Willman King, late fall 1945. The photo was taken in front of the farm home where he worked before WW II.
“The man with my dad and string of fish is Carl Eidensheink,” says Joe King. “He was a farmer my dad worked for as a hired man.” Circa 1938–39.
I received an email from Joseph M. King in January of this year. Joe wrote:
“I am sending information that I believe will add one more man to your list of Camp 59 survivors. He is my father, Willman I. King (Pvt. 37093828). He was born in 1919 and he died in 1980.
“Sometime in the late 1970’s, when I was home for a short visit, I did a mini-interview with Dad one evening at the dinning table. I was only about 30 years old, so I had very limited life experience to ask the in-depth questions I would ask today. But at least I got a small sketch of the chain of events from dad’s enlistment in the Army to his capture in North Africa. I say enlist because that is what his friend Johnnie Eidensheink told me Dad did.
“We have many cards and letters sent from various prison camps, and shortwave listening reports of his whereabouts, very similar to many others you have posted of other men.
“My parents lived nine miles east of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, on a farm where I was born and raised.
“My dad met and married my mother in 1946, shortly after his return from Europe. I was born in 1947—the first of nine. They lived all their married life on that farm, which today is owned by my sister and her family.
“From this vantage of life, I look back at what those guys went through and am amazed at how they got on with life after that experience. In my dad’s instance, his faith, his love of the outdoors (he hunted, fished, and trapped—sometimes to the exclusion of other things), plus marrying an excellent woman, helped him greatly.
“In the mid-1990’s, Mom and I paid a Sunday afternoon visit to Johnnie Eidensheink’s Cotton Lake home. There, on a hot afternoon on his deck, he talked about WW2. Johnnie and Dad were good friends in their late teen years. Johnnie said Dad was working at his uncle’s farm. One afternoon he drove the horses from the field, put them in the barn, got in his car, and drove to town and enlisted in the Army. Johnnie and Dad met by chance at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin, at war’s end. They threw their arms around each other and cried, rejoicing that they had both survived.
“Dad was a good card- and letter-writer after he left home. He enjoyed writing and receiving letters. That we have these preserved cards and letters is a tribute to his father, Emery.
“Emery saved them and gave them to Dad after the war.
“Only a few copies of the letters Emery wrote to dad are preserved. Obviously, a soldier/prisoner cannot save the letters he receives. He has other priorities.
“The ‘W. I. King goes to war story,’ that follows, Joe explained, “will be a few lines of interview, then cards and letters from my dad to Emery, then more interview. The story will flow in chronological progression.”
Willman King INTERVIEW
“The southbound train left Detroit Lakes October 20, 1941, and I was on board. I was inducted into the United States Army at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on October 21, 1941. I was there about a week then went by train, via Chicago, to Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“Basic training at Fort Knox was 13 weeks. Then I was assigned to the First Armored Division. I had no say as to where or what my assignment would be.”
POSTCARD to Emery
October 25, 1941
Just a line to let you know I am leaving Ft. Snelling today. Am going to Ft. Knox Kentucky. It is an armored unit. I don’t know how you will like it. All the work I have done since I was here was K.P. yesterday. Boy, and believe me it was work. About 13 hours of steady but not hard work. Don’t write till you hear from me.
POSTCARD to Emery
November 1, 1941—Fort Knox, Kentucky
This is my address for the next 13 weeks Willman I King Co A, 10th battalion, A.F.R.T.C.4th Platoon, Fort Knox Kentucky. I am feeling fine except I have a bad cold. We left Ft. Snelling at 2:30 pm Thur. Got here around 6:45. It sure must have been raining all over the U.S. Because there was water standing all over the ground all the way down. Take all of those pins and names out of my car before you sell it. Will write a letter as soon as I have seen enough to write about.
LETTER to Emery
November 11, 1941—Fort Knox Kentucky
How are you this nice Nov. afternoon? By the way it is the first time the sun has shone for over a week. And does it ever feel good.
