Photo of Claude McLaughlin (on left) with another crewmember.
Two months ago I received an e-mail from Claudia McLaughlin-Wood of Toronto, Canada. She wrote:
“I have discovered the Camp 59 website and am quite certain that my father, U.S. Army Air Force S/Sgt. Claude H. McLaughlin, was a prisoner there in 1943. He was in the 32nd squadron of the 301st Airborne Division flying in a B-17 bomber that was shot down over Gabes, Tunisia on February 4, 1943. From there he was sent to a prison hospital somewhere near Naples, then to a prison camp near Naples before being transferred to Camp 59.
“I have a newspaper account from his hometown in Iron Mountain, Michigan that states he was in Camp 59 in northern Italy. I’m not sure how long he was there but I know that he escaped and was hiding with an Italian peasant family for nine months before crossing enemy lines and meeting British forces on June 19, 1944. I note from your website that there was a massive escape in September 1943, but in his account he just said, ‘some of us managed to escape.’ He was with an English sergeant and a South African sergeant while hiding in the mountains. I assume the area is the Tenna Valley. In trying to figure out the dates it looks as though he would have escaped in October 1943. I am wondering if you have any information about escapes subsequent to September 1943.
“He was the only one of his crew that was in the camp because he was injured. The rest of his crew was sent to Germany for the duration of the war.
“My father died in January 1995, before I had a chance to get specific details about the Italian family and members of the Resistance who saved his life. I do know that his service records were lost in a fire in Washington DC. in 1973, which is why I have not tried to trace them in Washington DC.”
I wrote back to explain that since everyone had evacuated Camp 59 during the September 1943 breakout, no one would have been left there in October 1943. However, there were escapes from the camp before the mass breakout, and her father might have escaped before September 14.
In a second note, Claudia wrote:
“In rooting around my dad’s papers that I saved when he died, I find that he mentioned the camp numerous times. It’s amazing to me that it still exists as a museum. Unfortunately I do not have any information about the South African and British sergeants he mentions. I know my father kept in touch with members of his crew after the war, but I’m not aware that he kept in touch with any Italians or the two soldiers who were with him.
“It’s strange that my father didn’t ever talk of the large group escaping. Could he have escaped prior to this? In his newspaper account he talked of a few of prisoners escaping, but if he was in the large group, I suspect you are correct that he was one of the early escapees because I am certain he felt endangered and even believed some escapees fleeing with him were shot.
“I will mail you copies of the articles because the newspaper is not in good condition and the other article that pinpointed the camp as #59 is a copy of a microfiche file from the newspaper. I’m sorry that I probably will never know exactly where he was when with the Italian family or their names, but I’ve been in touch with the Escape Lines Memorial Society on the off chance that they would have any information. I may exist today because of their efforts; I’ve often thought of that. I kept the enclosed photos of two Italian women. One of the photos has a stamp of a photo studio in Rome on the back. I suspect they may have been romantic interests or individuals who very significant to him. Perhaps they were the daughters/mothers from the family he was staying with in the mountains. They must have been from the area because he left Italy quite soon after connecting with the Allies.
The two unknown Italian women
“I remember two stories my dad used to tell. When staying with the family there was an earthquake and everyone fled out of the house. My dad ran back in to get the family baby and the grandmother was so grateful to him. I see that there was an earthquake in the area in Offida on October 3, 1943. Another story he told was how the family sent him to the cellar to get some special wine because the local priest was visiting. He took the opportunity to sample many of the different wines and they had to fetch him from the cellar!”
Gunner Reported Missing;
Then Prisoner; Now in States
The Daily News—Iron Mountain, Michigan
June or July 1944
S/Sgt. Claude McLaughlin, 27, who was taken prisoner by the Italians on Feb. 4, 1942, and later released to the advancing American forces, is now in New York City, en route to Washington, D.C., on government orders. He will then come here to visit his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hugh McLaughlin, 310 East D street. The sergeant wired his parents from the east coast.
