John Leon Turner—Survival in Italy

This fourth and final newspaper article covering the war bond speeches given by John Leon Turner in 1944–45 is the most detailed.

This talk was to the Rotary Club of Montreal—Westward.

To read the other articles, see “John Leon Turner, Royal Canadian Air Force” and “John Leon Turner with the Partisans.”

“If Freedom Dies…” Rotary Hears Adventures
Among Italian Partisans

Pilot Officer John L. Turner Tells Prisoner-of-War Story

“I have a tangle of memories from overseas and a tangle of ideas born from them, feel more or less helpless at expressing them and wish,” declared Pilot Officer John L. Turner, ex-prisoner of war in Italy, simply, “I had something prepared in front of me.”

Taking the place of as guest speaker in lieu of Nursing Sister Gabriel Cote at short notice, as she was suddenly recalled to duty, the modest flier opened his address at the Westward Rotary quietly and without bombast, warmed up to his subject and held the attention of all riveted to a breathless recital that had as its climax a gripping human interest story on “If Freedom Dies!”

When people learn he has been a prisoner of war, asserted the speaker, he is swamped with questions, and, for that reason, would give his impressions. On a flight to India after operations over Germany the plane was forced down and he came a captive in Italy in February, 1942. For a month, he revealed, he, with the others, was treated well while being solidly interrogated for information. Given the best, they were listening to the theme, “for you the war is over,” and the captors painted pictures of rest, ease, and luxury of P.O.W. Camps.

Disillusionment came swiftly when eventually they were entrained on a cattle car, which he was sure had square wheels, for a journey of two days and a night. Reaching the Camp in a downpour of rain they found it an enclosure with 15 ft. walls topped by barbed wire and broken glass, inside the compound were dingy white huts, a sea of mud and tired P.O.W.’s wading ankle deep.

A small loaf of dried bread was all they were given for a meal, and later a pint of thick soup of macaroni, boiled in cabbage water and some ersatz coffee.

Pilot Officer Turner declared he lost 50 lbs. in 4 months, coming down from 180 to 130 lbs., while a 200 lb. prisoner in the same period weighed less than he did, and 5 died of malnutrition, a pretty word for starvation, in that time. There were no such things as Red Cross parcels then, the captives had no energy to walk, they gazed over the walls at distant green hills that looked frightfully free, then back at the mud, dirty white huts and wondered—how long? All suffered from insomnia, day and night were the same, such were prison camps without the Red Cross aid, no recreation, no health to enjoy it, had it been afforded, and nothing left but to think.

Asserting that he was not giving a speech for the Red Cross, the speaker stressed the fact that they meant life to the prisoner. After the parcels began to arrive it supplied sufficient, with the meager fare provided, to give needed energy, while book, cards and games toward the close of his 19 months’ internment altered indescribably the prisoners’ lot.

In September, Mussolini was deposed, and since the majority of the peasants were anti-fascist, the pressure lifted and the people showed friendliness. The Guards unbended and a great relief was experienced with more freedom allowed. Additionally they learned that the Allies at Foggia were slowly coming up country. Some tried to get away to meet them, and the Camp emptied. Those unable to make the break, Turner among them, suffering with a bad foot and having only worn out shoes, was forced to remain.

Four days later, he continued, the Germans blew in to discover the camp empty and the men living in the village. Half were speedily recaptured and the rest took to the hills.

A trio, with Turner among them, hid out, lived with a farmer, slept in the hay and hid in the copses by day. In December came 3 feet of snow, heaviest in forty years, that killed all hopes of following their escaped comrades in the long trek to Allied lines.

They joined up with partisans, heard a great deal about over here, and called “underground.” They really lived up in the hills with a two-fold job facing them. To stop German troops and supplies traversing their particular stretch of territory, and to sabotage mountain roads, a relatively easy matter to do, as dynamite dropped for them by Allied planes was used to set in motion avalanches that readily flowed snow and rubble deeply over the roads that skirted the mountain sides.

These partisans also endeavored to keep the populace from starving… [a section of the article is missing here] …waited until they knew a centre was about full and then descended on it in a group of 100 men in a raid.

Two parties would cut off roads and communications, two more would guard escape avenues and the rest hold open the granary while the peasants who grew the grain would come with barrows, donkeys, and other primitive means of transportation and take the grain back. The Germans would try to collect again, but the people became adept at hiding it.

Imagine a winter spent that way, suggested the Pilot Officer, hiding out in the mountains with a band of 130 desperate men, a thorn in Jerry’s flesh until in March, 1944, the snow began to fade out. One morning they found 600 Germans with tanks and trucks below them, we up, they down, and a frightful battle ensued in which we lost 7 and carved down half the attackers. A lull followed in which Jerry held a consultation and then more trucks came, bringing mortars, which shelled us for an hour, and a lucky hit destroyed our ammunition dump, which went up in a red roar of flame, taking the lives of 30 men with it.

Hope for holding out longer went with it, and we aimed to retreat to the forest over the brow of the hill, but the position had to be held; four stayed with the machine guns, three men and a woman. Those four willingly died that the rest should escape. So ended my association with the partisans.

The fade out of the snow raised hopes of rejoining the Allies 300 miles away. Here an heroic Italian family helped and gave shelter to Turner, the best friends ever he had overseas, and lack of shoe leather forced him to wait indefinitely.

Came a travelling shoemaker, from the city, hardly daring to trust one so close to the Fascists, he yet risked trying to get his shoes fixed for the journey. A friend in hiding 6 miles away, in another farmhouse, R.A.F. Pilot Eric Cooper, was in the same shoe destitute condition, so Turner, wearing borrowed native footgear, sloughed through mud to get his pal’s shoes fixed also.

In the morning Maria came, crying bitterly, all Turner’s bundled worldly possessions she brought with her and told him it was not safe to return to her home.

She revealed to the airman how a party of 12 Fascists accompanied by the traitorous cobbler had broken down the door and held up the family in search of the ‘bandit.’ The family denied the existence of any such refugee, in spite of the proof of the shoes obtained the day before, and asserted the cobbler must be mistaken. Determined to find the airman, the party threatened, and searched, and finally told the family they were lying, they would waste no more time.

Tell in 5 minutes, they were told, or the young 17 year old would be shot and two men took him outside. Nobody talked, though faces became white and anguished. The five minutes passed and a shot rang out and presently the two men re-entered alone.

They grimly moved to take 13 year old Dominica to share a like fate but Maria threw herself between and fiercely told them they would have to kill her first.

“Maria tried to intervene,” said Turner emotionally, “Sounds unbelievable? It does to me now, also—it sounded so to the Fascists, who could not understand an entire family would sacrifice themselves, and they left disgruntled. Relief came to the family when they found the boy was not shot, but tied to a tree.


First page of the newspaper article, most likely from The Montreal Gazette.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s