News article—Part I
Forty years later: Reunion with Italian partisans—Local Cortez veteran man shares prison camp experiences
BY SUSAN SHIELDS
Cortez [Colorado] Journal, circa April 1983
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first part of a two-part account of the capture, internment in a prison camp, and ultimate escape of Luther Shields in a World War II battle which took him from north Africa to Italy during the height of intensive fighting.)
December 8, 1941: The United States declares war on the Axis countries. Private Luther Shields of Goodman Point had already been through training for the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, and had written home to his parents, “I don’t think the army is so bad after all.”
On May 19, 1942, Private Shields would again be writing to the folks back home from Northern Ireland, where he and thousands of other American troops were engaged in serious training maneuvers, ostensibly, in preparation for thwarting the German Wehrmacht’s assault on Russia.
Two months would pass by, with news on July 1, 1942, that the British Eighth Army, under the command of General Montgomery, had successfully halted German’s General Rommel at El Alamein in North Africa.
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, 1942, however, with most of the Allies’ concentration on the European theatre, Rommel masterminded a series of surprise advances in North Africa, and on Nov. 8, Private Shields, with the 16th Combat Engineers, was attached to the First Armored Division of the U.S. Second Corps, and was landing in Iran in Tunesia.
The German armies, heavily equipped with superior artillery and tanks, were making an advance toward the Kasserine Pass. About 18 miles west of Tunis, between Madjezlbab and Tuburba, Shields and other men in his platoon were building a roadblock to delay the enemy counter attack when an entire German Panzer Division moved in on them.
Many of the U.S. soldiers were immediately swept over by the massive tanks. Said Shields, “The few of us that lived were surrounded by German Infantry and had to give up.”
The date was December 10, 1942. On Dec. 27, Luther’s parents received a telegram at their Goodman Point home, relaying the grim news that their son was reported missing in action.
Today, Luther Shields can report the good fortune that the German Panzer Division had been followed by their infantry. “There was no way the tanks could take prisoners. We would have all been shot had it not been for the infantry which did take us prisoner.”
Plans for the American prisoners were to fly them to Stalag I in Berlin. Crammed into a six-motored transport plane without seats nor straps with 68 other POWs, Shields was landed, instead, at Palermo, Sicily, after the plane hit severe storms and was forced to cut its mission short.
In Sicily, the Montezuma County soldier spent 38 days in an Italian interrogation camp.
“Those were the worst days of my life,” said Shields in a 1945 interview. “The Nazis tried to force us to give them information, and their methods cannot be described at this time.”
At the infamous Prison Camp No. 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.
After spending Christmas of 1942 in the interrogation camp at Sicily, Private Shields awoke one morning to find himself being loaded into a truck which burned wood for its steam-driven engine. Traveling up the coast of Italy, unable to determine his direction or destination, he was forced out of the truck and into a box car of a train where, for the next three days, without food nor warmth, he and other prisoners could only guess their ultimate destination.
Prison Camp No.59: Row upon row of internment quarters, heavily guarded by bayonette rifles, barbed wire and a high wall with towers at vantage points. While 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 hopes for better food allotments), neither Shields nor any of the other American prisoners would sign the release that promised improved conditions. Thus, the next nine months they were somehow sustained on one bowl of watery soup meagerly filled with potato peelings, and a bare allowance of water for each day of internment.
Almost immediate to his arrival at Prison camp 59, Shields and his compatriots began plans for escape, over the following months engaging every effort from digging tunnels beneath their quarters at night to more elaborate plans. Meanwhile, Shields undertook learning the Italian language, a foresight which later would prove life-saving.
Also at this time in the history of the war, the American Red Cross was a strong force in enforcing some of the ethics of war, being permitted access to the prison camps throughout Europe, and allowed delivery of clothing and rations and correspondence between prisoners and their families back home.
“Of course, the Red Cross was never allowed into the camp unless the Italians had things looking pleasant and comfortable,” said Shields, “but I don’t think any of us could have made it without the help of the Red Cross.”
So by January 9, 1943, Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Shields had received a telegram stating that their son was not a prisoner of war.
And faith was renewed for the safe return of their son.
To Be Continued
Photo caption: Preparing for reunion…LUTHER AND JIMMIE SHIELDS will realize the 40-year old dream, destination—Italy and the Palmoni family!
Prison camp—Part II
Freedom dash, months in mountain hideout and the Palmoni protectors
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In this second part of a two-part story about the capture, prison camp internment, and ultimate escape of Luther Shields in World War II, Shields describes his months of hiding in the mountains of Italy and the Palmoni family who endangered their own lives to assure the American’s safety.)
BY SUSAN SHIELDS
“We made a number of attempts (to escape),” continued Shields in the 1945 interview, “but it was on Sept. 14, 1943, that we made our break.”
