Combat and Capture—Armie’s 1987 Story

This account of Armie Hill’s early service experience, from induction and training through combat and capture, is based on the second of two tape-recorded interviews Armie made with his son Dennis.

This conversation was recorded on August 24–26, 1987 in Phelps, Wisconsin. Dennis edited the transcript and made a few additions and corrections that Armie requested.

Armie Hill at Fort Ord, California, 1941

First Year in Service

“I’ll start my story from the beginning, when I was first inducted into the service. I received my draft notice 1940 and signed up for selective service. Word came that December that I would be called, and I was inducted into the service in January 1941.

“This was the first draft and I was one of the first men drafted from Vilas County. There were about seven of us who were drafted from Vilas County, and I was the first one from the town of Phelps. We went to the courthouse in Eagle River and we were driven by bus—I think it was to the train station—and then we took a train to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Fort Sheridan, Illinois.

“At Fort Sheridan we were selected to go to Fort Ord in California. We went by train and it took us several days to get there.

“At that time, Fort Ord had been a tent camp—everyone had been living in tents. Before we arrived, new barracks had just been hastily put up and everything at the fort was still a mess. A lot of the work was still undone. The streets were sand. It was raining. We hadn’t had basic training, so we got all of our training there at Fort Ord.

“All was confusion there. I thought to myself, ‘If they’d just let me out, I’d walk home.’

“I was disgusted with it. Many of the officers weren’t trained. Many of the men who were in charge were from the regular Army. They didn’t much know what to do. They had only been chosen to be officers because there were so few officers.

“I don’t know if most were good officers or not, but some of them were good. They taught us basic training, inspections of the barracks, and all the little things that had to be done. Finally, we started engineer work. I liked engineering because it was like work I had done in logging camps and around home. I was surprised how few of the men knew how to sharpen an ax or a saw. They didn’t know how to use various tools. They sort of had to depend on me later on when it came time to do any work. Instead of the officers telling me what to do, I was telling them what to do.

“Finally, having something worthwhile to do helped me feel better, and I started getting used to the camp and didn’t mind it so much. At that time the pay was very low—$30 a month for a private. Later, when I got to be a private first class I got $36. But out of that they took our laundry money, dry cleaning money, and life insurance money. My life insurance was 55 cents per thousand. For $10,000 it was $5.50. So that alone was a big chunk off the payroll.

“I was drafted for only a year and I figured, ‘Well, I’ll get my year in some way.’ Slowly I started getting use to this army life.

“In the spring we were given a furlough. I was broke and I didn’t know how I was going to get home. My friend Hector Flatow, who was from Ironwood, Michigan, had worked at WLS radio in Chicago. He played an accordion. He said, “Let’s work this out. Let’s borrow money from some other fellows who will go with us.”

“There ended up being five of us. We each paid a certain amount in—I think it was $20—and we bought an old car. I think it was an Oldsmobile. We didn’t try it out or anything. We just started toward Phelps. We took Route 66 all the way from California to Chicago.

“On the way we went through New Mexico. The fellow who had done most of the early driving got off there. Then we stopped in Amarillo, Texas, and the next fellow got off there. From Texas, the next fellow—who was from Oklahoma—did the driving. Then he got off. That left Hector and me. We took turns driving. We drove through Chicago. Hector knew the roads in Chicago fairly well. There wasn’t as much traffic in those days. Then he drove me to home. I got off, and Hector drove on to Ironwood.

“I was home for a while. I think we had a ten-day furlough. We had driven day and night to get home—it took us three days and three nights to get to Phelps. It worked out pretty well. I was home for a few days. We figured it would take us about the same amount of time to get back.

“But when Hector came to pick me up he was sick. I drove us to Milwaukee, where there was a veterans’ hospital. I let him off and he stayed there overnight.

“While we were there, the other fellows had been waiting for us. When we didn’t show up at the scheduled time they hitchhiked back to the camp. So Hector and I wound up driving the whole way back. We stopped at each place—in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico—along the way. We stopped at the gas stations where the guys were supposed to be—where we were supposed to meet up with them. At each place the people told us, ‘Well, there was a guy standing around here, waiting and waiting. Then he took off hitch-hiking.’

