, look here.’ I looked and saw he had two canteens full of water—one on each side of his belt. He said, ‘Boy, I made sure I had water.’
’I laughed and said, ‘Sure, Bommarito—I’ll have a drink of water.’
“He always tried to do as little as he could get away with.
“Anyway, after we set up Cossack posts, I went around inspecting the men. Bommarito and his partner were supposed to be on one post, and father down there were two men at another post. Bommarito had left his post and went to take a nap in the brush by the two men at the next post. In the meantime, an officer was sent to inspect our guard. He came not to the post where Bommarito had been, but to the post father down the line.
“The men heard him coming and one hollered out ‘Hi-ho, Silver.’ The officer, who was a lieutenant, answered ‘Away.’
“One of the guards said, ‘Advance and be recognized.’
“As the lieutenant came up to them, he pulled out a .45 automatic Colt pistol and told the guards, ‘You’re under arrest. Don’t you know that Germans can speak English just as well as Americans? You shouldn’t have let me advance without covering me with your rifles.’
“While they were talking Bommarito woke up. He snuck behind the officer, jammed a rifle to his back, and said, ‘Stick ’em up.’ The officer raised his hands. Bommarito said, ‘Drop the pistol.’
The lieutenant dropped it and he said, ‘I’m just inspecting the guard.’
“Bommarito said, ‘I know—but you may be a German, too.’ Bommarito made him crawl on the ground and lay on his belly. They all covered him and wouldn’t let him go until he produced papers that showed who he was.
“When he was finally cleared, the officer said, ‘I see you guys really work well together. You are a very good guard!’
“When I talked with the men the next day, I had to laugh at the whole situation. I told Bommarito, ‘For once you were in the right place at the right time.’ Actually, he wasn’t supposed to even be there.
“We remained at headquarters until the infantry replaced our guard. Then we went back to our company—Company D, 19th Engineers.
“The winter rains of North Africa were very heavy. Many of the sand roads were washed out. We put culverts in the roadways. No timber was available, so we used empty airplane fuel barrels. We knocked the bottoms off them and put them end-to-end. They served the purpose nicely. They only had to be used a short time while the equipment was brought through. We discovered that if we buried them deep and covered them with ten feet of sand, they wouldn’t cave in as they did when they were closer to the surface of the road.
“I enjoyed engineer work. I had been raised in the woods of Wisconsin and had worked in lumber camps. I was used to hard work and handling tools. Many of the men were from cities and didn’t know the first thing about this type of work. When it came to sharpening stakes some of the men would hold the base of the stick with their feet and try to chop with both hands on the ax. I held the stake with one hand and rested the end on a board or stump. When I sharpened stakes the men looked on with amazement.
One guy said, ‘How did you do that? You must have worked in a pencil-sharpening factory!’
“They didn’t know that when I lived on the farm I had to sharpen hundreds of fence posts. I had been sharpening posts since I was little.
“One evening the lieutenant came to me and was all excited. He said, ‘We’ve got to move. Get all the equipment together. We have to head for Kasserine Pass. The Germans are heading that way.’
“We discovered that the Germans had made a big break-through. It was our duty to go to Kasserine Pass and lay mines before they arrived there. The pass was about a mile wide and on each side were high cliffs. It was rugged country. The road through the pass was the only means of getting through. When we got there my assignment was to go to the right of the pass and set up a 50-caliber machine gun, plus take a squad to cover the men who were laying mines.
“Company D was to guard the pass on the right side and other soldiers were on the left side. Another company laid the minefields. The man who trained us in setting mines was a British expert in mine setting. He later wrote a book on laying mines.
“He showed us a German mine that was the size of a dishpan and weighed about six pounds. It was far superior to anything the Americans had. The mine, along with various booby trap contraptions, came in a container that was similar to a suitcase. Anyone who either stepped on the mine or lifted it would be blown up. There were push releases and pressure releases. The pressure release was a wire leading to the mine that, if cut, would snap back to the mine like a mousetrap and trigger it. Some mines were filled with shot, and if you stepped on one the shot would fly up and spread over a large area.
“There were hasty minefields and strategic minefields. I think the one we laid was a hasty minefield. We didn’t put many booby traps in it. In order to disturb a mine like that it had to be pressed by two hundred pounds of pressure. A man could walk over it without setting it off, but vehicles traveling over it would blow up.