We had to do a little parading this morning and that is all we had to do for today. We have been having the manual of arms and learning to march. Every morning we have a hour of crazy exercises.
I am feeling O K except that I have a cold. But all the rest of the boys have one too, so I am not alone. I am with a nice bunch of boys here. Many of them come from D.L. so it makes it feel a little like home. —– One of the boys had the Tribune sent down here and I see Omar Sperling has to go the 16th. I didn’t know he was 21 yet. Thanks for the stamps. —– Well I just came back from supper. We didn’t have enough to hardly get full. We had some hash that was so peppered up, that you could hardly eat —– Yes Dad I am going to be a man. Because it don’t pay to be anything else —– Am always glad to get mail and will write any one who wants to write to me.
Good night and much love Willman I King
LETTER to Emery
November 14, 1941—Fort Knox, Kentucky
Here I am again. I received your letter this morning at 11:30. —– There is a guy here by the name of Leo Schmidt that gets the Tribune. So as long as I am here at F. K. I can read his. Thanks just the same. How are you these Nov. days? I get $21.00 per month. Till everything is taken out not much is left there. Tomorrow we have inspection again. Shoes must be shined and our locker trunks must be packed a certain way. Our over coat, rain coat, shirt and some more stuff, must be on top of the bunks. And it is the bunks too!! —– I am feeling a little better but my cold is still here but is somewhat broken up. But I get bad headaches and that is something I never got while I was home. One of the boys went to the main post and got a hair cutting outfit and they are having a lot of fun up here cutting each others hair. The weather has been real nice and warm —– looks like rain tonight. I went driving truck yesterday morning but I think I will give it up as it is too dangerous and too much responsibility —–
LETTER to Emery
November 23, 1941—Fort Knox, Kentucky
Well here I am again and I don’t know what to write about. We do the same things day after day. I am feeling fine. Hope you are the same. I got rid of my cold. —– It is almost time for chow. We go on our overnight March tomorrow. Will come back Tue. morning. Then Tue. afternoon we go on the firing range to fire pistols. We also have to fire 30 Cal. rifle and machine guns this week sometime. —– Well I must close for this time as I have to polish shoes, and take a shower yet tonight. It is 7:40 now so good night and keep writing.
Love and best wishes from Willman I King.
LETTER to Emery
We had to go through the gas chamber again this morning. Most of the boys came out crying. They used tear gas. We had to take our gas masks off inside and then walk out so we were bound to get some of it. The idea is to get used to putting on our masks properly. This afternoon we had instructions in map reading. Yesterday we went on a 30 mile motor road march. Next Wed. we go on a 140 mile motor road march. I am well again and don’t have a cold. I am writing tonight in the recreation hall. It is a little quieter here than in the barracks —– No more news. So I will close for tonight. Write soon.
POSTCARD to Emery
December 29, 1941—Fort Knox, Kentucky
Well I am back in camp again. Got here about 3:30 pm. Didn’t have any trouble. Will write a letter when I am rested up. Pretty tired now. It is nice and warm here. Write soon.
LETTER to Emery on U.S. Army stationery
January 9, 1942—Fort Knox, Kentucky
Here I am at last. Here is the reason I didn’t write a letter sooner. They told us soon after I got back from my furlough that we might be shipped out any day. The Capt. thought it might be the 5th of Jan. But we didn’t move till today. then we moved just two miles from the training center up to the main post. I am in the I am in the 6th armored Infantry, 1st armored division. My address will be Willman I King, Fort Knox, KY. How are you feeling? I am fine. I’ll bet the weather is good and cold up there.. It has been pretty cold here the last week. It snowed all last Fri. night and just about all day Sat. It hasn’t thawed any yet so we still have all of it. It was 6 below Mon. morn and has been around zero every morning since. It warmed up a little today. I haven’t got much to write about as I just got back here about 4 o clock this afternoon. I just got my bunk made up and my clothes hung up. So I thought I would sit down and drop you a line. I can’t send you the ten dollars I owe as I only got a little over 13 last pay day —– It Probably will be 3 or 4 years before I get to come home, if I come home at all —– I am going to write to Blondie yet tonight. Well I will close for this one. —– Write and tell me all the news. So long for this one.