Mr. and Mrs. McLaughlin were unaware of the whereabouts of their son until this week, when Sgt. Conrad J. Hanson, former employee of The News, now overseas, wrote L. S. Staple, also of The News, that he had that day seen Claude McLaughlin and was told he had been released by the Italians to the Americans. Hanson wrote:
‘The other day at the Red Cross center in town I ran into Claude McLaughlin. Remember your having his name in the paper and reporting him missing over Africa, and later as a prisoner of war. He was in prison camp for 18 months and said it was rough. Didn’t get a chance to say much to him as he was with a major and they were in a hurry. He is on his way back to the States and has cabled his folks.’
Staples took the letter to letter to the McLaughlins, who were overjoyed to learn their son was not only safe, but on his way home.
Home in Few Days
Shortly afterwards they received the following telegram from Claude.
“Dear Mother: Am in New York. Going to Washington. Be home in a few days.”
Sgt. McLaughlin was the rear-gunner on a bomber shot down over Italian territory Feb. 4, 1942. He first was reported missing in action and later word came from the International Red Cross that he was a prisoner of war of the Italians.
He was assigned to Prison Camp 59, in north Italy, where his parents addressed numerous letters, none of which they believed were received.
Last summer Mr. and Mrs. McLaughlin received their third telegram from the War Department, informing them the whereabouts of Claude was no longer known and it was presumed he had been taken by the Germans and sent to a German prison camp.
Sgt. McLaughlin is one of three brothers in the service. Cpl. Warren is serving in the Admiralty Islands and Cpl. John is with the Marines at Corvallis Field, Portland, Ore.
Sgt. McLaughlin Tells Of Escape From Prison
The Daily News—Iron Mountain, Michigan
“Bread is a common item here at home, but a few months ago I thought if I could ever get all the good white bread and butter I wanted and be able to walk in and buy a package of cigarets again, it would be paradise,” S/Sgt. Claude McLaughlin, 26, who is home on a week’s furlough after 18 months as a prisoner in a Fascist camp in Italy, said yesterday afternoon.
He is spending the week quietly with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Hugh McLaughlin, 310 East D street. “It is great to be home,” he said. “It is quiet here but I expected that. All my friends are in the service. It is good to see my family; to see green grass, well-kept lawns and comfortable-looking homes. You see none of that in Italy.”
Sgt. McLaughlin was in training in the States for 10 months before he sailed for North Africa. He arrived there in December, 1943, and was shot down over Italian territory Feb. 4, two months later. He was tail-gunner on a B-17-F, the “Wabash Cannon Ball,” when it was hit at 26,500 feet on its last bombing mission from Tunisia to Italy.
Alone In Plane
“We had come off our target and were heading back to Tunisia, when the pilot called to tell me we had been hit and our second engine was afire,” the sergeant related. “He ordered the crew to bail out. I tried to open my emergency door, but it was damaged. I was off oxygen and had left my head phones in the tail of the ship, so I went back. The Messerschmitts were coming at us like bees and the air was thick with flak, so I went back to my gun and began firing. The electrical apparatus went bad and I could not contact the pilot. Suddenly I looked down. Below me were several parachutes and I realized I was alone in the plane.
“I went forward and got out of the waist door. Messerschmitts were all about and I made a delayed jump, dropping four or five thousand feet before I opened my ’chute. Even at that, one of the enemy headed for me, and I thought he would get me until he was brought down by a P-38. That was the first of my lucky breaks.
Landed In Mountains
“I was not far from my pilot when I landed in the mountains. I had a broken leg and flak wounds in my legs and one eye. We rolled down the mountainside and were quickly picked up by the Germans. I was taken to a prison hospital and the pilot and the rest of the crew were sent to a prison camp in Germany. I thought then that my wounds were a tough break but I was really lucky—the others were still prisoners.
“We received the best care possible in the prison hospital. It was manned by our own doctors—English, South African and one American—who were also prisoners of war. They had almost no medical supplies but they performed miracles with what they had. The Italian doctors seemed to have little skill and no idea of sanitation. They regarded us only as prisoners of war. Our orderlies were English, Australians and Americans and they did what they could, with practically no supplies, instruments or even bandages. Men died by the hundreds. Nate Mann, who fought Joe Louis, died in that hospital.