“While we were laying the mines, someone who was foolish said, ‘I’ll bet I could drive a truck through that minefield.’ He drove a truck in and hit a mine. It picked the front end right up and blew out the front tires, leaving it right on the road. We just left it there.
“It was on February 18, 1943 that we were sent to the pass. On the February 19, we saw advance Tiger tanks. There were six of them. They came close to our minefield, but not up to it. Someone opened up on them with our 37mm cannon. The fire bounced right off the front of the tank, but the Germans stopped.
“They fired a few shots toward the hills where we were. Then they turned around and went back. These were the scouts and we knew that the others would be coming in force later.
“That night I didn’t sleep at all. Some of the fellows were sleeping, but I tried to keep them awake. I tried to organize them so that someone would be awake in case of attack. We were situated on a high rocky cliff and it would have been hard for anyone to scale it from the front. We were on top of a straight ridge, about fifty feet up, in an old cave. The French or someone else had apparently used it as a lookout post—there was some straw in it. It was a nice place for us because it provided shelter.
“All night I sat imagining I heard the Germans or Italians scaling the cliff or coming around it. There was occasional fire that night, but there wasn’t any action until the next morning.
“In the morning, the Germans came with about fifty or sixty tanks that were all lined up. They were also bringing up their infantry. They started firing point-blank at our position. They were for the most part out of reach of our artillery. When our 75mm shells did hit their tanks they did no damage. The German tanks had treads three feet wide—especially built for the desert. They had the German 88 all-purpose gun, which was one of the finest guns in the world at that time. It could be used as anti-tank, anti-personnel, or anti-aircraft. The shell was about three feet long and about six or eight inches around. Any of our tanks that were sent out were hit once or twice and destroyed.
“Just before the Germans came up with their artillery, we received an order to put all our packs on trucks and withdraw. We were told the infantry would replace us. We loaded our things on the truck. One of the first shots the Germans fired after that hit it. The truck burned and we lost all our supplies.
“I think loading the packs onto trucks was one of the greatest mistakes—it was one of the reasons I was eventually taken prisoner, because in my pack I carried a lot of provisions. I had extra clothes, candy bars and other food—enough to last for a week. The only food I had after I put my pack on the truck was British candy bars, some American chocolate, and a canteen full of water. That was what I lived on for the next three days.
“The Germans advanced. Later I read that the German commander bragged he would break through Kasserine Pass by nightfall. Shells flew everywhere. You see war in the movies, but you have no idea what it is actually like. The sound of shells passing over was like that of freight trains. They exploded and pieces of shrapnel flew all around. A few pieces hit my clothing, but I was lucky—I suffered only a few scratches. One shell landed by my foot, but it happened to be a dud—it didn’t blow up.
“Some of the fellows were hit and I bandaged them up. I used up my own first-aid bandages and theirs. Some of the fellows were scared. Of course we all were scared. One of the guys was crying and every time a shell went over he cried louder. I don’t know what became of him or the others. With all my training I had expected this. Yet with all the training and my being an expert rifle shot, I could do nothing because there was nothing to shoot at.
“I had pictured the Germans coming with bayonets on their rifles and I imagined we would engage in hand-to-hand combat. This was totally different. All firing was way out of range. The trucks and troops were five- or six-hundred yards from us, so when we did fire we didn’t know if it hit anyone or anything. Our only advance was by tanks and a few trucks—and the latter were blown up in the minefields.
“I knew what their forces were going to do. They would keep using artillery and then attack at dark. We had orders to withdraw, so we did. When we were farther behind the line we regrouped. I gathered what men I could into my squad. In the meantime, the Germans and Italians were attacking the heights. Before they could destroy the minefields they knew they would have to do away with the men who were guarding them.
“At night I contacted our battalion commander on the field telephone. I told him the Germans were coming in huge force.
“He answered, ‘Then attack them. One thing we don’t want to do is withdraw now. Gather as many men as you can and attack. Do you hear me?’
“I said ‘Yes, sir.’
“We gathered as many men as we could and we started forward in attack. I was one of the leading men. The machine gunners heard us coming and opened fire. We all hit the ground. That was the last I knew of the squad. I lay quietly in the dark while the Germans raked over our lines with tracers. I lay still, listening, and thinking that I must get closer to them. I didn’t have any hand grenades, but I had a grenade launcher and a grenade. I thought if I could get close enough I could shoot it into their midst.
