Arthur T. Sayler—Capture and Escape


Arthur T. Sayler

“My father was an American who escaped from Camp 59 when the Italians surrendered,” Susie Wickman wrote to me from her home in Colorado last November.

“He lived in a cave with help from the Italian people, until he was approached by an Italian man who offered to take him and his partner back behind Allied lines. I am trying to find information about this man who helped my dad and “Buck” Vanous. [See “Elwyn “Buck” Vanous—P.G. 59 Escapee.”]
“I recall my dad said this man approached them and told them his story.

“He had been living in America, when he was overheard to say on the phone, ‘I’ve got the package’ during the time of the Lindbergh kidnapping. He didn’t have anything to do with that, but he was deported. He told my dad that he loved America and was helping the Allies all he could so he could get back to America.

“He asked my dad to sign something like a petition at the time, but my dad was suspicious and did not. I don’t know if he was a member of the Italian resistance, or what.

“I would like to thank this man, or his family, as well as to accurately capture the story. If anyone has any knowledge of him, would they let me know?

“I have my father’s POW disability statement where he mentions Camp 59 by name.

“We know the name of the family in Italy that helped him—the Catalano family. The Catalanos were from Le Piane, Abbateggio [Pescara]. They had twin boys who eventually emigrated to America, and my dad was friends with them his whole life.

“I am still in touch with one of them, Romolo Catalano.”

Arthur Sayler’s Story

The following account of Arthur’s experience is derived from the disability application Arthur filed after the war.

Peoria, Arizona
Army Serial Number 37025925

On April 11, 1941, at age 23, Arthur Sayler of Wishek, North Dakota, was inducted into the U.S. Army at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota. He was assigned to Infantry Company A, 135th Infantry First Battalion, 34th Infantry Division.

From there, he was sent to Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, where the Louisiana Maneuvers of the Red and Blue Armies were conducted.

Arthur wrote that for six weeks the men lived in mud and rain, slept on wet ground, seldom had dry feet, and never got a full night’s sleep.

The training continued until Pearl Harbor was attacked in December. Then, Arthur’s unit performed two weeks of coastal duty at Pensacola, Florida, before returning to Claiborne to be outfitted for shipment overseas.

On January 1, 1942, Arthur’s ship was the first to leave America, from Fort Dix, New Jersey. The ship, a British vessel returning from Australia, had been converted into a troop ship equipped to transfer 3,000 troops. Although the men had American rations, they were required to eat the remaining English rations aboard the ship—mutton, fish, potatoes, and bread infested with cockroaches.

The troops were soon made aware of German submarines along the American shores. Depth charges were dropped as the ship zigzagged through the stormy North Atlantic. Many of the troops suffered severely from seasickness. Living conditions were terrible, Arthur explained, with sleeping men crowding the floors and hanging in hammocks from every available inch of ceiling.

After 14 days, the ship arrived in Ireland, which Arthur described as breathtakingly beautiful as the ship approached harbor.

During intensive training, the men took 10, 14, 20, and 50 mile hikes in the Irish countryside. Training continued until late in 1942, when Arthur and many others were transferred to Company C, 133rd Infantry, in order to fill that unit to battle strength. The company was then sent to Liverpool, England, for further preparation for the North African invasion.

The invasion convoy left England. As they passed through the Straits of Gibraltar an order was given for the convoy to “close in.” In the dark—as it was night and blackout conditions were being observed—another Allied ship plowed into the side of the ship Arthur was on, knocking a hole large enough for a semi-truck to pass through. Doors below deck were locked automatically to prevent the flooding of the entire ship. Arthur was corporal of the guard that night and one of his guards was in the damaged room. He requested that the captain open the door so the man could get out. All the men and baggage were moved to one side of the ship in order to tilt the ship and bring the hole above the waterline.

Tilted in that way, the ship proceeded through the Mediterranean and docked at the port of Oran, Algeria.

Christmas and New Year’s Day 1943 were spent aboard the ship. Then, after bivouacking for several days, Arthur’s group began a “back-shattering” road trip to Tunisia. Their unit was sent to the front lines to relieve French and Australian troops. Arthur’s unit, essentially foot soldiers poorly equipped with WWI rifles, faced Rommel’s modern 42nd Panzer Division.

Arthur’s group was charged with taking and holding Kasserine and Kef-el-Amar Passes near Tunis. They engaged the enemy several times, but on March 10, 1943 Company C, 133rd Infantry, was surrounded by German forces. Although they were under heavy artillery fire and advancing forces, most of the men were evacuated. Those who were covering for the escaping soldiers—the commanding officer, three other officers, and most of the non-commissioned officers of the three platoons—including Arthur—were captured.

The 59 who were captured were loaded onto tanks, weapons carriers, and other vehicles, and transported to Tunis.

