Prior to being drafted, I attended Garrett Ridge High School in the Cortez area of Colorado during my freshman and sophomore years. My mom and dad had no money to pay tuition for me to finish high school, so I went to Kuna, Idaho where I lived with my granddad and grandma Walker. I milked cows in Boise, Idaho. My granddad had an old radio in the barn that he played when milking cows. He swore the cows gave more milk when the radio was playing.
I was drafted in fall of 1941 to serve one year. Beginning in September 1941, I spent 13 weeks in basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky, and I also trained at Fort Bliss in Texas.
Then Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 7, 1941 and World War II broke out.
World War II was everywhere. Yugoslavia and Greece had fallen to Nazi troops, Russia was being heavily attacked by powerful German artillery, American forces had whipped a Japanese fleet in the Coral Sea, and Mussolini was fighting for control over Italy in an alignment with Hitler. By November of 1942, most of the Allies’ concentration was on the European theater. Rommel masterminded a series of surprise advances in North Africa. On November 8th, our 16th Combat Engineers were attached to the First Armored Division of the U.S. Second Corps.
On Mother’s Day in 1942, I boarded the Queen Mary to Ireland. Our ship couldn’t dock at Belfast, so we got into a smaller boat to get to shore. We trained in Northern Ireland in the summer of ’42 for the invasion of Africa, thwarting the German Wehrmacht’s assault on Russia.
I got my tattoo there, because everyone was getting them. I got a heart-shaped tattoo with the name area left empty.
We stayed in a castle in Liverpool, England. There were lots of empty castles around. We spent two weeks at Greenock Bay in Scotland and then left for the invasion of Africa. While at Greenock Bay waiting to leave, a British airplane crashed. The captain sent me and two other guys to guard the airplane. It was pouring rain. I was really sick with chills, so I told the other two guys to guard the plane. We set up pup tents and we were so wet.
An old man came over to where we were. The plane had crashed almost in his yard. He had a cabin within sight of the plane. He told us we could stay in the cabin where there was a fireplace. The old man had two daughters who gave us milk and crumpets to eat. We probably stayed there three or four days, until our outfit was ready to leave. We sure appreciated a dry cabin to stay in.
I was still sick when we left to get on the boat. There was a terrible sea storm. The British “LST” ship started cracking down the middle. We had welders who worked on it. Thank goodness the storm settled down and the water calmed down.
There were Germans and Italian soldiers in Africa. The German armies were heavily equipped with superior artillery and tanks. They were making an advance toward Kasserine Pass, which was about 18 miles west of Tunis.
Our convoy consisted of 600 ships (79 tanks and half-tracks on our ship). We went through the Straits of Gibraltar. We landed in Oran, North Africa. Our ship tried to go in on the beach, but it hit bottom. While under fire by Germans and Italians, we had to build a steel tread way, 400 feet long, over rubber boats. We needed to build this to unload the ship. A British battleship was shooting at the enemy as we were building the tread way.
Our convoy then headed for Tunisia by night. We were in half-tracks with the lights off. We traveled about 250 miles. I remember we bedded down in a cactus orchard. The Germans sent Stuka dive bombers every day. These had sirens.
We found a well 15-20 feet deep, tied a rope to a tree. When we would hear the bombers’ sirens, we would run and jump in the “foxhole.” One time a bomb landed on the edge of this well and shrapnel hit several guys—one guy, it just gutted him out. I was lucky I wasn’t hurt. After that I dug my own private foxhole, deeper yet.
We then drove in to take Tunis. Our tank division set up mine fields and set up a roadblock. They had “sappers”—guys with metal detectors of some sort—who could tell where our mines were. The ranks came through and the infantry with them. My buddies Earl Rinebarger and George Morford escaped when the Germans came through, about 200-300 yards from them. They went into an old farmhouse. There were eight of us fighting the infantry.
A tank came right up to me—about 10 feet from me—and I held my hands up. About three times they tried to shoot me. Then the German sergeant told him “No,” and he slapped the gun down. What a close call!
Our sergeant told us to give up, as there was nothing else we could do.
Tunis was 14 miles away. They marched us in. There were mines all across the valley. I remember watching this German command car—with three high-ranking officers—hit a mine. The car flew up in the air.
There were eight of us captured on December 10, 1942. On December 27th my mom and dad received a telegram relaying the grim news that I was reported as “missing in action.”
We and other English soldiers had to dig a trench around the German headquarters in Tunis. About 50 or 60 Arabs were helping too. When we got done, the Germans lined up the Arabs and killed them all. They lined us up, but didn’t shoot. They took us to a schoolhouse.