“I finally got up and started to run, but I slipped on a rock and fell into a hole. As I fell, my helmet flew off and hit rock. The Germans heard it—it made a loud noise. I heard them hollering and then they started shooting toward me. They knew just about where I was. I managed to get down low enough behind the rock that it protected me, but I could feel the bullets whizzing over my back.
“I must have passed out, because the next thing I knew I was awake and the Germans were talking not too far from me. They were shoveling a hole. I crawled away from there and looked for my men, but I couldn’t find anyone anywhere around.
“That was the last I saw of any of our men. I don’t know what happened to them. In my fall I had hurt my hand and my knee so that I couldn’t walk. The next day I lay on the side of the mountain, where I could hear continued fighting. I didn’t know where I was or what I was going to do, but I thought to myself the main thing is to survive.
“I supposed the Americans would be bringing in reinforcements. It was the second day of combat but the Germans hadn’t gotten through the lines yet. I moved on for a ways and suddenly I spotted a German standing not far from me. I aimed at him with my rifle. He wasn’t far away and I could easily have shot him. Then another soldier joined him. I watched them for a while. They were just young looking. I didn’t want to shoot them and I didn’t know how many men there were besides these two. I got down on my hands and knees and crawled away from there.
“I had drunk all my water. I came to a ridge and there was water flowing on either side of it, but I had been warned that the water was alkaline. There was plenty of water but I couldn’t drink it. I looked around for something to eat but I couldn’t find anything. I was getting weaker and weaker. I climbed up the side of one mountain. I knew I couldn’t last too much longer.
“I kept thinking, ‘Boy, what a place this is to die!’ No one would ever find me there. I probably would be listed as missing in action. If they found wounded or dead men, I assumed the Arabs took their clothes and dog tags, and that they buried many of them in the sand. The Arabs knew they had advantage over you, so you had to be careful which of them you talked to. I started down the other side of the mountain. I prayed that I might find water somewhere. This was my third day without water.
“As I stood on the side of the hill, I could see the remains of the roads that had been built by the Romans. The Arabs had used these as paths for many years. I found a pair of discarded sandals as I walked. I followed along a path and at one point thought I heard the sound of trickling water. I walked toward the sound and, sure enough, there was a little stream. It was about two feet wide and about a foot and a half deep. It was a miracle that I should find water there! I filled my canteen and put pills into it to kill bacteria. I mixed it up. That was my first drink in three days.
“I lay down and relaxed. I hated to walk away from this place, because it was such a relief to find it. I thanked God there. I thought to myself here is the land where Christianity was born. I imagined the early religious leaders had walked on these very roads. It was growing dark as I followed a path to the side of a mountain. I would stay there overnight. I had some matches, so I built a fire. It was warm during the day but cool and damp at night. I built my fire on a rock shelf on the mountainside. It had just rained a bit, so I dried myself off.
“I heard a plane flying over. It must have been an American plane. Not far from me was a German anti-aircraft gun. I could see shells from it flying up into the air. They were tracers, shot a little ahead of the plane. The plane was hit and caught fire. It flew a little way and then came down. It crashed about a mile from where I was. I wondered if there were survivors. I thought that in the morning I would go in that direction and look around. It made me mad to see the plane shot down, and I felt I should go to the anti-aircraft post and get the gunners. But I was too weak to walk that distance. Apparently everyone in the plane died in the crash.
“The following morning I looked across the desert and could see the anti-aircraft gun out there. There were quite a few soldiers. I decided to walk to the left to see if I might come across any Americans. In a little way I came upon some Arabs. I wondered whether I should approach them, but I didn’t have much choice. I thought that Arabs might be friendly toward Americans—we had given them candy and traded with them. I hoped that they would be friendly and help me.
“I went up to them and they greeted me. They appeared to be friendly. I motioned that I was hungry and asked if they had something to eat. There was a woman in the group, about three men, and some children. They had built a fire and placed a flat rock over it. They fried me two eggs on that rock, and they gave me a piece of bread to eat with the eggs. In return I gave them some money. I had a lot of money on me—about two or three hundred dollars in French money and some American invasion money. The invasion money was like other currency except it had a golden seal. One Arab was talking and tried to attract my attention, but I thought I heard something behind me.
