Phil Vacca escaped from Camp 59 with four other prisoners, shown in this photograph. At rear (left to right) are Peter Calvagno, Edmond Petrelli, and Joe Mandese. In front (left to right) are Tony Spicola, and Phil Vacca.
This post is the second installment of the story of Camp 59 survivor Felice “Phil Vacca, which began with “Part 1—Off to War.”
“In January of 1943, we were taken by passenger car to Rome, Camp P.G. 50. Approximately 20 of us American-Italians spent about a month there being interrogated. The questions they asked were the same as before (and they already had the answers to them). There was a German planted among us who spoke American English quite fluently. The interrogators were an Italian Calvary and Mountain Troops (The Alpine Post). While I was there, I saw Mussolini’s Arabian horse. It was a beautiful horse.
“Our group of American Italians remained together for the rest of our trip by passenger car to Camp P.G. 59.
“When we were captured, we had regular uniform on. We had our heavy coats, since the nights were cool, even in North Africa. After our arrival at our permanent camp, P.G. 59, we were given gray jackets with a red 4 x 4-inch patch on the right side of the back of the jacket. On the pants they had sewed on another 4 x 4-inch red patch between the knee and hip. They let us keep our uniform, except for the gray jacket, which was theirs.”
Camp P.G. 59 had wood frame buildings for barracks, with windows and two doors—one at each end of the building. The barracks were intact, but with no heat of any kind. The windows were open to the outside. Bugs and lice were plentiful.
“You’d go in for delousing and come out worse than when you went in.” Phil said. “We passed time with bed bugs and body lice.
“We were placed with other Americans, but us American-Italians were kept as a separate group. English, Australians, and Greeks were also in the same compound. The English and some of the Greeks had been there for quite some time. The camp was enclosed by a ten-foot wall with glass shards embedded on the top. There were manned guard towers along the wall, approximately 100 feet apart. The barracks were set up in sections. A sergeant was in charge of about 25 to 30 men.
“The lights in the barracks went dark at 10 p.m. Roll call was at 8 a.m.
“Every morning we lined up on the parade ground in a section, being counted by the Italian guard and our section sergeant. The guards carried rifles, pistols, and machine guns. I never played any tricks on the guards.
“The latrine was a small building. No stools—a hole in the concrete was used to do either business. A water faucet served for all needs—drinking and washing. The beds were wood frames, four on the bottom and four on the top, each with a straw mattress and one blanket.
“The day began with black chicory each morning. The daily afternoon meal was a bowl of undercooked rice soup and about 200 grams (7 ounces) of dark bread formed into a bun. Sometimes there were greens added in the rice soup. On Sundays, all of the prisoners received a very small, very thin, piece of meat. Our eating utensils consisted of fork and spoon. We had a bowl and a cup to eat out of. I made a knife from a harmonica slide.
“We made little forges, like those used by a blacksmith, to heat water and warm can goods on. The forge consisted of a fan and a firebox, with a crank to blow air into the firebox. Although Red Cross parcels were received once a week, the cans were punctured by the guards with a hammer to make two holes. That would make the food spoil in a day or two. My buddy and I shared one of those Red Cross parcels.
“I received a few letters from home, but no packages. We didn’t see much of the enemy in combat or other doings. We received some news about the war outside through the guards. We felt we would win the war but it would take time. Once in awhile the enemy would circulate a propaganda paper through the camp. Among other things it said the Allies were losing the war. We were told Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby were dead. Camp P.G. 59 was never bombed or attacked while I was there.
“We were not assigned any responsibilities of any kind, other than to keep clean and stay out of trouble. Although they had work details, I chose not to work. One detail was to cook. Another detail ran the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow detail consisted of one man pulling and the other pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks. The rocks were used to keep the paths and grounds level. Those that worked in the details were given an extra loaf of bread. Recreation consisted of walking around the compound.”
Phil passed the time playing battleship with others. A few of the non-coms held classes in subjects like languages and painting.
“The men that I knew very well were mostly in our platoon and squad,” Phil continued. “Most men got along very well, although the love between the English and the Americans wasn’t too good at times. There was a jailhouse or stockade for those who poked fun or cursed the guards. There were a few who made it rough for themselves. They would cuss the soldiers up and down and were then thrown into the guardhouse with bread and water.”
“One lucky guy took it upon himself to pass gas as the guard walked by. He nearly had his eyes gouged out by the guard’s thumbs. Another gentleman was hung by his thumbs for the night. They cut the buttons off his coat after hanging him up. He was dead from exposure by morning.
