In December 2011, I received a note from Jessica Kestner McMahon.
“I am the granddaughter of Pvt. Raymond Kestner who was interred in Camp 59, she wrote. “I am in the process of scanning his war letters, etc. into my computer. I happened upon your blog and found his name listed in Charles Simmon’s address book from January 2010. I have a similar book from my grandfather.
“My grandfather died in 1986, when I was only 8, so I don’t remember a lot about him. He moved to St. Paul, MN soon after returning from the war, and lived there until he died.
“His sister kept all the letters he wrote, as well as the newspaper clippings about him, which I have. I am currently working on scanning them into the computer. I will send some of those on to you as I get them.
“My grandpa seems to be a pretty laid back guy—he was much more content to wait things out than to try to escape.”
Is in Ireland
Private Raymond Kestner
Son of Mr. and Mrs. Jos. Kestner, East Main Street, is with U.S. troops in Ireland. He went across some time in May as nearly as his parents could ascertain. The first letter from Ireland arrived in Sleepy Eye [Minnesota] August 5th.
Private Kestner has been In the service about eight months, was first at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He is serving in the armored division.
Ray Kestner Uses Sign Language in Talking to Arabs in Africa
Likely from the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch
Ray Kestner, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jos. P. Kestner, East Main, has learned to use the sign language. He had to in order to carry on a conversation with the Arabs in northern Africa.
Writing to his parents in a letter dated November 19, Ray said, “We have to use hand motions in dealing with the Arabs because they can’t understand our language and we can’t understand there.”
The local youth was among those from this state who saw action the port of Oran, but escaped unscathed. “In fact,” he said, “I’ve never felt better in my life.”
Fruit is plentiful in the vicinity where Ray and his buddies are in camp. Oranges, dates and olives grow in abundance—75 tangerines can be purchased for a dollar.
Life has been a bit rugged at times, but Ray doesn’t seem to mind. Being exposed to the element, he said, has made a rather rough-looking bunch out of us. ‘Our skins are really sun-tanned.’
Far removed from the conveniences of home, he writes in his pup tent by candlelight with his knee as an improvised desk. That finished, he turns in for the night while the coyotes in the nearby hills howl a bedtime lullaby.
Ray Kestner Last Seen by Lieutenant
Likely from the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch
Mr. and Mrs. Joe Kestner, East Main, have received word from a second lieutenant now in California stating that he was in an Italian prison camp with PFC Raymond Kestner until September 14 when Badoglio suspended hostilities against the Allies and American prisoners were freed.
The two were in a group which set out for southern Italy to join allied forces, but were separated September 24. It took the lieutenant until November to reach advancing Americans.
Private Kestner was wounded and taken prisoner by the Italians December 12, 1942, but wrote several cards to his parents from prison camp. At first his injury seemed to be only a flesh wound in the arm, but x-rays later disclosed a bone had been shattered.
Last word Mr. and Mrs. Kestner received was in December of 1943 and it was a card which had been written July 21.
In his letter the lieutenant wrote that on their way south American soldiers worked for and sought shelter with Italian families. Whether Raymond is still on an Italian farm, keeping his identity secret until allied forces reach him, or has been retaken by German authorities is still unknown.
Ray Kestner Was German Prisoner,
Now on Way Home
From the Seventh Service Command Headquarters, Omaha, Nebraska, this office received notification Tuesday that PFC Raymond A. Kestner, son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Kestner, East Main, would arrive from overseas at Fort Sheridan today (Thursday). It will be remembered that Kestner, who had served overseas 27 months, was a German prisoner in a camp in Italy until he made his escape back to Allied lines. After a short stay at the reception center he will come on to his home in Sleepy Eye.
Was Prisoner of Italians and Germans
Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch
Thursday, August 17, 1944
After digging in, some hundred yards forward, a group of American infantrymen in the Tunisian engagement in Africa suddenly found themselves without a leader and withdrawn to the rear was cut off. Their commanding officer, dead from a bullet wound before he could give the command to withdraw, left the few men tenaciously holding their position, fighting against heavy odds. Many of them were killed, others wounded.
Among the group was PFC Raymond Kestner, on of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Kestner, East Main. That was December 1942.
Kestner, who was manning a machine gun, was wounded by a bullet through his left wrist. Opening his first aid kid he applied the sulfa powder to the wound and swallowed the sulfa pills but when he attempted to release the bandage from its case he couldn’t manage it with one hand. Gingerly he crawled the few feet to where a pal was holed in. There matters were even worse. The fellow had been shot in the head, a bullet going though his helmet. Though not dead he was no assistance to Kestner whose wound was bleeding profusely. Raymond applied a crude tournque [tourniquet] and tried to lay low until the Germans could be routed or withdrew. But together with others, he was captured and marched away a prisoner of war. December 6, 1942 he was reported missing in action.