“We knew that it was going to take us longer to get back. We couldn’t drive all the way, even if we took turns. Hector sent a telegram to the 19th Engineers to let them know we would be late. We waited awhile but we didn’t get a reply. We were scared that we would probably be put in the guardhouse and we wondered what might happen to us.

“We were driving through the desert one day. Hector was sitting up asleep in the back seat. I was driving and must have fallen asleep. I heard somebody blowing the horn. I woke up and here I was headed for a big trailer truck. I was in the wrong lane. It was a lucky thing that driver blew his horn, because I swerved out of his way.

“I figured, ‘This is enough!’ I just drove off to the side of the road and fell asleep myself. After that we didn’t drive at night.

“We were late. It took us five days to get back instead of three days. When we got back to camp we reported and we were kind of scared. But, the officers said, ‘Oh, you’re OK. We sent you back a telegram extending your furlough.’

“So—that was my first experience in the service!

“That fall we found out that we were to fight forest fires that were burning close to Yosemite National Park. They sent us because we were engineers. The fire was far up in the mountains. We drove by truck as far as we could and then walked the rest of the way. All of our provisions—the shovels and everything that the forestry supplied—were taken up on the backs of mules and donkeys. We went way up where the air was thin—that’s where the fires were. It was awfully hot during the day and the nights were real cool. The forestry supplied us with food. It was sent to us on parachutes. We saw them coming down—we were on top of a mountain—and they glided right by us and down into the canyon, into the fires. Once in awhile we got hold of one.

“It was really good food. That food was the best food I tasted while I was in the service. There were plenty of chocolate bars, and there were some drinks, all kind of canned goods, biscuits, and good meat. We were there about a week or more, until the fire was finally under control. Then we returned to Fort Ord. I liked that work better than being in the camp or on maneuvers.

“Back at camp, we were told that we were to go on maneuvers. It was in September. We went by convoy through Yosemite National Park. We stayed overnight there. We saw the great falls, the big redwood trees. It was really exciting. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. Boy—that was a long bridge! It had been built just a few years earlier.

Armie wrote on the back of this photograph: “Me by a big sugar pine tree. In fields clothes, a tin helmet, pack, cartridge belt, canteen, leggin & rifle slung on my shoulder—Hunky Guy”

Armie wrote on the back: “A view of the mountain ridge in Yosemite Valley. Notice the snow on the mts. This is about 3000 ft high. We camped on the foot of this mt. in the trees.”

Camping in Yosemite. Armie wrote on back: “[Ted] Beecher is on right”

“We went to Fort Lewis in Centralia, Washington.

“When the maneuvers were over the officers said we could have some time off to visit Tacoma or explore that area of Washington—so long as we would report back in three days. I had a cousin, Ted Sepp, who lived in Tacoma with his wife. This was really a good chance to see him. He had been to our place in Phelps during the Depression—so I had gotten to know him quite well.

“I thought, ‘I’ll surprise him.’ So when I got to Tacoma I first called and then went to his address. As I walked up to the house he was waiting with his wife by the door. He said, ‘Here comes the soldier now!’ He was all excited. It was nice to see him.

“I stayed with them a couple of days, and he showed me the harbor and the Tacoma area. It was nice and cool compared to how hot it had been in California, especially on maneuvers. I talked with Ted about the old times when he had been in Phelps—where we lived by Sand Lake. We used to go fishing on Sand Lake—and swimming. Ted was an excellent swimmer. Several times he swam across Sand Lake and I rowed the boat after him. He was an expert. He had been a seaman on the old tram steamers that traveled to South America and back. He really knew what it was like to be by the sea and the water.

On the back of the photo is written—most likely in Ted Sepp’s handwriting: “Ted Sepp Tacoma, Wash. 8-28,-41 ‘Remember Tacoma’ “

Armie in Tacoma

“After I visited the Sepps, I went back to Centralia. We traveled by convoy back to Fort Ord again. It was getting close to December—and my year of service would be up in January. I was counting off the days until I would he discharged from the Army. I had already bought my ticket and was all ready to go home.

War Declared

“We were sent for maneuvers in the Mojave Desert. We got back from maneuvers, and the fellow who was supposed to be the blacksmith wasn’t working. He had taken off already on a furlough. So I was the blacksmith then. I had to sharpen and care for all the tools and work the forge.