Write soon Love Willman
LETTER to Emery on U.S. Army stationery
January 17, 1942—Fort Knox Kentucky
I received your letter on this evenings mail. I was on K P today and got through working about 7 pm. Then I took a shower and rested awhile. It is now around 8:15 and the lights go out at nine. So will have to hurry if I want to get this through tonight so it goes out on the early mail in the morning. I was glad to get your letter. How are you? I am fine. I have been going to the dentist this week. I went Tuesday and had two pulled out on top. I have seven left upstairs. Yesterday morning I went again and he took x rays of my upper teeth. He told me to come back this morning. I went back and when he got me in the chair he could not find the pictures he had taken. So we had to take them over again. Now I have to go back Monday. He said he’d try not to loose them this time. They took the x rays to see if the teeth were fit to fix up or not. I think that they will have to be pulled out. The reason I did not get more money last month was I drawed $4.00 out in canteen checks so I could buy Blondie a Christmas present. Then they took out two months laundry. They didn’t take out the first month so they took out in my Dec. check. —– The weather has been real nice here the last week. We don’t have any snow left and it just freezes the ground a little bit at night. Well I guess I will close for this time as I don’t have much time left till lights go out. So good night Daddy
P S We signed the payroll tonight. We had ice cream today and there was a couple gallons left over after we gave the dinner and I must have ate about two quarts this afternoon. I sure am full tonight. Good nite
LETTER to Emery on regular stationery
January 22, 1942—Fort Knox, Kentucky
It is 10:30 now. I just got through writing to Florence, Alice, and Irene. I have been writing since 7:30 this evening so I guess it must be a pretty long letter. But I haven’t written one that long for a long time so I think she will be surprised to get such a long one. We are having real nice weather here. It was around 70 above today. I don’t think it will freeze tonight. We got some clothes tonight. Three pairs of coveralls and a combat suit. It isn’t what we will wear in combat but that is what they call it. We had one at the replacement center but we had to turn that in before we left. I had another tooth pulled today. I have got most of them fixed now. I have to go again in the morn and get the rest of them fixed and try to get them to fix me some bridges to fill out the missing teeth. I have 14 of them out now. If I would have had one more tooth out when I went to Fort Snelling to be examined, they would of rejected me. That is what the dentist told me yesterday
Here is the main purpose for this short letter. I hope you get it before Sunday which is your birthday. I wish you a very happy birthday and many more happy ones. They don’t have birthday cards here at the post so this will have to do. I hope I can be with you on your next birthday. Good night Daddy
Love Your Loving son Willman
P.S. Write soon
BIG LETTER GAP—no letters in February or March of 1942
Willman King INTERVIEW continues
“On the first of April, 1942, we departed Fort Knox, Kentucky, by troop train. We went to Fort Dix New Jersey, which is about one hour from Trenton. At Fort Dix we trained and prepared our equipment for the trip overseas.”
LETTER to Emery on regular stationery
April 20, 1942—Fort Dix, New Jersey
I received your letter today along with two more. One from my sweetheart and one from my sister. Was more than glad to get them all as I have not had any letters for the last three days Yesterday I got a box of candy from Blondie for my birthday. Was a little late but it always seems like it takes longer for the mail to get here since it has to go to the Army Post Office. Thats what A.P.O. stands for. A.S.N. is for Army Serial Number. Mine is 37093828 How are you Daddy? I am fine except pretty tired. This evening we are training harder here than we did at Knox. But they are feeding us better so that makes up for part of it. Didn’t you get my letter. I wrote you one just a day or two after we got here, April 21, 1942 11:45 am —– It is just 6 months today that I was sworn in to the Army. Boy it sure seems like a year instead of just months. I hope this war is over before another 6 months passes. The reason I didn’t write the last few weeks we were at Knox. We were restricted to the post and from writing letters for a whole week. Yes it seems like it will be hard to keep the circle letter going but we can try anyway. —– It is hard to write interesting letters now. We have to be careful of what we write. Can’t say anything about the Army. We were on the firing range last week. I am getting to be a pretty good shot. Shot all 5s and 4s. Fives are for the bulls eye and 4s are for the next ring around the bull.