Plans were for us American prisoners to be flown to Stalag I in Berlin. In about two days, a German airplane landed and unloaded. It was a big transport plane with six motors. They put us into the plane with 68 other POW’s, to go to Germany. We started to leave and air raid sirens went off. Our bombers bombed docks across the Mediterranean. This big plane tried to take off and I remember it was really slow—it had a 180-foot wingspread. It was the biggest cargo plane. We got over Sicily and ran into bad weather. The pilot was forced to cut his mission short, landing in Tripoli, Sicily. On landing, the plane got bogged down in the mud. No one was hurt.
I remember the pilot was very interested in us Americans. He spoke English. The Germans then turned us over in Palermo, Sicily. We were interrogated for 38 days there. These were the worst day of my prison life. They starved us, it rained, and we got sick. It was around Christmastime. They weren’t so rough with me, but some soldiers were beaten and got terrible treatment. We were only to give our name, rank, and serial number. I wouldn’t tell them any more than that. This German officer who was interrogating me actually knew my history—where I had been, everything about me.
This was at Camp 98. Soldiers, both wounded and sound, spent cold and hungry hours packed into one small cell so tightly that young men were discovered to have died while standing.
In this camp there was row upon row of internment quarters, which were heavily guarded by bayonet rifles, barbed wire, and a high wall with towers at vantage points.
Many of the POWs were signing “pledges” to assure their captors of no attempt to escape in exchange for work duty on farms in Italy and Germany—and hope of better food allotments. Many of us American prisoners would not sign these pledges. Thus for the next nine months we somehow sustained ourselves on one bowl of watery soup meagerly filled with potato peelings and a bare allowance of water for each day of internment.
I remember guys would dig in the ground for worms to eat. There were a lot of guys who were sick, so they took us to a hospital tent where there were 80-85 guys. Some had been prisoners for a long time. Some were British—and some were Canadians and Australians. I was the only American. They thought I had dysentery. We each had to give a stool sample. If we passed the test, we could leave the hospital tent.
I remember one Englishman saying, “Say, mate—give me a bit of that, would you?” They cut that sample up into several pieces to try and pass the test.
One or two men died, so we were to return to the hospital tent. Van (Louis VanSlooten) and others were there too. I lay down and the men hid me with blankets until they were ready to ship out—and I went with them. The other guys that went to the hospital all died.
The medical officer who was there was called “the medical.” He carried a swagger stick. He would call our name each morning and we had to report to him. He called the name of an Australian man who had died during the night. I remember two of his buddies picked him up—stiff as a board—and stood him up to “report” when his name was called.
We were to then be taken to Camp 59 in Servigliano, Italy. This was about 90 miles north of Rome, next to the coast. To get there, we rode a barge through the Straits of Medina into Italy. I remember we rode these Italian wood-burning trucks that ran on steam. The trucks couldn’t pull the hill, so we had to get out and push. We had to ride a train for three days. It was January, and it was really cold. We were so hungry and cold. This was where I traded my class ring for some bread and fruit. Van traded his wristwatch for food.
The train was going really slow through a town, and the boxcar door was open. I remember a lady threw a loaf of bread in, but it missed the door and fell outside on the ground. This soldier from Oklahoma jumped down, grabbed the bread, and got back in. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He looked like a wild man in the eyes. At every good-sized town we came to they would take us off the train and march us through the town to show us off.
We were in Camp 59 in Servigliano until Italy fell in July of 1943. Almost immediately on arrival at Camp 59, we started planning an escape. We even dug tunnels beneath quarters at night. I tried to learn more of the Italian language, knowing I would need to know it once I escaped.
The American Red Cross was a strong force in enforcing some of the ethics of war, being permitted access to prison camps throughout Europe, and allowing delivery of clothing and rations, and correspondence between prisoners and their families back home. Of course the Red Cross was never allowed into camp unless the Italians had things looking pretty “good.” By January 9, 1943 my mom and dad had received a telegram stating that I was now a prisoner of war.
One time our American planes went over and we all cheered. They were marching 140 of us guys when these planes went over. I sidestepped into the latrine, and they noticed one of us was missing. For this, I was thrown into a dungeon. There was not much room to move around and no light. I was in this dungeon for six days and nights, with bread and water only.
There were two factions: (1) King Vittorio [Victor Emmanuel III] and his troops, and (2) Mussolini and the Fascists. Vittorio’s troops gave up but the Fascists kept fighting. We had guards of both kinds.
One of the guards had family in America. This guard kept us informed on what was going on. He said the Germans were going to pick us up the next day and take us to Stalag I. He helped us by placing five machinegun guards on the rock wall. Two of the guards he picked he knew would not shoot to kill.
There were 1,300 prisoners in the camp. We made a number of attempts to escape, but on September 14, 1943 we were successful. At about midnight, 500 of us hit the gate. These guards were firing—a bunch were killed. Van and I escaped. We stayed together. I remember we ran, ran, ran, ran.