“Then Lieutenant Prestridge came to me, all excited. He said, ‘Hey! Get everything packed up. We have to leave in a couple of hours. The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor. We’ve got to report back to camp immediately.’ We all jumped in our trucks and started right back to the camp. When we got to the camp it was in an uproar.

“Prestridge said, ‘We don’t know when we’re going to be bombed.’

“We didn’t know if or when the Japanese might attack us. The Japanese had submarines and Fort Ord was right by the ocean, less than a quarter mile from the Pacific. We didn’t know if they were going to land men there. But what the Army was more interested in was the airplane factories around Los Angeles and throughout the southern part of the state.

“They told us, ‘Tomorrow morning send everything home. Pack it up and we’ll send it home. Put your addresses on all your stuff.’ I was lucky I had a footlocker. I had bought it so it was my own. I packed everything that I could—that I wanted to send home. I just kept the army-issued clothes with me. A lot of the stuff I couldn’t pack and I couldn’t take it with me, so I just had to leave it there—throw it in the wastebasket. There were a lot of things I would like to have kept. I bought souvenirs and all that stuff.

“We took off by convoy. After several days we got to Pasadena, California. They didn’t have a place there to station us, so we stayed in the Rose Bowl—where the Tournament of Roses and the Rose Parade are held each year. All the roses are kept in one large building, and since that building was vacant we all slept there when it was raining. We slept on the floor, as there were no beds.

“I didn’t mention yet that I had been selected to serve as a corporal, and then I got sergeant stripes. So I was in charge of a squad. There were three squads in a platoon. We did all our exercising—all our training—in the Rose Bowl. I’d sit on the bleachers and watch the men train. Little did I know—with my little experience I didn’t know anything about the Rose Bowl then, but I found out later—just how important the Rose Bowl actually was. Now when I watch the Rose Bowl games on television it seems so funny to think that I was there, training the men in that same Rose Bowl.

“We were there for a while. We worked making barbed wire entanglements to put along the ocean. They were called ‘concertina.’ They were long rolls of barbed wire, and we had special equipment to make the rolls. When you stretched them out they were like a concertina, or accordion. They were small and when you stretched them out, they would reach probably 50 feet. Then you’d pin them down. They were to prevent saboteurs from coming on shore from submarines.

“From the Rose Bowl, several of us were sent to Bing Crosby’s stables in Inglewood. We were stationed at the stables. We were just on guard duty there, around the different plants—standing by on alert, ready to be called. After I arrived, I got sick. Our doctor didn’t know what to do, so he sent me to a civilian hospital. The civilian doctors said I had acute appendicitis—they would have to operate on me immediately. They operated on me and then I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.

“In the meantime, the men had been sent to a park that was a couple of miles from the Rose Bowl—Oak Grove Park. The Army had gotten large tents for us. We stayed in the park and continued our training there.

“We got orders in the fall—I think it was September—to pack everything. We would be going to the East Coast. We loaded all our equipment. We put Cosmoline on our equipment and packed it up. It took several weeks to get everything ready. The equipment was sent by freight and we traveled by passenger train to Fort Dix in New Jersey. It was there we found out we would be going overseas.

New York City

“We were stationed at Fort Dix for a while. Although we knew we would be going overseas, we didn’t have any idea where we would be going—or when. We didn’t do very much training there because all of our equipment was Cosmolined and packed up. Most of the training we did was calisthenics and running—basically keeping in shape. We had been there for several days when the officers said that if any of us wanted to take a pass in the evening we could leave the base.

“Fort Dix wasn’t far from New York City, so I figured I would take a bus there. When I arrived, I called my sister Lillian. When Lillian was a young girl she had left home for New York and stayed there with my aunt Alga. She had remained in New York and got married. At that time, she had already been there for 10 years or so. When I called her up and told her I was in New York City, she was really excited. She told me where she lived.

“I thought, ‘Well—being in the service I’ll find my way around.’ I got to Grand Central Station and I took a taxi. I don’t remember what it cost me. Was she ever happy to see me!