April 22, 5:30 pm. It is sure taking me a long time to get one letter wrote isn’t it? I got the circle letter this evening. Just got through reading it. —– I also got a letter from Blondie today. It’s nice now that us boys do not have to use stamps anymore. I wrote a letter to Omar Sperling today. He is in Tampa Florida.
LETTER to Emery on USO stationery
May 9, 1942—Fort Dix, New Jersey
I haven’t much time to get this letter wrote. It is 4:45 now. I am in a small town a couple miles from camp writing this letter. We are restricted this evening at 6 o clock. I don’t know when we will be leaving but it will be within a day or two. So this will be my last letter till we get to where we are going. How are you? I am ok. Only I wish I was out of here cause I don’t want the job I have got to do. I am praying God will show me a way out so I never have to take another mans life. Dad you can do with the car what you think is best. If you want to trade it for a well that is ok with me. It will be sometime before I can get home to use the money. But I do feel that I am coming back. The sun is shining now. I wish I could stay here till I get my discharge. I like it here fine. I got your card day before yesterday. Was sure glad to get it.
I was to the biggest city in the world last Sat. and Sun. New York City. And believe me it sure is a big place. I was to the top of the Empire State building. The tallest building in the world. 102 stories tall. And it is 250 high. It seems almost impossible for it to stand. I also seen and heard a radio broadcast in the NBC building. If you have seen Blondie since Sat. I suppose she told you that I called her up Sat. nite while I was in the city. Well I’ll close as it is time to get back to camp.
Your son Willman
Willman King INTERVIEW continues
“On May 10 or 11 we departed Fort Dix, again by troop train, heading for New York City. The train took us to the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the ship Queen Mary. We boarded on Sunday and left on Monday.
“There were about 10,000 soldiers on board. Everybody had their own bunk, but we were fed in shifts. I was in stateroom B-11. There were 12 guys to a stateroom. We had nothing special to do.
“Outbound from New York we had an escort for one day. From there on across the Atlantic we ran solo, with no escort. The Queen Mary ran a course nine minutes on one heading, then nine minutes on another. In that way we zigzagged across the Atlantic. At times we had 30-foot waves. A day out of Scotland we picked up an escort for the last of the voyage. We arrived at the Firth of the Clyde, Scotland on Saturday evening, six days out of New York.
“We disembarked from the Queen Mary somewhere in the Firth to smaller ships. These ships took us to Ireland. We landed at Belfast on Monday. At Belfast we took all our equipment by train to Newcastle, County Down, Ireland. Our equipment included barracks bags, blankets, extra cots, M-1 rifle, mess kit and canteen. We were at New Castle for more training from May until about September 20, 1942.”
LETTER to Emery on regular stationery (postmarked May 28, 1942, American Base Forces, passed by Army Examiner)
May 23, 1942—somewhere in Ireland
How are you? Seven thirty here. Twelve thirty back home where you are. It sure is a big world that we live in. Isn’t it? Seems strange to me of a morning to get up and think about you folks back home still sleeping. The days are real long here too. We have about 4 hours of darkness. The sun doesn’t set till ten thirty. Ireland certainly is a beautiful little country. It is so quiet and peaceful here. It is hard to realize that a war is so close. There are the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen over here. And so many of them too. Even tho it is a nice place, and very pretty, I’d a heck of a lot rather be back in good USA. I am OK only I have a bad cold. But for the cold I feel fine.
