Oscar Ruebens and John Withers—Escape Reports

At left, Oscar with wife Virginia E. Howell; at right, Oscar in 1940

Sergeants Oscar Ruebens and John Withers served in the same unit of the U.S. Army’s First Division in North Africa. In December 1942, they were captured together at Long Stop Hill. Both men were sent to P.G. 98 on Sicily and then transferred to P.G 59 Servigliano.

The friends left Camp 59 together during the mass breakout on September 14, 1943, and they made their way to the Allied lines in less than two months.

I first posted about Oscar on this site in February of last year, “Oscar Ruebens—Snapshots from the Past.”

I have since been in touch with Oscar’s youngest daughter, Laura Turner, who kindly sent me snapshots, news clippings, and documents. I will share some of these in separate posts.

For this post, I am sharing Oscar and John’s repatriation reports.

Mentioned briefly in Oscar’s report is John Turner. I believe this is John Leon Turner (“John Leon Turner, Royal Canadian Air Force“).

The POW repatriation reports were prepared during WW2 by MIS-X Section, POW Branch of the U.S. War Department.

The reports are courtesy of the United States Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama.

Oscar C. Ruebens

EX-Report No. 65
16 Dec 43

Sgt. Oscar C. Ruebens, 12016749, Co. C, 18th Inf., 1st Div.
From – Camp 59, Servigliano, Italy

Missing in action – [not recorded]
Date of capture – 23 Dec 42
Reported P/W – 9 Jan 43
Escape – 14 Sep 43
Rejoined Allied forces – 11 Nov 43
At – South of Atessa, 78th Div.
Previous in interrogation – Br. I.O. Hq.; Am. I.O. at Bari; Am. I.O. at 23rd; Repl Bn., Algiers
Arrived in USA – 8 Dec 43, Newport News, Va.
Home address – R.D. #1, Shortsville, N. Y.
Age – 23
Length of service – 3 yrs., 2 mo.

EX-Report

On 23 December 1942, Sgt. Ruebens was a member of the Rifle Squad, Company D, 18th Infantry, First Division, based at Arba near Algiers, which set out to get snipers on a hill in the environs of Arba. The group accomplished its mission and dug in to rest when they ran into machine gun and mortar fire. In a counter-attack by the Germans, Sgt. Ruebens and his group of 30 were cut off and immediately surrounded by the Germans. A German officer, who spoke English, ordered that they surrender but the Americans kept on firing for a time. When the situation seemed hopeless, there was nothing to do but to surrender. The men were ordered to throw down all of their equipment and the Germans took helmets, masks, rations and cigarettes. The only article left to them were their overcoats, which they had taken in as much as they were supposed to spend the night out in the open.

To the Rear and Camp 59

Under German guards the men were marched back 20 miles behind the lines to a farm and were taken in trucks to Tunis where they were confined to a stable and received their first food. At this place there were recording machines and the men were given an opportunity to make recordings to be broadcast to the U.S. Sgt. Ruebens stated it was purely a propaganda measure as the men were told definitely what to say. He also stated that very few of the Americans took advantage of this opportunity. The captives were interrogated for about 10 to 15 minutes by a German officer who asked them about their mission, where they had been in Europe, the length of service and whether they were regular Army or Selective Service. No information was given other than name, rank and serial number.

On 26 December 1943, the Germans turned the men over to the Italians who took them from Tunis, on a light cruiser, to Palermo where they were again searched. They remained at Camp 98 about 25 days and on 23 January 1943, were moved to Camp 59, Servigliano. During the train ride Sergeant Ruebens states that no one attempted to escape from the train because most of them were too sick or in a too weakened condition to make the endeavor. His report on conditions and treatment at Camp 59 parallels the information received from former Ps/W.

On 14 September 1943, Sgt. Ruebens, together with John Turner and Sgt. John Withers, left Camp 59 and stayed not very far away from the camp for about two weeks. They had received Red Cross parcels when they left the camp and their supply of food was augmented by friendly Italians. Sgts. Ruebens and Withers then started to make their way to the Adriatic Coast, walking by night and hiding out by day for about a week. They had no maps nor compasses but they could get some direction from Italian citizens. On 15 October 1943, they met two British escapists who told them about a plan of evacuation at the mouth of a river flowing into the Adriatic. This evacuation was organized by the British SAS and the two Americans stayed with the British paratroopers for about a week. They were told to remain in hiding until a certain designated night when they would be led to the beach. There were other British and American escapists in the group to be evacuated and at a designated time the men were led by members of the SAS under the command of Major Timothy. At intervals the men made their way down to the river and crossed it to the beach. But apparently something miscarried near one of the bridges on which there were enemy centuries. Shots rang out and subsequently there was a great deal of firing. The men were ordered to lie low and Sergeant Ruebens stated that the fire went on for about half an hour and soon trucks came down the road. He believed that the Germans were approaching so he made his escape up the river and took refuge with some Italians who gave him food and shelter.