I got so thirsty. I asked someone for water. They didn’t know who we were. We had on patched-up British uniforms. We drank and then went on.
We would hide in the bushes in the daytime and move at night. We were heading for the mountains. Little did we know these mountains were full of roads and people. Our escape from prison camp came just days after the Allied forces had pushed into Italy, freeing Rome from the German occupation and beginning their drive northward.
While many Italians celebrated their liberation, others who were still loyal to the Fascists were persevering in their efforts to help round up Allied prisoners and return them to the Nazi’s. For the next nine months we hid out in caves, scrounging for food and moving in dark of night with the sound of heavy-breathing Nazi troops around.
We never knew if an Italian we met up with would be a Fascist sympathizer or a friend of the Allies. One time Van and I were in the woods and we heard Italians laughing and playing a game. We weren’t doing a good job of talking Italian.
One of the old men said, “Why the hell don’t you talk English then?” He said it got too hot in Chicago for him, so he went back to Italy. He was a member of Al Capone’s gang.
We saw other prisoners being recaptured, some killed. About mid-October we were hiding out in the hills above Ascoli Piceno. We watched families pick acorns. They would feed these acorns to their hogs. They made granaries out of willows. We watched them for two or three days, and then decided to go down and help them pick. They shared their food with us.
There was a boy we got acquainted with. His name was Marino. This family had two boys who were prisoners of war. One was in England. I met him later, in 1983. The other boy was a prisoner in Russia—they never heard from him.
Marino would bring us food in the cave. One time we were in the cave cooking some beans, and the boy came to warn us the Germans were coming. We ran up a steep hill to what looked like a ledge. When we got to it, it was a trail.
I will never forget this—we saw a German soldier on this trail, right next to us. We were hanging there by our hands, holding on to roots and brush. The soldier stopped right there. He was looking around, yelling. If he had looked down he would have seen us. I remember he was left-handed and his name was Hans. He and another soldier kept yelling back and forth, looking for us. We hung there until about 10 that night.
I guess these soldiers beat the boy up. I always felt this boy’s dad was the one who turned us in. I had gotten acquainted with the boy’s sister, Diedra, who was a schoolteacher. She helped me learn some Italian words and phrases.
The Germans sent out leaflets warning families not to help soldiers or they would suffer consequences. They claimed they would kill them, burn their houses, if they helped in any way. We hid out in caves mostly. It snowed five feet one time. Our planes were giving the Germans heck. The Germans were requiring the people to keep the mountain roads cleared. It got really rough for us. Marino would herd his sheep and bring us bread, cheese, and wine. Van got yellow jaundice really bad. When we had received our military immunizations, they fouled up the shots. About two-thirds of the guys got jaundice. The wine seemed to bring Van out of it.
I came down with pneumonia. This young boy, Marino, and his family—the Palmoni family—took me in. They let me stay upstairs. I was very sick. They would give me heated wine. I was unable to eat. Diedra would just cry because I wouldn’t eat. In time I got better, but had to leave before I was fully recovered from pneumonia. Germans would come to these families and take their hogs, requiring the men to work in work parties. Following the advice of the Palmoni family, we began winding along a small river course which would be the route to Pescara on the Adriatic where a Polish Brigade was attached to the British 8th Army.
Most of the escaped prisoners moved out in large numbers together, making themselves awfully visible. My buddy and I hung back, lagging behind. Some English paratroopers visited. They wanted to know if we wanted to leave Italy. It was October. They told us if we went on a certain night, took a certain stream until we got to the Mediterranean, the British had a boat to pick us up if we wanted to go.
In the meantime, we had gotten acquainted with some people—escaped prisoners, not POWs, but escaped from Mussolini. I have names and addresses of some of these people—they were from Yugoslavia. There was one woman who was really smart. She spoke seven languages. There was a blind boy who they led with a cane.
For some reason, I was hesitant to go on this certain night, to follow that stream to the ocean, but I did so. We followed the creek, which led to the shore. Van and I sat down to rest. Here came these people—about 100 of them—with the blind boy. They all wanted out of Italy. The blind boy was stumbling along. They were the last ones to sit down and wait.
At this time the Germans opened fire with machineguns. We ran away, ran the rest of the night. We headed back toward Palmoni country. We came to a road with a bridge. We were under the bridge when we heard a German convoy coming. As they were crossing the bridge, our planes went over, shooting. The Germans hid in the bushes—we were hiding in the bushes together, but they didn’t even notice us. We were really hungry. We knew our forces were fighting down below us, and the safest area was where we were. But we couldn’t really get food.
In February, the sun came out and melted the snow enough that we could walk on it. Germans were raiding a house on a bluff. (When my wife and I returned in 1983 to visit, we ended up staying in this house). I went out the stable door, running while they were shooting. I kept falling through the crusty snow, but I got away.
