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Willman King—prisoner of war
Monday, April 2, 1979
[The Becker County Record serves Becker County and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.]
By Larry Windom
In 1942, one of the persons to take part in the initial landing in Africa was Willman King.
He landed in North Africa and helped capture the city of Oran, Algeria, a couple of days later.
King spent about three weeks in Oran and one of his duties while there was to watch some prisoners. They were political prisoners, he recalls, like German counselors and attaches.
Just the other day, King reflected back to the fall of 1942 while sitting at his kitchen table in his home 8 miles east of Detroit Lakes. Recalling watching the prisoners, he stated, “At that time, I never thought that I would be taken prisoner, too. One thing we never considered was being taken prisoner. I think that was true of the others, too. It just never occurred to us.”
But King was taken prisoner shortly afterwards. In fact, he spent most of his army career as a prisoner of war.
King was born in Missouri but his family moved to the Detroit Lakes area when he was 9 years old. He joined the service on Oct. 21, 1941, taking basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
After basic training, he joined the First Armored Division and spent five or six weeks in New Jersey before boarding the Queen Mary in May of 1942 to head for Europe.
He arrived in Scotland May 17 and within a week went to Ireland. Once there, he trained near Newcastle over the summer. In September, he was in an advance detail to England where he spent 4 weeks while vehicles and equipment were waterproofed. Being in an armored division, explained King, meant that trooped had vehicles in which to travel.
King had his first taste of combat when he was among the troops landing in Algeria. After spending three weeks in Oran, King spent about a week moving to the front in Tunisia, a small country just east of Algeria.
It was in Algeria where he was captured.
King recalls it this way: “We were sent out on post ahead of the front. We had heard of an attack. In the morning, as we were going across a waddy, a ravine, we saw a column of soldiers coming up but we couldn’t identify them. By the time the platoon commander figured it out, we were under fire.
“We were caught in a plowed field. Our machine gun squad got knocked out right away. The platoon sergeant said to follow him, one at a time. The fellow below me got hit. The fellow above me got hit. But I took off when it was my turn with bullets hitting all around me.
“But when I got over a sloop, there laid the sergeant, captured by four Germans.
“I was captured right there. It was the 6th day of December.”
Of the 11 men pinned down in the field, King never did find out what happened to most of them. King does know that at least three of them were captured and taken to Tunis.
From Tunis, Italian guards took King and other prisoners by airplane to Sicily. King recalls that the guards got airsick. From Sicily, prisoners were taken to Italy where they spent six weeks in a transit camp outside Naples. Prisoners slept in pup tents upon a piece of canvas. They were fed water and think soup. It often rained and it was cold.
Prisoners and King were then taken to Camp 59, a permanent camp near the east coast of Italy.
“The hardest part of the whole thing was getting adjusted when first taken prisoner,” King recalled. “We had always had enough to eat. Our stomachs were shrinking until food was all we could think about.”
King also recalled the “visitors” always present in all the camps. “We went through a delousing about once a month but there was no way to clean up the barracks. These little buggers were with us all the time, even when we were loose.”
King and his fellow prisoners were set free Sept. 14 of 1943, when the Italians surrendered to the allies. The Italians turned the prisoners loose, said King. “But that still made us German enemies so the Germans could recapture us.
“As we were turned loose, and [they] told us we could go, we heard gunfire so we lost no time getting out of camp. We didn’t know where to go so we stayed three or four days a few miles from camp. Then the grub ran out so we started out south.”
Although the whole prison camp was released, everyone broke into small groups and headed off in different directions. King and two others came to a farm, eventually, and found a person who could speak English. Italians lived in clusters of five or six homes and they stayed at one of the homes, even helping in the harvest of grapes and wheat and in preparing to plant winter wheat.
“I was bitten by a spider when picking grapes,” King recollected. “I almost died. A farmer’s wife made a poultice and got me through it.”
Later, they found a tool shed which they shared with two Englishmen and a South African. “When we wanted something to eat, we bummed it, “ stated King. “We had our rounds. We went to a different home each day.
“We tried to keep ourselves clean. There were no contains and no place to heat water. We went in creeks of melting snow to try to keep clean. We couldn’t wash clothing. The only thing we could do is inspect them and squeeze the lice eggs.”
King remembers that the Italians brought food to the tool shed on New Year’s Eve after a three-foot snowfall trapped them at the shed. After clothes and shoes wore out, Italians gave them old clothes and a shoemaker put wooden soles on their boots.
Nobody feared discover by the Germans in the winter because roads were blocked. But in the spring, the men in the shed discovered they had stayed in one place too long and the Germans knew of them. “The postmaster sent his son to warn us of a raid on the village and shack. We took off and went to another tools shed nearby. We heard Germans in the village questioning people, we were that close. They left, but the next morning not an Italian would talk to us. They said ‘Via,’ go.”
The six men split up, with the three Americans heading west toward the coast where they found another English-speaking man. “He put us in beds in his home,” noted King. “They usually didn’t give that much help because if the Germans caught them helping us, they dynamited their home and took the man to Germany for forced labor.”
King recalls that on his birthday, April 13, allies dropped supplies by parachute near where the three men were staying. They found one canister and got shoes, blankets, maps, compasses, soup, shaving articles and other items.
After staying at the Italian’s home for about five weeks, rumors about them started again. “They begged us not to leave but we did anyway.”
All winter, the front line had been only 30 kilometers away, but King and his companions were on the wrong side. Since things had been quiet, they headed for the front to try to get across. Surprisingly, they found a bridge over the Pescara River. They crossed it and spent the night on the shore. The next morning, they climbed mountains and discovered dugouts, communication lines, and other evidence of troops—all abandoned.