After a day or two he continued in a southerly direction with only the sea and the mountain range to guide him. He had no direct contact with the Germans but saw them on the roads and the river bridges. Upon arrival at the Pescara River he found it was much too swollen for him to swim or wade across, but an Italian took him across in a boat and told him of several small detachments of Germans in the neighborhood. Another Italian took him around a battalion of German motor vehicles and he carefully made his way south to Guardiaerele [Guardiagrele], north of the Sango River. At this time he saw many German machine gun nests and observation posts and heard the fire of artillery duel. Early one morning he crossed the Sangro River and made his way up into the hills where he was given assistance by an Italian family. He remained there two days and heard many rumors of the Allied advance. He learned that the British were near Atessa so he decided to gamble on the possibility of crossing the lines. He was very near the scene of German artillery fire and after that subsided to some extent, he made his way across and came to a British company headquarters. From there he was sent to Casalbordino, then to Vasto and finally to Foggia and Bari. From the latter place he was sent back to Algiers where he reported to the 23rd Replacement Battalion.

Briefing and Remarks

Sergeant Rueben stated that members of his company had not been prepared in any respect in regards to escape or even the possibility of becoming a P/W was never stressed upon the man. He stated that the advance British organization treated him very well and gave him a complete change of clothes and looked after all other personal needs at Bari, he stated that Lt. Col. Haig was there in charge of escapists in that returning Ps/W were provided with the American uniforms, Red Cross bags, toilet kits and cigarettes.

John J. Withers

EX-Report No. 126
14 Jan 44

Sgt. John J. Withers, 12007147, Co. A, 1st Bn., 18th Inf. Regt., 1st Div
From – Camp 59, Italy

Missing in action – 23 Dec 42
Date of capture – 23 Dec 42
Reported P/W – 16 Jan 43
Escape – 14 Sep 43
Rejoined Allied forces – 11 Nov 43
At – South of Atessa, Italy
Previous in interrogation – British Intelligence Officer, Casalbordino, Italy; Capt. Stevens, Bari; Am. I.O., Algiers
Arrived in USA – 7 Dec 43, Newport News, Va.
Home address – 4709 Rittenhouse St., Riverdale, Md.
Age – 23
Length of service – 3 yrs. 4 mos.

EX-Report

Sgt. Withers was captured at Long Stop Hill the morning of 23 December 1943, with Sgt. Oscar C. Ruebens, subject of EX-Report No, 65.

Briefing

Sgt. Withers had never been briefed on evasion and escape.

He was searched immediately after capture, but was able to conceal a compass in his watch pocket, an item of which the German seemed unaware. The rest of the day, he was made to carry ammunition from a dump to German mortars under Allied fire.

Interrogation

Sgt. Withers had received some briefing on methods of enemy interrogation.

Shortly after capture, he was asked the name of this unit, and the night of 23 December he was taken to Tunis where he was interrogated about a half-hour by a German intelligence officer. When Sgt. Withers declined to give anything but name, rank and serial number, his interrogator gave him a fairly complete history of the 1st Division, and accurate except for the date of arrival in England. The interrogator knew that Sgt. Withers had a mortar squad and the number of men in his section. While being questioned, Sgt. Withers saw on the officer’s desk an old class “A” pass from Ft. Hamilton identifying the bearer’s unit. The story of Sgt. Withers’ trip to Camp 59 and escape is told in Sgt. Reubens’ EX-Report, No. 65.

APPENDIX “A”

E and E [Escaper and Evader] Information

About 12 September, Sgt. Withers and 2 British soldiers hid in a chicken house on the recreation field attached to Camp 59. They stayed there after the rest of the Ps/W returned to camp and hoped to escape that night. However, a guard came to feed the chickens and discovered them. The same day, two other men, Sgt. Casey and Sgt. Gaffney, hid in the shower house near the chicken house. They were not discovered until after getting outside the wire fence that surrounded the recreation field.

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