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.
The above list, typed for me by Camp 59 ex-prisoner Neil Torssell on an old manual typewriter, is a a record of men he knew in the camp.
Thirteen of these men are new to my list of Camp 59 prisoners. They are noted below as “first reference.”
Men who were prisoners of war at Camp 59, Servigliano, Italy, September 1944
Note: Neil must have meant September 1943, the month he and the other prisoners escaped.
Joseph W. Mack
Nowata, Oklahoma (deceased)
There is no reference for Joseph W. Mack in the U.S. National Archives database of WW II POWs.
William M. Wilson
Fox Hall Plains
2100 19th Street, N.W.
William M. Wilson
U.S. Army, Infantry—Armored Force
State of Residence—unlisted
Source: U.S. National Archives, World War II Prisoners of War Data Files, documenting the period December 7, 1941–November 19, 1946 (Returned to Military Control, Liberated or Repatriated from Stalag 3B Furstenberg Brandenburg, Prussia (Also KDOS [USA] #1-5; ARB BTNS 225-255) 52-14)
This diagram of the bunk bed construction in the huts of Camp 59 was drawn by Neil Torssell.
The following interview between former Camp 59 prisoner Neil Torssell and Dennis Hill was recorded on October 30, 2008. The interviewer’s questions and comments are in italic.
When we talked before, you told me about your years in the service from start to finish. And when you wrote to me in the past you described being in the camp, but you didn’t say a lot about what daily life was like there.
I made a list of things I would like to ask you about today.
When my dad was in the camp, he was in Hut 4, Section 11. You had mentioned to me there were big barracks that had bunk beds. You sent me a drawing of the bed construction. Does the organization of hut and section number sound familiar to you?
I don’t remember anything like that. Was he in the building where they were digging the tunnel?
No, I don’t believe so, but he said he had heard about the digging of a tunnel.
That wasn’t known about until the Italians had practically quit. It was only then we found out about it, because there were just a few of them [the prisoners] involved in digging.
In the hut that you were in—or barracks—did the Italians come in at night to make sure that nothing was going on, or when you went to sleep at night were you left alone until morning?
Well, they patrolled the barracks all night. They patrolled periodically. I don’t know if there was any particular schedule. We didn’t pay attention to them. As far as how far apart the patrols were—if there were as many on the outside as the inside—I couldn’t tell you that.
In March of this year, ex-POW Neil Torssell sent me this diagram of a handmade Camp 59 cook stove. He labeled the parts of the stove: 1) fire pot, 2) air shaft, 3) blower pot with crank and fan blades, and 4) pulleys. Sketch 5 is a top view of the fire pot, showing supporting wires to hold the wood and fan blades under the wires for fast heating.
All parts were crimped together, he explained, as screws and solder were not available. Some of these burners were mounted on wood—when wood was available.
I interviewed Neil Torssell over the phone on May 13, 2008. He had agreed in advance to my taping him. At first, I suggested we might do a series of shorter conversations. However, once we got started he was sharp and eager to talk and in one hour and 45 minutes he covered the whole of his service experience—from enlistment to discharge!
I’m pleased to post this fascinating interview here. My questions for Neil and comments are shown in italic.
Enlistment and Training
Tell me what unit you joined, how you trained, and how you came to go overseas.
“I wasn’t drafted—I enlisted in September 1940, before the draft started.
“I went into the service to learn more about photography. The recruiters knew that the draft was coming up and they didn’t care where they sent you. So they sent me to 322nd Signal Aviation Company, which is communications. I didn’t find that out until I got up to Selfridge Field, Michigan.
“After I took basic training, I transferred over to the 3rd Air Base Group at Selfridge Field—to the photo section there. That was the time when I got up in grades from private to private first class, then corporal, and then sergeant.
“Things were going pretty good. I’ll probably skip a lot of details here because they’re not significant. After the war was declared in 1941, my group got transferred down to South Carolina—Florence, South Carolina to be exact. I was with the 3rd Air Base Group still. We were there for a few months and then we were moved up to Wilmington, North Carolina.
“From there I flew in a couple of missions—submarine control in B-25s—as a photographer. At that time the Army Air Force wasn’t well-equipped. On the B-25s I was back where the camera was and the guns were two wooden sticks.