“When I turned around there were two Germans. They had submachine guns trained on me. The Arab grabbed for my gun right away—he wanted it, and the Germans let him keep it. It was an ’03 Springfield .30-06. The Germans searched me and took my knives, bayonet, and gas mask. I had a hunting knife that I had bought, which they kept, but they gave the rest to the Arabs. They didn’t check me for money. They gave the Arab who turned me in 200 francs. That was what they paid any Arab for turning in an American. I myself had about 1,000 francs on me. But I was lucky that the Arabs didn’t search me or hurt me, as they did some of the prisoners I talked to later.
“The Germans were stern looking, but they weren’t mean and they respected me. They told me to follow them, and they took me to a nearby olive orchard. A captain of the German army had set up a field table there. He was writing when I was presented to him. He stood up and saluted me, which I thought was most unusual.
“He said, ‘Hello, sergeant.’
“I answered, ‘Hello.’
“He had been schooled in England and he spoke perfect English.
“‘For you,’ he said, ‘the war is finished. I am writing a letter to my girlfriend in Berlin. I’ve been here in the desert fighting for two or three years.’ He showed me a picture of his girlfriend. She was a real nice-looking girl.
“‘I don’t know if I’ll get out of this war alive,’ he said.
“He picked some olive blossoms from one of the trees and pressed them down. Then he told me, ‘I’m going to send her these.’
“He put the blossoms into the letter and sealed it.
“Many times in the years since I became a rural mail carrier I have thought of that—my first experience with the Germans. It seemed so odd to me, as I thought he would be reading maps or making battle plans.
“The captain gave me food and offered me some wine. All of the Germans drank wine. They had it in cans and they called it vino. It wasn’t strong, but it quenched my thirst. The Germans carried it in their canteens.
“I was loaded onto the back of a truck and taken to a small town. I was imprisoned in what I thought was a school building. I was locked upstairs with a huge man—a black man who was a French soldier and about as big as my uncle Frank Anderson. He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak French. Then they brought in another soldier, who had a toothache. I was worried about food and he just kept saying, ‘Oh, my tooth hurts! My tooth hurts!’ He was from the infantry. There was a bunk without a mattress where he slept and I had a bunk, too, in another part of the room.
“I was getting cool and when I looked around I saw there was a fireplace and paper. I had matches, so I thought I would warm the room. When the black man saw what I was doing he came over and motioned excitedly—as if to say ‘No, no—don’t build a fire in here.’
“I thought, ‘The heck with you. It’s cold in here.’ So I struck a match and built a fire. It warmed us and the room was much more comfortable.
“But, I realized later why I shouldn’t have built the fire. I had been sleeping, when suddenly we heard planes. I don’t know if they were British or American. They started bombing. I heard the planes zooming low and the shells falling. The first bombs hit close to the building and all the windows came crashing in. Glass flew all across the room. I realized then the reason I shouldn’t have built a fire was that they could see the smoke or light. The Germans rushed in downstairs and I could hear them shooting with machine gun fire from the rooftop. The planes bombed there for what seemed half an hour. I looked up and expected any moment to see a bomb crash through the ceiling.
“The next day they took us out of the building. The Arabs gathered around and shook their fists at us and made motions with their hands that they would like to slit our throats. I thought that at least we were safe with the Germans. They loaded us on trucks and took us to Sfax. The trip was about 100 miles. Again we were kept in a building that might have been a school building. The Germans occupied all of the significant buildings.
“They didn’t bring the black fellow along. I don’t know what was done with him. They only brought the man with a toothache and me. At Sfax they brought another man to join us. He was a major in the American forces. He was on a special mission and had been dropped behind German lines.
“He said, ‘I’ve got to escape from here because I have some important information to report to the Americans.’
“I thought ‘Sure. You are probably just a German.’ So I didn’t tell him anything about myself.
“One day he was shaving and he had taken his dog tags off so I looked at them. They did have his name on them. His name was Sage. He was an officer—a major. Now I knew he wasn’t trying to fool me, so we talked. He said he was from Tacoma, Washington. He kept insisting he was going to get out.
“He said, ‘They searched me but the only thing they didn’t find was this knife.’ He showed me a scout knife. He continued, ‘I’ve been watching our two young German guards. I’m trained as a commando and I could take care of them quickly and escape. Tonight I’ll go down and ask them for a cigarette and then make my break.’
“‘One thing you’ve got to be careful of,’ I told him, ‘is the Arabs. Once you are out be careful of them because they would turn you in. You’ll need food, but if you ask the Arabs for food might betray you.’
“‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m going to try to save enough food to take along.’