“Another unlucky soul was shot in the mouth while in prison. He survived the gunshot. I remember him having to plug the hole in his face with his finger in order to smoke a cigarette. The Germans and Italians wanted to kill the POWs.
“Although we had to contend with body lice and bedbugs, I never was aware of any epidemics or sickness in the camp. There were a few sick and irrational men in the camp, but they were kept in the same area, watched by fellow GIs.
“Out of hunger, a few men decided to eat corncobs. It made them very sick and tore up their insides.
“Those that were wounded received the usual first aid treatment. My age, family, and religion kept me going. Our medical care was provided by a British major. While in camp we did receive a booster shot of some kind. It was given in the chest below the heart. Two or three prisoners died while I was there, two British soldiers and one American. We all stood at attention for their final burial. Being close to death was the least of my thoughts. I did not suffer any wounds except for my pride.”
Back home, Phil’s mother, living in Lambertville, New Jersey, was informed twice that Phil was missing in action. She later received word from the Catholic Church underground that he was a POW. Phil still had his prayer book, the only item not confiscated when he was taken prisoner.
On May 3, 1943, Phil was listed in a Lambertville newspaper as being a captive in Italy. Although previously declared as “missing,” a new communication from the War Department to Phil’s mother notified her that her son was a prisoner of war in Italy.
The Italian armistice was signed in early September 1943.
On September 14 at 3 p.m., Phil escaped along with Tony Spicola of the Bronx, New York; Peter Calvagno of Brooklyn, New York; Edmond Petrelli of New Haven, Connecticut; and Joe Mandese of Jersey City, New Jersey. [Correction—Bobby Cannon, Joe Mandese’s grandson, said Joe was drafted from Italian Harlem in New York City. He didn’t move to Jersey City until after he got married.] There is only one written record of their escape. To this day, exact details on how they got out is still not known. They hid in the hills like fugitives while the Germans traced right behind them. All were with the 1st Division, Company A, of the 18th Infantry—except for Joe Mandese. Phil first met Joe at Palermo. He was a member of a mechanized unit and had been captured around the same time.
On this scrap of paper, Phil recorded his capture and transfer from prison to prison:
Teboura Dec 23, 1942
Palermo shipped to Palermo
Rome 5 weeks app. [approximately]
Serveano [Servigliano] til time of escape in Sept 1943
Returned July 2 1944
The Germans killed or re-captured as many of the escapees as they could. Whole villages were massacred as punishment for helping escaped prisoners.
The five escapees in Phil’s group hid out for several weeks in a corn shed.
The men didn’t know what to expect from the Italians. But when Italian farmers found them hiding out in the shed, the Virgili family, who lived nearby, took Phil in and the family’s sharecroppers cared for the other four soldiers.
The corn shed where Phil and the men he escaped with hid out
Inside of the corn shed
Phil’s grandmother lived in Italy “but it was better off that I didn’t see her,” Phil explained. The Germans “may have taken it out on her.”
When the soldiers were taken prisoner and interrogated, those who knew “what was going on” lied to the Germans about having relatives in Italy.
“They tried to find out where we came from,” Phil said. “If you knew their plan, you gave false information.”
Around that time American planes dropped leaflets by the thousands in the area, offering 5,000 lire to any Italian who would help hide and care for the escapees. “There were so many leaflets it looked as though it had snowed.”
(See post “Italians—Resist by Every Means!“)
The Virgili farm in this distant valley
View southward from the Virgili house. Phil hid in this clump of trees.
The Virgili family lived eleven miles from the prison camp.
Maria Virgili, a widow, had on one occasion risked her life in order to prevent Phil’s capture.
“The Germans would ride up and down the roadways, shooting into crevasses and thickets, and once killed an Italian boy,” Phil said. “We were told to stay low.” Children were sent from place to place to report on the Germans’ whereabouts, “so we knew who was traveling the roads.”
Luigia Virgili, then about 27 years old, hid Phil and two other American prisoners of war in a crevasse. The Germans were patrolling and shooting along the creek, trying to drive out or kill escapees. Luisa wanted to stay with the Americans until the immediate danger was over, but they talked her into going home.
The German soldiers had orders to shoot escaped prisoners on the spot, but the lucky ones were recaptured and shipped to Germany. Through the “grapevine” the Italians knew where the German soldiers were at all times.
Luigia’s mother had become particularly attached to Phil. The older Virgili daughter, Lelena, who was 30 years old, and her brother Sergio, who was 32 years old, also befriended him.