“We got careless then. We were walking along when we walked right into a squad of Mongolian soldiers in German uniforms. There was nothing we could do.”
It was June 1, 1944.
Since they were wearing civilian clothing, they were threatened and interrogated. Later, they were taken by truck and on foot up the east coast of Italy, starting out with only 10 or 15 men and getting joined by more prisoners along the way.
King recalls two near escapes during the march:
“We had been marching all night and it was breaking day. We heard airplanes and the guards were scared of airplanes. There was an unoccupied house by the road with two front doors. I went in the left door with the guards, the wrong door. Others went in the right door and four guys went straight through the back to freedom.
“The same day, in the evening, we were in a hotel and we noticed some guys missing. We investigated and found a door on the side of the hotel with no guard. Three or four of us walked right out. Unfortunately, some Italians saw us and informed on us. They sent the whole cottonpicking guard after us. We laid down in a three-corner patch of wheat about the size of two rooms. They spent the whole evening looking and were about to give up when two fellows stumbled through the patch and found us.”
King recalls the German officer being so mad he was shaking. “He had his gun at my belly. I was sure he’d accidentally pull the trigger.”
The march concluded in northern Italy near Farrara. One morning the prisoners were squeezed into boxcars and taken to Austria. They spent a night in a camp there. They then were transported by rail to a camp by Stettin, now called Szczecin, Poland, where they stayed in the fall and part of the winter of 1944–45.
At one point some of the prisoners, including King, were to go to another camp. “But I was just starting to get mail so I tried not to go,” he said. “I bribed my way with cigarettes to get the guard to let me stay. The guard still tried to get me to go but I just walked away and hid with the French prisoners for a couple of days until the other prisoners were long gone.”
King pointed out that items of monetary value were useless but cigarette could buy almost anything. “If you had enough cigarettes you could have boughten your way out of Germany.”
Cigarettes came in Red Cross parcels which arrived in camp, at best, once a week. “The 11-pound parcels kept us alive. We would never have survived on their food.”
King praised the American Red Cross for their part in the war. “The Red Cross raised money, got in there and saw to it that the parcels were distributed. They kept a pretty tight ship. Eleven pounds doesn’t sound like much, but it was a tremendous boost, like Christmas every week.”
One day, Jan. 29, 1945, to be exact, prisoners were told to walk west. After awhile, Red Cross food ran out and hungry prisoners started to look for ways to scrounge up food. “In a little town, probably in Germany, we were going four abreast when the column split to go around a dairy cart. The doors were open and as we went by, we’d grab something. Soon there was a big shakedown to find the food. I had one pound of butter. A fellow and I went through the line together and we got the guard confused as to who was through the line. We salvaged the butter. That was pretty important to us.”
During the march, nights were often spent in courtyards surrounded by buildings. Prisoners could not escape, but they did have freedom to roam in the courtyard area. Using the little freedom they had, they often found food. King recalls stealing a chicken at one location. Unfortunately, no fires were allowed that night, and the following day only a short fire was allowed. “It was not long enough to cook it properly but we cooked it anyway. We couldn’t wait.”
Prisoners eventually arrived in a new prison camp but they were only there a short time when allies, Russians, threatened. One morning, prisoners awoke to find themselves free. The German guards had fled and Russians were everywhere.
Once free, King didn’t know where to go so he and two other Americans joined a group of about 300 Frenchmen. They all started for the line of demarcation.
Russians, King noted, treated Americans well and would hug and kiss them whenever they announced that they were Americans.
But the Russians turned into a problem at the demarcation line, an area that was crowded with all sorts of nationalities trying to cross. Although there were U.S. vehicles in the area that could have taken King and his companions over the line, the Russians refused to let them go. Even American officers couldn’t get the Russians to let King and his friends go.
Finally, the Americans secretly met a U.S. convoy of trucks in a town away from the line and boarded for passage across the line.
King was checked for physical ailments before he was flown to a camp by LeHavre, France. At this camp, he ran into the sergeant who was with him when he was originally captured.
King, still with his two companions from prison camp, went to London my boat, later to Edinburgh, Scotland, and then back to London. When shipping became available, he left from South Hampton for the United States. He arrived in Virginia on June 20, 1945. He arrived in Minneapolis on July 4 and got to his home July 5.
After 60 days of furlough, King was sent to Hot Springs, Ark., to a redistribution station. He was then sent to Camp McCoy, Wisc., where he was processed for discharge.
He was discharged Oct. 9, 1945, a few days short of four years in the army.
And during those four years, he had either been a prisoner or on the loose behind enemy lines for about 29 months.
Although it had been over 30 years since World War II, King was glad to be able to get a first-hand look into the past about three year ago while in California. He visited the Queen Mary, the ship that had brought him to Europe, and he called up Roy “Andy” Anderson, a friend he had made while prisoner the second time and who had spent time with King shortly after crossing the line of demarcation.
After the war, King married and he and his wife, Mary, had nine children. He farmed until 1960. With his sons to help keep the farm going, he started road construction work until 1970 when he had a bad heart attack.
“Looking back, so many times, things could have gone the other way,” he noted. “I survived by the prayers of loved ones at home and by the grace of God. Without His direction, one would never make it.
“When I was over there, I promised Him if he would spare me and see me safe home, I would serve him the rest of my life. I’ve tried.
“It shows how trivial some of the things are. They can be taken away so quickly. Only the little things that last are important.”
Willman King, on the right, is pictured with friends in Little Falls in 1941 while on four-day pass. Another area person shown in the picture is Leo Schmit, Detroit Lakes, shown on the left.
Willman King, shown in the summer of 1942 in a photograph taken in Ireland.