The break was a mass storming of the main gate to the prison compound, with hundreds of the soldiers being shot and killed on sight as the body of prisoners fled into the surrounding hills. But the intuitive farm boy from Goodman Point, along with a friend, had, for months, been setting his sights on the distant mountains, gauging them as ideal for hiding once escape was assured.
“I hadn’t figured on the Italians’ ability to make use of every square inch of ground they could for crops, whether on a perpendicular hill or on a flat! Those hills were dotted with farms and villages everywhere.”
The escape from prison camp came just days after the Allied forces had pushed into Italy, freeing Rome from German occupation, and beginning their drive northward. And while many Italians celebrated their liberation, others, still loyal to the Fascists, were persevering in their efforts to help round up Allied prisoners and return them to the Nazis.
Which only made Luther Shields’ next nine months of hiding out in caves, scrounging for food and moving on in the dark of night, within the sound of the heavy breathing of Nazi troops, that much more dangerous. “We never knew if an Italian we met up with would be a Fascist sympathizer or a friend of the Allies.”
A few days after his escape, while hiding in the hills above Ascoli Piceno, Shields heard bridges being blown up by the Germans in their retreat. Unable to intervene, he witnessed other prisoners being recaptured, some killed. At one point, a German patrol came upon the escaped men, now in civilian clothing. “We spoke Italian to them, and they went on their way.”
Civilian clothing? “That was when we met the Palmoni family.”
The Italian family who, from grand-dad Palmoni down to Marino, the youngster whose chore it was to herd sheep each day in the hills where Shields was hiding, helped save the life of Private Luther Shields.
“The place was infested with Nazis,” said Shields. “But Marino would come by our place of hiding and very cautiously drop a loaf of bread into the bushes for us as he herded the sheep up the road.”
Slowly, as the snows began to fall on the high mountains, Shields began mingling with the family as its members were picking acorns one afternoon for winter forage. “The snow was quite deep, and the Palmonis were already short of food for the 22 people they were housing in their tiny home.”
But the family that would spin the cotton by hand and weave clothing for the American soldier readily had recognized a compatriot, and for the winter, assured his safety and comfort.
Their own son, forced into the Nazi army, was, at the same time Shields was being harbored by the Palmonis, a prisoner of was in England.
But when spring broke, Shields knew he must make good his ultimate escape and seek return to his American Army. Following the advice of the Palmonis, he and scores of other soldiers who had spent the winter in hiding, began winding their way 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 [Louis VanSlooten] and I stuck together, and held back with a blind civilian boy to help him along.”
As the group rested from their hand-crawling advance through bramble and bushes along the river, they heard fire open up ahead.
“We knew that the large group of escapees had been mowed down by the Germans.”
Finally, confronted by a motorcycle reconnaissance troop, Shields and his friend were taken to a hospital in Ascoli from which they sneaked out in the middle of the night when report of more Germans in the area made the two men feel uncomfortably helpless.
“We came upon an English army truck which took us to Foggia, from where we were shipped back to our division in North Africa.”
And on August 1, 1944, Private Luther Shields arrived in the United States on the Queen Mary, converted into a troop and hospital ship for wartime use.
It’s now been nearly 40 years since Luther Shields escaped from a Nazi prison camp; 20 years since he last corresponded with his faithful friends, the Palmonis at Monti Falconi [Montefalcone Appennino], Italy.
But his thoughts and conversations over the years of civilian life back in Montezuma County have kept the names of the courageous Italians and their extraordinary devotion to their American friend from Goodman Point alive these past 40 years.
“Luther would mention, from time to time, as our kids were growing up, how much he would love to some day return to Italy to see the Palmonis,” said Luther’s wife, Jimmie.
By March 17, 1983, the birthday of Luther’s granddaughter Julie, the children of Luther Shields and his many friends and neighbors in the rural community outside of Cortez, had seen to it that the POWs wish had been realized. Invited to daughter Cindy Jackson’s house to celebrate Julie’s birthday, Luther and Jimmie were handed two tickets to Italy, with an itinerary that listed a trip to Ascoli Piceno and a reunion with the Palmonis.
Through the secretive efforts of the Shields children and the World War II soldier’s neighbors in Montezuma County, funds were raised to provide the two-week trip.
Old grand-dad Palmoni has died. He was 82 at the time of his death n 1979. Marino, the shepherd boy, who, as a brave youngster, had secreted loaves of bread to Shields who hiding out from the Nazis, is still at home with other children of the Palmoni family.
And Luther Shields, along with his wife, is soon to be reunited with the Italian partisans whose courage delivered the American safely back to Colorado.
Arrivederci Lauterio! Sicuro viaggio, e spero di rivederti presto! [Goodbye, Luther! Safe journey, and we’ll hope to see you again soon!]
GRANDDAD PALMONI, no longer living, directed the safety of Shields and helped mastermind the soldier’s escape route.
THE EXTENDED PALMONI family stood together for this photograph after the war had ended. Their heroism has remained in the heart and memories of Shields these past 40 years.