Because of military censorship the complete story of what happened after his capture until he finally got back to America, cannot be told. However there are many things that do not constitute vital war information that can he told.
The first night the prisoners were herded into a shell-wrecked building, searched and questioned, after which they got what rest they could. They piled straw on and around Kestner to keep him warm during the night. His captors did what they could to make him comfortable, dressed his wound and saw what he was warm. Later he was flown out in a JU-52, taken to a military hospital at Casserta, Italy, and ten days after being wounded his wrist was in a cast. Two months were spent in the enemy hospital before he was sent to a divisional point where prisoners were classified and sent to permanent camps.
Their clothing, much the worse for wear, was replaced by British Red Cross outfits. There was a large red patch on one pant leg and another on the back of the shirt, indicating they were military prisoners.
They were not ill-treated in the prison camp but received little food. The Italian people were in a state of starvation themselves and had little to offer. Breakfast was a cup of vile coffee, at noon a piece of cheese weighing about two ounces and a small round of hardtack made up their meal, and for supper they had a small bowl of soup, sometimes of rice, sometimes of macaroni. ‘If it had not been for the Red Cross food parcels received each week we would have starved,’ said Ray. At times the parcels were from the British Red Cross and at other times from the American Red Cross, but were distributed by emissaries from Geneva.
American prisoners were not allowed to work for fear they would escape, so time hung heavy on their hands. A library furnished by the Red Cross provided a good amount of reading material. They also had their own dispensary provided by the Red Cross and manned by captured medical men who looked after their physical welfare. But they were always fighting lice, they would get into the seams of clothing and try as they could they were not able to rid the place of them. From time to time Red Cross officials ordered the place fumigated and cleaned out, but in a week of two the lice were as bad as ever. They were most annoying to those sent to the prison part of the camp.
Here fleas as well as lice and other pests were numerous. Fellows were put there for minor infractions of rules such as not being asleep when the guard made his look in at night, or being up a few minutes after lights out, etc.
Most prisoners attended church service at camp every day. An Italian Padre conducted Mass and a captured British officer held church service for the Church of England and other Protestant denominations.
Mail from home seldom arrived and most of the men never received the parcels sent to them. Barracks were made of wood and men slept in double decked bunks with straw mattresses. Every two weeks they took everything out of the place and gave it a real scrubbing. Americans were allowed sheets and pillow cases but the English were not, presumably because they had deprived Italian prisoners in their camps of those articles.
After the Italians had signed the Armistice with the Allies the prisoners looked forward to the day of liberation which finally came September 14, 1943, and the gates of the camp were swung wide.
Prisoners were told to shift for themselves and to return to Allied lines any way possible.
That in itself was a big order for most of them spoke no Italian and knew little of the country. Red Cross parcels were divided, each had three and they surely came in handy. “We couldn’t speak Italian, and the Italians couldn’t speak English so we used the sign language at first and gave them soap from our parcels (a most cherished article). The people soon learned that we desired to make friends and gradually trusted us.”
“We split up in small groups, some starting back to attempt a break through German lines to their own positions. Others laid low to get their bearings and plan what was bet to try.”
Four of them left together but after about ten days decided to split up, two went on to try and get through the German lines, and they made it. Kestner and his buddy stayed back, thinking that they would have a better chance of hiding than getting through. For several months they lived in comparative safety among friendly Italians who gave them food and shelter; in return the young men helped pick grapes, harvest crops and in numerous other ways.
The Italians were very poor, living under most primitive conditions. Men turned the oil with ox-drawn plows.
Houses and barns were one structure with the barn on the first floor. Steps led into the living quarters above. All cooking was done over a fireplace. The families were large but they seemed eager to aid their new American friends and shared with them even to dying the khaki uniforms dark so they would not be so easily recognizable by German scouting parties.
The last two months before Kestner was recaptured were days of fear and hiding. Nazis were combing the area with fine tooth precision, it was unthinkable to jeopardize friends by staying with them, so the Americans shifted for themselves, hiding out my day and getting food from friendly natives by night. This hunt and hide system at last came to an end when Germans were tipped off as to their hiding place. One morning they were rudely awakened by Nazis and again found themselves prisoners of war. Strangely enough an English Major who had attached himself to the hideout party was the only one to escape capture. He always slept outside, apart from the rude shelter they had used.
That particular evening the ground was damp, and the men thought they would risk sleeping inside, but not the Major, wet or dry, he slept away from the shelter and that time it proved a lucky break for him.
How Kestner escaped the second time and finally reached port and Allied lines has to remain untold for the present. But escape he did and after a long and anxious wait by his parents he is home again, this time for a 21-day furlough before being assigned to another outfit or camp.