Neil Torssell passed over the rugged, beautiful terrain of Le Marche during his nine months “on the run” in 1943–44.
I first interviewed Neil Torssell in May 2008. An Interview with Neil Torssell covered his experience from the time of enlistment through the end of war.
Another interview, arranged though the Minnesota Historical Society’s Minnesota’s Greatest Generation Project, was recorded the year before.
On a follow-up phone visit with Neil on July 28, 2011, Neil shared more information with me about the time he was a fugitive in Italy.
My questions and comments below are in italic.
Neil, I have some additional questions I’d like to ask you.
You mentioned to me that when you escaped there were eight or nine of you together. You said there was somebody from New York who spoke Italian—Jimmy. You sent me the addresses of some of the guys you knew who were in the camp. I noticed there was a Jimmy Serrentino, and I was wondering if that was the Jimmy who was with you during the escape.
Yes, he was the one with us who spoke fluent Italian.
And you mentioned there was a fellow named Larry, and I was wondering if that was Larry Barlow, who is on your list.
Yes, he passed away several years ago, out in California.
You said you moved around a bit.
We got chased out periodically.
Let’s backtrack a little bit. The Germans turned Italians into German recruits—15- and 16-year-old Italian boys.
They had what are called the “underground telegraph.” They were miles away, we knew they were coming.
I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t think something about it—one thing or another.
It was a pretty intense experience for you.
Let’s just say we lived from day to day. We didn’t know if we would come back alive or not. I may have mentioned before, this German SS patrol stopped near where I was staying. There were two American POWs staying there. The Germans stripped their house, set the house on fire, took the two Americans down to the river bottom, made them dig their own grave shafts—I may have told you that one.
Yes, you did tell me about that.
We were just lucky that where we stayed was right on the main road there. We took to the hills on all the back roads that we knew.
We found out about it a couple of months later when we came back that way.
You had mentioned that when you escaped from the camp you went out from the front gates, right? I know that there was a hole broken in the wall in the back of the camp.
We went out the back gate. The front gate would have taken us more or less right into the village. Outside the back gate was more or less open fields.
You said that there were some shots fired.
Yeah. I think they were more or less for show. I don’t think they were shooting at anybody in particular. Of course, we didn’t know it at the time.
One of the things you mentioned in the interview that you did with the fellow from St. Cloud was that some of the Italians called you “Doc” because you wore gold-rimmed glasses.
Yes, Larry for some reason called me Doc at the time. And that changed to dottore, in other words, the Italian word for doctor. [As in professor.]
You said in the other interview that some of the guys were taken to a Catholic mission church nearby.
Yes. Well, near this one place we stayed there was a little mission church and they went there to bum cigarettes. There might be times when they would get a cigarette, but most of the time they got cigarette butts.
Did you all smoke cigarettes—all of you guys?
I understand that cigarettes were a hot commodity in the camp—cigarettes and tobacco were popular.
It was a good trading item. Guys who didn’t smoke could trade them off for other rations.
Can you tell me about the Italians you stayed with—their food, cheesemaking, or baking bread?
I don’t know the exact process they used to make cheese. It was made out of goat’s milk. I don’t know whether they got it down to a certain degree [of temperature], or a certain consistency. Then they put it into little round wooden bowls, about five or six inches across. And then there was [another] stage—I couldn’t tell you how long the process was—but when it was first edible it was real mild, and as it aged it got stronger—like all cheese does. It wasn’t surprising to find a worm in it, so we always washed it carefully before we took a bite.
They were very thrifty as far as getting out and foraging for themselves, and the lived on a very limited diet. We had so much macaroni that I couldn’t eat macaroni for two years once I got back to the States. But now it doesn’t bother me.
What about their bread—or their pizzas—what we think of as Italian food?
Their so-called pizza was a very thin dough baked in their outside ovens. They didn’t have any meat or sausage to put on it, so they had garlic or peppers—something like that—or a little grated cheese to give it a little flavor. It wasn’t bad tasting, but of course in this country we are a little spoiled with all the stuff we put on the crust.
They were similar in size to the pizza you buy in the store here, with thin crust, but there was very little seasoning on top of it. That was because they couldn’t get it.
They were like share croppers.