Tribute To Sisters
“We will never forget the Italian Sisters. One was assigned to each ward, and they did the many little things that meant much to us.” Sgt. McLaughlin still wears the small medal given him by an Italian priest as a memento.
From the hospital he was taken to a prison camp near Naples, where he sent his first message to his parents here. After five months he was transferred to a prison camp in Northern Italy.
“Conditions there were horrible,” he said. “We literally starved. At 11 o’clock each morning we were given a piece of bread weighing 100 grams, or about one-quarter pound, and a small piece of cheese. At 5:30 we were given a bowl of thin soup, with pieces of macaroni in it—the most I ever found in mine was 13 small pieces. The camp was unbelievably filthy. The water was turned on for only two hours each day, and 2,000 to 3,000 men would line up at each faucet to get water in that brief period. We couldn’t keep clean; in fact, we often didn’t have enough water to drink.
Saved By Food Parcels
I think that if it had not been for the Red Cross food parcels we all would have starved. We got ours from the British Red Cross, and they came about once a week. They contained a can of powdered milk, a couple of cans of meat, packs of cigarets, and chocolate bars; usually a bag of candy and often soap. If it hadn’t been for that soap, we would never have been able to keep clean.
“Any man who has ever spent time in a prison camp has great respect for the Red Cross,” he said. “The food parcels were life savers. They were our only contact with the outside world.
“Discipline was very strict and we were punished without pity. Although we were supposed to stay inside when American planes went over on bombing raids, some of us would run out to cheer our men on. They must have felt I was a ringleader because, as an example, I was placed in solitary confinement for 13 days. There was no light and I didn’t know night from day. I had no food and the cell was unbelievably vile—overrun with vermin of all kinds, lice and fleas, and without lavatory facilities. When they finally opened the door I had to crawl out on my hands and knees.
Managed To Escape
“Several of us managed to escape. I spent the next nine months behind the Italian and German lines with an English sergeant and a South African sergeant. Don’t let anyone tell you anything about those boys. They are real soldiers and fine men.”
Of that period Sgt. McLaughlin is permitted to say little. “Our uniforms wore out. Because we were in civilian clothes we would have been shot immediately, as spies, if we had been caught. Some of the time we all but starved. When I think of the narrow escapes we had I wonder how we came through alive. A part of the time we were helped by Italian partisans, who would have paid dearly had they been caught. I had learned the language and by that time spoke Italian fluently, which was a big help to us.
“We finally got back across the lines and met our first British on the 19th of June. It was there that I left my two pals, the English tank sergeant and the South African Infantry sergeant. It was not easy to say goodbye to the two men with whom I had endured so much. From there I went to South Italy and located my own bombing group.
Back From The Dead
“When I reported into the 15th Air Force headquarters after 18 months, I was like someone coming back from the dead. They gave me a rousing home-coming—a regular banquet of good, GI food. We Americans are the best eaters in the world, you know. I received my various decorations—the Purple Heart, Airman’s Medal, African and Italian campaign ribbons, Group Presidential Citation, and the Silver Star. The others are fairly common, but I do think a lot of my Silver Star (awarded for gallantry in action). You don’t see them every day.”
Sgt. McLaughlin stayed in Italy for about a week, for interrogation, and then was flown back to the States. He arrived at LaGuardia field the night of July 4. “It was a real Fourth celebration for me,” he said. He went at once to Washington, where he was again questioned.
“My flying days are over, I guess,” he said. “But I am still in the service, and am glad to be.” He will report August 5, to the Redistribution Center at Miami Beach, Fla., where he expects to enter the Military Intelligence or the AMGOT service—the latter engaged in allied military government work.
Mrs. McLaughlin, who for the past year and a half has been a regular visitor at the Prisoner of War department at the Red Cross here, and who has lived each day in the hope of hearing from her son, is spending the week planning meals and keeping the house quiet, “so Claude can get all the sleep he wants.”
“All this good American food is wonderful,” Sgt. McLaughlin said. “There is so much I don’t know where to start—and I put on pounds every week.”
The McLaughlins have two other sons in service, Cpl. Warren, 31, a ball turret gunner on a B-24 in the South Pacific and Cpl. John, 19, in the Marines, and now in a specialist’s school in Chicago.