“I had some extra rations so I told him, ‘You can take along what I have here, too.’
“‘Tonight when you see me going down,” he said, ‘Don’t say anything. You’ll probably find two bodies in the morning. I’ll drag them into the building.’ That night about one o’clock I saw him get up and go downstairs. I expected any minute to see him dragging bodies up. Pretty soon he came back upstairs and lay down in the corner again and he didn’t say anything.
“I wondered what happened, so the next morning I said, ‘Well, I see you’re still here. I thought you were going away.’
“He said, ‘I looked at those German soldiers and they were so young looking and innocent that I couldn’t do it. They’ve been so good to us. I’ll have a chance later on to escape.’
“We were moved farther north toward Tunis. The Germans brought in another truckload of prisoners and they loaded us in railroad cars they called ‘40 and 8 boxcars.’ The World War I veterans knew these well—40 and 8 meant the boxcar would hold 40 men or 8 horses. It was totally dark in the cars. They put a box of sand on one end for a toilet. We were given moldy bread and water. The trip to Tunis was about ten days and we were locked in the boxcars all the way, except for an occasional stop when we were let out for a brief time.
“Once when we stopped and were let out we studied the outside of the boxcar we were in. It had one window that was covered with two steel bars that were about an inch thick. One of the bars was broken. That was on the inside. Covering the window on the outside was a door. The door was on hinges and it had a hasp through it, and the hasp was closed with a spike. The door couldn’t be opened from the inside but it could be opened from the outside to air the car out. It was closed and locked while the train was moving.
“I told Sage, ‘Hey, look at that! Isn’t it a miracle that one bar is broken. If a person were strong enough to bend the other bar a little he could get through.’ I just happened to have a knife sharpener that I carried with me, that the Germans hadn’t taken away from me. I had bought it in California and I always carried it with me when I had my hunting knife.
“Some of the men who were with us were paratroopers. We decided we would use the major’s knife to cut a hole in the wooden wall so that we could reach through and open the hasp. They took turns cutting through the boxcar wall. When the knife got dull I sharpened it. It took several days but finally they cut a hole big enough to fit a fist through. The Germans didn’t think that anyone would even consider doing that.
“Finally, one night five or six of the fellows crawled through the window. They stood on our backs to climb up and after we hoisted them up they dropped out through the hole. Before they left I told them, ‘Remember when you go, don’t let the Arabs turn you in.’
“They said, ‘We’ll see you again—probably back in the States.’ The next morning the Germans opened the boxcar and counted us and noticed some were missing. The sergeant got mad and his face turned black. He wouldn’t give us any rations.
“Sage and the others had lowered themselves down and dropped on the tracks. They dropped when the train slowed down. They were paratroopers and they knew how to drop so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.
“They had asked me if I wanted to go, but I said no. My leg was infected. The Germans had put some kind of salve on it that looked almost like pitch, and they had bandaged it. That stopped the infection right away. But I couldn’t walk well and I limped.
“So I told them, ‘I’m going to have to do the best I can whatever happens.’
“When we got to Tunis they put us in a church. There must have had a lot of prisoners there before us, because the floor was covered with straw. That was my first experience with lice. Everything there was covered with lice and fleas. They were on the straw and on our clothes. We were warned against smoking, because if we dropped a match and the straw caught fire we would have burned alive. We stayed there for about three weeks. The Germans fed us brown bread, which was moldy. The French Red Cross came in once a day with a big kettle of what they called couscous. It was made of a boiled plant that was something like lettuce. We were each given a cup of this soup. There was rice in it, too—or macaroni. Sometimes we were given just macaroni alone.
“The Americans continued bombing, though they didn’t bomb our area. One day I was given my couscous and I ate until I got near the bottom and discovered there was glass in it. It must have been in a place where flying glass had landed. We kept getting new prisoners all the time—French, British, and Americans. There must have been about 100 of us all together. With the arrival of new prisoners came the latest news—the British were feeling confident. They said, “Monty will be here in a fortnight.” They thought a lot of Montgomery.
“The Americans had brought in new tanks, which were much better than the tanks of the early part of the war. The Germans were anxious to move us out of the area. They planned to fly us out. There was an airport not too far away. Several times they marched us about five miles toward the airport, but each time American and British bombers came over. The Germans couldn’t land their planes, so they marched us back.”
Note: This story is continued in the February 2008 post entitled “Recollections of Camps 98 and 59.”