Most of the places we stayed the horse, oxen, pigs, and sheep in the stable.
Did I tell you about taking a bath? We asked for water for a bath, and they told us nobody takes a bath in the winter. But we did talk them into heating hot water that we could bathe in it. The thing is everyone in the house smelled the same so they couldn’t tell the difference!
You had also mentioned in the other interview that you had a green salad that had snails in it.
Yes, we had salad of light greens and a little garlic and onion. And then the kids brought over a big snail shell. They started laughing and asked if I knew what I was eating, and I said no. At that stage in the game, you eat anything thing that is put in front of you.
I’ll say one thing for them, the breads they made—unleavened breads, that were made without yeast—they were the best-tasting breads when they came out of the oven. They were excellent—whole-grain bread.
Did I tell you about getting salt? I’m not sure how far away it was from where I was staying, but the women would go with big water jars on top of their heads to these salt wells, and then boil the water down to get the salt.
It was an amazing thing that these women would put a crown of braided material on top of their head, and the jar of water would be on top of that. And they would walk along and not spill a drop. They would stop and talk with their neighbors, not bothered at all by the weight on top of their head.
Was the well near the coast?
No, we were about 20 or 30 miles inland.
You mentioned that you had polenta there.
Yeah. It was basically cornmeal mush. A board was put on the table, and when [the polenta] was done cooking it was put on the board and everyone helped themselves to what was in front of them.
You had also mentioned that when you were in the countryside, Allied aircraft would fly over and drop supplies for the underground?
At one place when it was early evening—in semi-daylight—they would drop stuff, yes.
Those supplies were intended for the Italian resistance, or for the escaped prisoners?
These were for the resistance fighters. I never saw any of the stuff they dropped, but I know they did.
At one point you experienced an earthquake, right?
Yeah. That’s the weirdest feeling. First of all I heard rumbling in the distance and I thought it was artillery fire. Then all of a suddenly the ground was shaking and buildings were shaking. The Italian women were praying to high heaven. Fortunately, it didn’t do any structural damage where we were at, but I know it shook the buildings.
No one got hurt that you were aware of in that area?
Not where we were, no.
You were with one of the families at Christmastime?
The husband gave me some lire as a Christmas present, and also some kind of fruit. I can’t tell you what it was. It was about the size of an apple. It had the color of an apple, but it wasn’t an apple. I can recall the taste of it, but it was good—that’s all I can tell you.
We had a big dinner meal for Christmas.
You mentioned the Joe had a leg wound of some sort that wouldn’t heal up. How did he get injured?
He was captured by the Germans in Africa. He had machinegun wounds in his lower leg. There was no proper medication for it. The bruises were festering like crazy all the while. So he couldn’t travel like Larry and I did.
But Joe made it back, though, eventually?
He made it back to the States, too. Others felt the war was going to go around us, but I told my two buddies I’m heading south. They said, “We’re going to wait and get picked up.” And I said, “I’m not going to take any chances—the way that war goes.”
Larry and Joe stayed together and ended up getting picked up by Brits by the sea, and I went off alone and ended up hitchhiking down. All Italian drivers know [of driving] is there’s an accelerator and a horn—they don’t know where the brake is. More or less every man for himself.
In the list of prisoners’ names and addresses you sent me you sent me, I recognized one of the names—Frederick Solberg. Do you remember him?
Most of them I don’t remember. What I did was collect a lot of names, even if I didn’t know the men. I figured when I got back to the States, I’d turn those names in to some source.
How long did it take you from the time you escaped from the camp to the time you arrived at the Allied forces?
The mass break was in late September 1943, and I got back into Allied territory July 5 of 1944—so I was nine months on the run.
Thanks so much for your talking the time to talk with me.
Right after the war, no one really wanted to hear anything more about it. Now there seems to me more interest in World War II than ever.
The men in my age group, we’re getting fewer and fewer every year. If we don’t share the stories, no one is ever going to know.
Well, Neil, your story won’t be lost.
The salt wells were probably those along the Salino River (or brook). We used to live by the Salino and my old neighbour told me that during the war she used to boil the water down, get the salt, and when she had 30 kilos or so she would put it in a sack and take it on her back about 15 km uphill to sell it to the monks in Montefalcone.