“While I was staying with her, she said Viola Turpeinen and her husband were going to be playing in Central Park. That really excited me, because I had heard Viola play accordion at the Finn Hall in Phelps, Wisconsin. She was originally from Iron River, Michigan. In the old days, during the Depression, she used to come to Phelps and play at the ‘worker’s hall’—or Finn Hall. I was just a kid then. I walked barefoot to the hall when they had ‘cowboy picnics’ there. That was a big doing for us. When she played accordion the people danced.

Viola Turpeinen with her husband, William Syrjala, in Central Park, NYC

“Lillian and I went to Central Park. Sure enough, they had a stand there where Viola Turpeinen and her husband were playing. When she took a break, I went to the stage. I had my uniform on.

“I said, ‘Hi! How’s everything? I’m from Phelps. I’m here now to come to visit you.’

“She was so excited. She said, ‘Get a chair—you and your sister both get chairs—and sit right here on the bandstand with us.’ She talked with us about the old days. She said, ‘You know, what’s where I got my start—in Phelps. That’s where I first got to play my accordion. I remember Neimi and the Haakonens used to pick me up from Iron River, take me to the Finn Hall, and then later drive me back to Iron River.’

“They had a quart bottle of wine and they offered me drinks from it. I didn’t drink too much. Lillian and I danced a few dances. I had to leave the city kind of early, so we went back to Lillian’s apartment. Then I went back to the bus station and I took a bus back to Fort Dix. It was really lucky that I had a chance to visit my sister. I also had a chance to see my cousin Millie. Everything seemed to be playing just right into my hands.

Armie with sister Lillian (left) and cousin Millie, New York City


“Soon after that we went overseas. The seas were real rough. I read later that that winter was a particularly bad one in the Atlantic and the seas were unusually rough. The waves were choppy. The ships just wallowed through the waters. We traveled a northern route. We didn’t know where we were going.

I was lucky that I had an old sleeping bag. We weren’t supposed to take them overseas, but I liked the sleeping bag so well that I took the packing out from the inside and just kept the cover with the zipper. I put my blankets inside it and, when I pulled the zipper up, I managed to keep warm—whereas many of the other fellows were cold.

“The food on the ship was mostly rutabaga soup, mutton, and British tea. The bread was good, but most of the rest of the stuff I didn’t care for much. The water wasn’t very good for drinking, either. It had chlorine in it and it tasted strong. They did sell some candy bars on the ship—British candy bars made from really good chocolate. I had enough money so I bought mostly candy bars.

“Many of the fellows who were with me threw up and were seasick. I never did get seasick. Of course, it was probably good that I didn’t eat very much. When I had a chance I would go on deck. But it was so cold on the deck, with the wind blowing and weather damp—raining and foggy—that it wasn’t very pleasant up there.

“I think it was a couple of weeks before we started getting close to North Africa. Suddenly the weather started warming up and the seas became calmer. I’d go on the deck of the ship and watch the British sailors. They were assembling a large net, which they said would be used as a landing net. Being in the Army engineers, we did a lot of rope work in our projects. It was interesting to watch the British. They knew just what they were doing—they were very good at rope work. I watched as they tied the knots and spliced the rope and made the big nets. The nets were like fishnets, only larger. Later they would be put over the side of the ship. We would climb these nets when it was time to leave the ship and get into the assault boats.

“At one point we were told that we were passing through the straits of Gibraltar. We could see the rocky shore. Then we got the inkling that we would be landing some place in North Africa or Italy. We didn’t know for sure until we got our orders that we would be embarking the next morning.

“In the evening we all got our packs ready. We were given a patch with the United States flag that we were to sew onto a shoulder of our jackets. We were given a password that we were to use when we landed. The password would be ‘Hi-ho, Silver,’ and the answer would be ‘Away.’ If we encountered someone and they knew the answer, we knew they were friendly.

“The next morning at 4 or 5 o’clock we knew that we were about to land in North Africa. Our ship was brought closer to shore. We were told to be ready to go down the scramble net as an assault boat was brought alongside the ship. We got our orders to go down and Lieutenant Prestridge went down first. I was the second one to go down the scramble net. It was harder for the first two us to go down, as the net was hanging between the landing craft and the ship. There were swells in the water—probably 8- or 10-foot swells that went up and down and dashed against the side of the ship.