At this time Van was at another house. He was not with me when I stayed with the Palmoni family. I found Van later. We stayed in caves more. Two English boys were staying in a cave near us. They would come and visit us.
In June of 1944, Rome fell.
Our troops were coming. The Germans were being backed up. The Germans blew up 18 or 20 bridges. We went down a road and were sitting on a bridge that had not been blown up, when we heard Germans talking. We had civilian clothes on. They were German stragglers.
We spoke to them and they went on. Four of us—Van and me, and these two English boys—were going down a road when we heard motorcycles. They sounded like German motorcycles, but they were Polish reconnaissance of the British 8th Army. They were on our side. We jumped out, told them who we were, and they loaded us up.
We were put in a hospital at Oscali. I weighed about 100 pounds. While in the hospital, I heard guns. We were afraid, as the Germans would come in and take over towns. We left the hospital in the middle of the night and caught up with a gas truck that was going to Foggia, where the American Air Force Base was.
We were given uniforms, we shaved our heads, and they “de-liced” us. The colonel there fed us a huge meal—though I could hardly eat. And he even gave us girlfriends to go out on a date with. At this American AF base, we were talking to a pilot. We told him we needed to get to North Africa. He was going to leave on a C-47 in the morning. He said we could go with him, which we did.
When we arrived in North Africa, they fed us and put us up for 4-6 weeks, until the hospital ship could head home. When it was time to go, the colonel gathered about 100 of us up and said, “Boys, you are going home.”
This was a new hospital ship. We finally came home. The war, of course was not over yet. On August 2, 1944, we arrived in New York on the Queen Mary. The ship had been converted into a troop and hospital ship for wartime use.
After returning to the United States, I came home on furlough for 20 days. My brother Bob and I met two sisters named Molly and Jimmie Robinson.
I went to rest camp at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. I had no duty for six weeks. Van went home.
I then went to Buhl, Idaho, where I would guard German prisoners. These prisoners were topping beets. It was cold January. I then was sent to guard more German prisoners who were working in the cotton fields around Shafter, California. There were 60 prisoners and two of us guards. I had a .30 caliber automatic, 15-round gun. I shot at rabbits, too.
There was a Nazi prisoner from the Gestapo, the military police. These prisoners had a daily quota of picking twenty pounds of cotton a day. I saw a bunch of them gathered up. This one particular Nazi was quite a smart aleck. He had a cotton ball in his hand. I heard him say, as he would pinch a cotton piece and throw it in the bag, “This one is for Roosevelt, this one is for Stalin, this one is for Churchill, and I leave two for Hitler.” That is all it took for me—I hit him so hard, he flew about 15 cotton rows over.
In three days I came up for overseas replacement to the Aleutian Islands. My bags were packed and had already left. At this time the point system came out. Eighty-five points were required to keep one from being shipped back overseas. I had 90 points. There were so many points per battles, invasions, etc. I was then put en cadre. I was supposed to be a corporal, have my own squad. I wanted to go home.
After being discharged in 1945, I bought a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle in Maryville, California. I had 27 months’ back pay coming—around $900.
In November of 1945, Jimmie and I got married in Aztec, New Mexico. I traded my motorcycle to my brother Bryce for a ’35 Ford. That car didn’t last long—a rod went bad in the engine. Jimmie and I homesteaded 200 acres in 1951. We cleared and farmed 30 acres. I don’t remember if I bought it or rented it from my dad. I hauled coal from Thompson Park up to Knife Edge at Mesa Verde. I also kept farming.
Gary was born in May of 1947. Cindy was born in October of 1950. At six years of age, Gary went to Bible camp up at Ouray with Paul Chappell. Gary got saved there. He came home and kept pestering me and I would get so mad. He said, “Dad, you have just got to get saved.” The Holy Spirit kept working on me. One night in April 1956, there was a knock at the door. It was Von Stillhammer with his Bible in hand. He led me to the Lord that night.
Jimmie was not saved at that time yet. Paul and I would get together and talk about the Bible and she would get mad at us. She started reading her Bible to prove us wrong. She got saved trying to prove us wrong.
In 1961 I became licensed to preach at the Goodman Point Baptist Church. I preached at Monticello, Utah for three years. In 1983 I was ordained as a minister. I became the pastor to Montelores Baptist Church at Lewis, Colorado and preached there for 19 years until retirement in 2002.
In May of 1983, through secretive efforts of our children, family and friends, Jimmie and I returned to Italy for a very special reunion with the Palmoni family.
Landing Ship, Tank (LST) was a type of naval vessel created during WW II to support the amphibious landing of infantry on a beachhead.
A half-track is a vehicle with wheels in front for steering and caterpillar tracks in the back to carry the bulk of the load and propel the vehicle.
En cadre is a military term for a small corps of experienced people who are given the task of providing leadership or training for new members in the system.