The Virgili’s had a second son who was a POW in Russia. “That’s one place the Italians didn’t like to go, to fight against the Russians,” Phil recalled.
Twenty-five years later, Sergio would say of Phil, “Vacca lavoro duro, mangi piccolo, bevanda. Dove è il vino?” (Vacca works hard, eats little, drinks. Where’s the wine?) Phil stayed close to the Virgili farm. Seldom did he dare to venture out. But he basically stayed away from the house, sleeping where they kept the cows and sheep. “The family put itself in danger while helping us,” he said.
Luigia Virgili, also called Gigetta
Luigia, Sergio, and Adele (also called Lelena, or Lena) Virgili, in a photo taken years later
The grapevine communications did let the escaped soldiers know when it was safe to visit the houses.
“The food given to us in camp kept us alive, but when I escaped I weighed 98 pounds,” Phil said. He had lost about 80 pounds while imprisoned.
“I had sores on my body from the lice and bedbug bites.”
Of the Virgili family, he said, “They took us in, fed us, clothed us, took care of [hiding us from] the Nazis and the Fascists.”
Two months after leaving camp, Phil began having stomach problems and vomited frequently. He was fed raw eggs and wine to help heal the severe bedbug bites. The rich Italian food helped him regain his weight and health.
The Italians gave them odds and ends to wear. Years later he would still have the mismatched cufflinks he was given.
“I never had any news about the war while in hiding, but spent most of my time trying to get back to the American lines,” Phil said.
The five escapees made an attempt to get over the mountains to Switzerland, 200 miles to the north. Switzerland was a neutral country. However, “the Germans got wind of it—the intent failed.” Through contact with the Partisans, the underground Italians who helped the Americans, the soldiers learned the Germans had found their plan, “and we were told to stay put.”
Another attempt was made, with the help of the Partisans, to get out by boat. The Germans massacred the Partisans on the beach. Phil explained, “Our first sergeant kept us informed and told us to stay put. We had no arms.
“One farmer wanted to give me a shotgun that he had hidden beneath a drain trough for the barn. When retrieved it was rusted so bad that it fell apart.”
There was a pile of bricks nearby. If the German or Italian soldiers were coming the family would start whistling a particular song, giving the Americans enough time to hide in the brick pile. The Germans made an example of one 24-year-old Partisan who was caught. He was shot in the head in front of his parents. So, for 10 months the men played a dangerous game of hide and seek while the Virgili family endangered their lives to protect them.
The road that passed by the brick pile
When at last the Americans and English had driven the Germans pass Amandola, Italy, the men had the opportunity to contact the Allies. Luigia’s mother had become particularly attached to Phil and wanted him to stay in Italy after the war. He later recalled, “I would have been a deserter, wouldn’t I?”
Luigia gave Phil one lire for good luck, and some bread and eggs. “We emerged from our hiding places, dressed in English clothes, and headed south,” Phil said.
One-lire coin—the gift from Luigia
On this piece of paper, Phil recorded place names and events following his return to Allied Command in July 1 1944:
Felice D. Vacca
Holy Com. [Communion] – July 2 “44
Ascoli – July 3 “
Pescara – July 4, “
Ortona – July 4, “
Torino di Sangro – July 4, “
(clothed & fed)
Foggia July 5, “44
(fed & bed)
Foggia left by plane to Alg. [Algeria] July 6, “44
Alg. July 7, “44
Alg. July 8, “44
“The English troops were on the east side of Italy, where we were located.” Phil explained. “On July 2, 1944, nine months and 21 days after escaping, we joined up with the British lines.”
It took some convincing to get the Americans to believe that they, too, were Americans. A first sergeant who knew Phil from P.G. 59 verified that he was indeed an American soldier.
“When we arrived at Torino Di Sangro, we were given new English uniforms,” Phil said. He was was examined and found to be in satisfactory condition.
“We boarded boxcars and rode to an American air base in Foggia, Italy. At Foggia we were issued new American uniforms.”
Letter confirming the Virgili family had helped Phil hide from the Germans
Monte San Martino – July 3, 1944
From September 13, 1943 until today, July 3, 1944, we, the family of Sergio Virgili – son of Settimio, assisted the undersigned in the community of Monte San Martino
Province of Macerata, Marche
P. F. C. Felice Vacca
12011751 U. S. Army
“My reaching the American line was the happiest day of my life!” Phil said. “We boarded an airplane and flew to Oran, Algiers. On July 25, 1944, we boarded a ship bound for America.
Story continued in “Part 3—War’s End.”