When we got down from the ship, we lifted the net into the assault boat. In going down the scramble nets we each carried a pack with our rifle, ammunition, and supplies. The pack weighed about 60 pounds. You had to hold yourself close to the net, because if you let yourself lean backward it was impossible to get close to the net again—and you would fall. In falling down onto the metal boat you could break your back—or you could fall between the boat and the ship.

“We helped about 30 men into the assault boat. When it was loaded we threw the net against the ship and the British started the motor and headed for shore. There was no firing at us at the time we landed. It was early morning. We got close to shore, but the assault boats didn’t land on shore—we had to get off in the water. The water was about up to our necks when we jumped over the side of the boat and headed for shore.

“When I got to the shore, it seemed such a relief to be on shore after being on the ship. I didn’t care what happened next—just to be able to hug the sand was good! There was some firing going on but not much action at that time. I suppose the British cruisers and destroyers had by then shot at any installations that were firing. When daylight came, we were told to march. We went to the harbor of Arzew, 10 or 20 miles from Oran, Algiers.

Battle—and Capture

“When we got there our first job was to unload the ships. The port was in good shape. We stayed there about a week, unloading ships as fast as the ships got there. We had large cargo nets. To unload the ships, we would go into the hulls and throw in all the supplies we could fit in the net. Then we would hoist the cargo net up and swing it onto the dock. We would load the cargo on trucks that would take them inland, farther from the Mediterranean shore, so the German or Italian ships or submarines couldn’t shell them.

“I didn’t see much action, but I did see one ship destroyed. I happened to look over and I saw a large explosion. The ship may have contained ammunition. The whole thing blew up. A submarine might have hit it, or it might have run into a mine. That was the only ship that was destroyed. After the cloud of smoke cleared away there was nothing left.

“After working there, we went on to build a hospital—but I covered that already in my earlier story [taped in 1976], so I won’t go into much detail about that. After working there I was in charge of using explosives. We used dynamite and TNT because everything was solid rock.

“After finishing the work at Arzew, we were sent by convoy to Algiers. We went through the city of Algiers and on to Tunisia. From Tunisia we worked on various engineering projects. Everything was mud and sloppy there. It was the rainy season at that time. Then we got orders to go on the guard post. I told you about that—when I was in charge of the guard zone—and story about Bommarito.

“Later we were told to pack up and go to Kasserine Pass. I’ll always remember the date that we got to the pass—the 19th—because we were in the 19th Engineers. We were told that the Germans were preparing to attack the pass. We would be laying minefields in case the Germans tried to break through.

“Everything was disorderly at the time, because nobody knew just where the Germans would try to make the breakthrough—or if they would. We thought that we would get plenty of air protection. But all the while we were there not a single American plane flew over. There were some German planes that came over, but they didn’t drop bombs. They were more or less just looking—taking photographs and finding out what our positions were, I think.

“It was on the 19th when some of the German tanks came up and fired some shots. They got up to the minefield and couldn’t get through. Some of them may have hit mines—I don’t remember. Then they withdrew and we knew that they would attack the next morning. Later I learned that the Germans cleared the mines from the road during the nighttime. It was early the next morning—on the 20th—that the Germans really opened up on us. They had tanks and mortars. They had just got the new six-barreled electric-controlled mortars, which were some of the best they had. They made a large whining sound as they fired into our midst.

“What hurt us the most was that we got orders to load all our packs onto trucks. The infantry would relieve us, we were told. But as soon as the trucks were loaded, one of the trucks—my own truck—was hit by German artillery. Everything burned. I just hated to look out there and see all my provisions burn. Little did I know at the time that that would be the last I would see of many of our troops. When evening came I called up our Major Kellogg to find out what we should do.

“I said, ‘The Germans are attacking us. Will we get reinforcements or what? Or—should we withdraw or what?’

“He said, ‘Just stay there. Gather up as many men as you can and get ready to attack the Germans.’ It was getting dark when I gathered up the men I could and we started going toward the German lines.

“I’ve told you about that already.

“Well, anyway, the Germans captured me.

“I was in a prison camp in Tunis until we were flown across to Sicily. I was in prison camp on Sicily—Camp 98.

Note: This story is continued in the January 2008 post entitled “A First-Hand Account of Camp 59.”