We had a nice quiet voyage across. Never came in contact with the enemy at any time. I didn’t get seasick either. But I did get pretty dizzy in the head one day during a storm. It seemed like a pretty bad storm to me, but I guess there are worse ones. The waves got about 20 feet high. So the ship was doing a little rocking. Thats all I can say about the trip at present. Later we may be able to say more.
How are the turkeys doing this year? I sure hope you have as good luck this year as you had last year.
I don’t know if I answered your question about the car or not. You can trade it for getting a well drilled if you want to. I suggest you put the well pretty close to the barn. It’s a lot easier carrying water to the house than it is taking the cows to water. Then you can put running water in the barn when you want to.
I have been barracks orderly the last two days so you see I’m not working very hard. Write soon. My address is the same.
Love Your Son Willman
LETTER to Emery on regular stationery (marked June 7, 1942, American Base Forces, A.P.O. 813 censored and passed by Army Examiner 10043)
June 4, 1942—somewhere in Ireland
How are you feeling these days. I am feeling fine. How is everyone else around there? How are the turkeys doing? What kind of weather are you having this year?
I am taking it kind of easy today. I am a barracks guard today. I did my washing and now all I have to do is write. I thought I would write to you and Blondie. I haven’t got any mail since I have been over here. I sure wish it would hurry up and get here. Course it would make it a lot easier if I could hear from home once in a while. Or when you write send it air mail so it will get here quicker. This isn’t much of a letter but there isn’t much I can say. Boy believe me I’m sure waiting for the day when I get back in good old United States again.
Its nice over here and all that but its a million times better back home. Little common ordinary everyday things we have back home would be luxury over here. But one never really appreciates anything until he can’t have it.
Write soon Love Your Son Willman
LETTER to Emery written on special air mail stationary (War & Navy Departments, V-Mail Service Official Business, New York, New York, July 30, 1942, 7:30 p.m.)
July 16, 1942
Just a few lines to let you know I am OK. Feeling fine in some ways and not so good in others. How are you? OK I hope. How are the turkeys doing?
I haven’t heard from you since the third of July. I got three letters from Blondie yesterday. I just finished writing a letter to her so I thought I would drop you a line to let you know I am OK.
There isn’t really anything I can write about. But I will try and write once a week. Blondie wrote and said you had a buyer for the car. Have you sold it yet? Does Guilford get home very often now that Ruth is at home.
Well Daddy this isn’t much more than a post card. But there isn’t anything to write about over here except me. And all I do is my duty and my off hours I spend reading the paper and the New Testament. So I am being a good boy. So good night Daddy. Write soon
Your Loving son Willman
LETTER to Emery written on special airmail stationary (War & Navy Departments, V-Mail Service, New York, New York, September 22, 1942. 5:30 a.m., Grand Central Annex)
September 5, 1942
Well here at last. I received your letter dated August twenty. Still was glad to hear from you as it was some time since that last letter from you. But guess you can say the same thing. How are you these days? I am feeling fine only wishing I could be at home instead of over here. But I guess the day will come when I can get home again. And believe me I am sure ready to come.
Florence wrote and told me of Earl and Alice getting married. She said that they were to be married on the sixth and thats tomorrow. Golly when I get home there won’t be any of them that won’t be married. Well I guess I can miss all the weddings. Just as Blondie is still single when I get back. I do have a feeling that I am coming back from this —– . I went on a little trip a while back and I got some photos of —– to see. I am sending them to Blondie. You can stop in and see them. I would like Guilfords address so I can write to them. Give Earl and Alice my very best wishes and best of luck in the new step they are taking. Oh yes I almost forgot to ask you to send some stamps if you can. I will write another letter in a few days. This one is quite short. But it has all the news I know.
Write soon Your Son Willman
Willman King INTERVIEW continues
“We left Newcastle, Ireland, on an advance detail. We went over to someplace in Scotland. From there we took a train to Macclesfield, England. We spent an enjoyable week there preparing for the arrival of other troops. We lived in a castle. We had a great time preparing our own food. We climbed up on the castle roof to view the surrounding country. This was a special week to remember. We had the most beautiful fall weather.