The men were kept in a makeshift prison, formerly a schoolhouse and schoolyard, sleeping on the floor on lice- and bedbug-infested straw. They were guarded by German troops.

Early in the day, the men were served bread and “coffee” made from roasted grain. They saved half of the bread for noon meal. In the evening, they were served a soup made from rice, macaroni, or a type of lima bean. The rice and beans were infested with worms, which floated to the top of the soup and were skimmed off. The broth was made from the meat of horses or donkeys that had been used to transport ammunition in the mountains. The meat, hung out in the African sun, was covered with flies.

As a result, the men were stricken with bleeding colons and dysentery.

During the first week in this place, they were taken to the airport to be flow to another location. American planes bombed the runway. The men were returned to the camp. The following week another attempt was made at moving them, and this time their Junkers Ju 88 planes managed to take off. The planes, which flew close to the water to avoid detection, took the prisoners to Palermo, Sicily. Then, the men were moved to a tent camp. There the slept on straw-covered mattresses.

[Arthur’s statement listed this camp as Camp 90, but it likely was Camp 98—Susie said they her dad had sent a postcard home from Camp 98.]

Conditions in this camp were deplorable. The food was as bad or worse than what they had been served in Tunis. Latrines were inadequate, there were no bathing facilities, and the men’s clothing was severely infested with white lice.

After about a month, Arthur was among prisoners who were moved to P.G. 59.

The prisoners’ hair was shaved off, they were given soap to bathe, their clothing was put through a delousing process, and they were assigned to barracks. Bunks were of wood, and there were four men to a bunk. Again, mattresses were straw filled and it was apparent the first night that they were heavily infested with bedbugs.

Arthur said the bedbugs were a nightly nightmare, and when scratched the bites became infected and turned to open sores.

After a week in the camp, Arthur and about 12 other men were taken to central Rome for special interrogation. The treatment in Rome was very good. Each man received a Red Cross parcel of food twice a week. The American’s uniforms were taken from them, and they were issued new British uniforms.

The men found that the sleeping quarters were more than adequate. However, they suspected, given their good treatment, that the place was bugged with microphones, so they were careful what they said.

During the two weeks stay, each man was taken into a room for interrogation.

When Arthur gave only his name, rank, and serial number, the interrogating officer who was sitting opposite him became irritated, pulled a pistol from his holster, and placed it on the table as a threat. When Arthur continued to refuse his questions, the officer said, “Now let me tell you some things,” and he recounted in detail almost every move Arthur’s unit had made since leaving the U.S. He knew places, dates, and times.

He spoke English very well, and told Arthur he had a degree from Yale University.

After two weeks, the prisoners were returned to P.G. 59. They remained there until Italy capitulated. At that time, Arthur said, the Italian guards did not want to be picked up by the Germans and so they opened the camp gates and took off for the hills.

The early September weather was pleasant enough that Arthur and the other prisoners were able to live off the land and hid during the day. The broke into small groups and headed in different directions. Finally, Walter was alone with only Elwyn “Buck” Vanous from Steele, North Dakota. The two headed south, hoping to reach the Allied forces, which they assumed were moving northward.

Then they learned that the troops had been ordered not to move forward because the Allies had also invaded Anzio beachhead.

Arthur and Buck realized winter was coming. Sympathetic Italian families fed them and told them which routes to follow and which to avoid. Early in December, a woman landowner offered to help them. Her husband and son had gone to America to earn money, intending in time to bring the family to the States. This woman allowed Arthur and Buck to stay in a cave that she and her family had prepared for themselves, should they ever need to hid from the Germans. She arranged for local families to bring food to them in turns. She treated them when they were sick.

At one point, Arthur had a terrible side ache, as if he might have appendicitis. The woman brought him rags to heat on the rocks surrounding the small fire they kept in the cave. These Arthur applied continuously to his side, and eventually the pain went away.

They lived in the cave for four months. They had no way to bathe and no toilet facilities. The two men moved about the hills, plotting a way to return to the Allied lines.

In March 1944, a sympathetic Italian offered to take them through the lines. He said he had done that numerous times for others. One morning, at around one o’clock, they met him at a barn and started for the lines. They passed through accordion barbed wire, and followed gullies and river beds. They arrived at a British outpost, where they identified themselves. They were fed and sent to an American unit.

They were interrogated, allowed to fully clean up, and were issued new uniforms. They were given orders to return to the States on the fastest available transportation.

Arthur arrived home on furlough in time for the Easter holiday.

He was reassigned to a training unit at Ft. McClellan, Alabama, where he was involved in the intensive training of new troops. He received an honorable discharge on September 29, 1944.

In 1947, Arthur helped to organize a National Guard unit in Wishek, North Dakota. He was promoted to captain and appointed commanding officer of the unit by the governor of North Dakota.

After discharge from the National Guard, Arthur went into his own independent business.

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