“After the other troops arrived at Macclesfield, we had very rigorous training. We did double time before breakfast, two to five miles without a break. We started out carrying just our rifles. At the end of that training we were carrying a full field bag. We were at Macclesfield until mid-October.
“About November 1 we left England. We boarded a little Dutch commando ship. We headed west. Rumor was, we were going back to New York. It was a 15- to 20-ship convoy. We were number 2 in the convoy. There were about 500 troops on each ship and it was very crowded. The ships were smaller than a destroyer. We headed west for two days. Then we turned south towards the Mediterranean. I am not sure when we went through the Straits of Gibraltar.
“We landed on X Beach on November 8, 1942. We landed at midnight some distance west of Oran. We slipped up to a landing barge and it took us to shore. We commenced marching right away after landing. We had our first scare about daylight, but then discovered it was only an old lady with a donkey and a load of wood.
“We hit our first enemy fire at the Oran airport. But we took care of that with an artillery shell. Entering Oran there was no resistance until down by the waterfront on a little city square. We spent part of the evening at the waterfront. We then went up to a hotel where we guarded 40 German civilians for the night. The weather was lovely and warm. I would like to go back to Oran again.
“The next day November 11 we went by halftrack to the Tafaraoui airport, which was French. Here is a funny thing. We trained like mad on foot, but then everywhere we went was by halftrack. We bivouacked there for a week under the Command Colonel Kern. Kern was the colonel of my battalion and he was a crazy bastard.”
LETTER to Emery on plain paper
November 13, 1942
Just a few lines to let you know that I am O K and feeling fine and hope you are the same. It has been some time since I wrote to you. But it was no fault of mine. Cause we were moving around quite a bit. I am now —– censored —– North Africa. I took part in —– censored —– . I never got a scratch thanks to Gods protecting hand. I wish that it could be some other way but it seems that I have a job to do and by his grace and help may I do it well.
It has been almost two months since I got any mail and I am sure waiting to get a letter from some one. You asked what you could send me for Christmas. Well I don’t hardly know what to say. Socks and cigarettes are about all I really need. You don’t need to send anything. If you do send cigarettes send Lucky’s. Give everybody my best regards and keep praying for all of us boys. We are all in the same boat.
Your Son Willman
Note from Joe: Dad was here taking part in the North Africa Allied invasion code named Operation Torch. It was a three-pronged attack involving over 100,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen. He took part in the center attack.
Willman King INTERVIEW continues
“After our bivouac, at the Tafaraoui airport, we spent two weeks tooling east to Tunisia. We traveled through snow in the higher mountains. At lower elevations we drove in a lot of rain. Nothing much eventful happened. We went 700 miles by armored car in that move. That 700-mile maneuver wore the thing out. The armored car was designed for short distance runs. For a move over 200 miles it was supposed to be transported.
“At Tunisia we went up to the front line about December 1, 1942. Wasn’t much going on. Then we were shelled. Then we had an attack by a JU-88. We turned it away by ground fire. Then we were attacked and shelled again. Then we were sent up on a ridge. We were silhouetted and got shot at. I laid down behind a clump of ground. A shell flew over only inches above me.
“Everybody ran back. The commanding officer got pissed off. But then we waited until after dark and went up on that ridge again. We held that line for five days.
“We picked up and moved in the night. We were supposed to dig in but it was too rocky. At daybreak, we moved across a wadi and then were ordered to dig in, in a plowed field.
“Before we could dig in we were attacked. So we laid down in a wash. We were laying there when Germans came around. They could shoot right up the wash at us. Staff Sargent Arlie Scott came running up the wash and said “FOLLOW ME ONE-BY-ONE!!!”
“So we took off and ran up the hill. The hill was 200 yards long. When I got to the top Scott was laying on the ground already captured. I was forced to surrender. Scott and I were the only ones that made it to the top.
“‘FOLLOW ME ONE-BY-ONE!!!’ was the last order I received.
“It was December 6, 1942.”