A Pause for Reflection

Martin Luther King Jr., 1964—Image courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Every year on the third Monday in January, in the United States we celebrate a national holiday honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Beginning in 1955, Dr. King was one of the most prominent human rights leaders in America, heading a movement to advance equal treatment of people of color through nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. As a Baptist minister, he was inspired by his Christian beliefs, as well as the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.

Dr. King knew the personal risks he faced, but in an atmosphere of ever-present hatred and threats, he remained steadfast. He was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

A few of the many heroes of Italian compassionate resistance: Letizia Galiè in Del Gobbo, the Zagnoli family, Giovina Fioravanti, Iginia and Luigi Palmoni, and Sebastiano “Bastiano” Crescenzi

Italian Heroic Resistance

During the Second World War, not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of Italian citizens—many of them poor farmers and laborers—risked their lives to practice the type of compassion resistance and civil disobedience Dr. King was later to embrace through their feeding and sheltering of escaped POWs who appeared at their doorsteps. 

In a preface to Monte San Martino Trust founder J. Keith Killby’s memoir, In Combat, Unarmed, Giuseppe Millozzi writes of the courageous humanity of these Italians:

“They reached out despite this October 9, 1943 proclamation of Mussolini: ‘Anyone who helps escaped prisoners of war or any enemy by assisting them to escape or by offering them hiding places will be punished by death.’ An evangelical doctrine states, ‘There is no greater love than this: to give up your life for your friends.’ In light of the actions of these Italian peasants, this doctrine might be rephrased to read, ‘There is no greater love than this: to give up your life for your enemies.’ Even though fascist propaganda painted a gloomy picture of the Allied soldiers, these uneducated, simple, and poor farmers were capable of immense courage when they were confronted by these young men. Thanks to their alacrity and kindness, many escapees were saved from deportation. Their selfless actions helped to counterbalance the shame of Italy.”

Today, I remember these remarkable people, just as I pause to remember Dr. King.

An Anniversary

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has a further personal significance for me.

It was on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2008 that I began camp59survivors.com. The website is 15 years old today! 

To date there are nearly 500 posts on the site. Through my research, I’ve made dozens of wonderful new friends—former servicemen interned in P.G. 59, descendants of the POWs and of Italian helpers, relatives of agents active in the I.S.9 rescues, researchers, and archivists.

I’ve found that in spite of the fact 80 years have passed since the escaped POWs were on the run, there is no shortage of interest in this subject. Whereas in the beginning I was being contacted by children, nieces, and nephews of POWs, increasingly I am hearing from grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My own interest in the POW stories is as keen as ever, and I’m looking forward to the next 15 years.

John Gaffney and Albert Romero Survive Crash to be Interned in P.G. 59

B-24 Liberator (United States Air Force)

While on a mission, American airmen John Gaffney and Albert Romero’s B-24 bomber was shot down over the sea near Messina, Italy, on 30 April 1943. The only two survivors, they were interned in P.G. 59. Both escaped on the night of the 14 September 1943 mass breakout. Although John Gaffney paired up with Sgt. William Casey and Albert Romero traveled alone, they all headed south for the Allied lines, arriving a couple of days apart in late October.

The following information is from their POW repatriation reports prepared 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. Their reports contain a wealth of information, including the names and addresses of Italian helpers.

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S/Sgt. Robert Williams Guided to the Allied Lines by “Peter”

“Peter” is described in Robert Williams’ repatriation report as a “British agent dressed in civilian clothes,” typically “accompanied by an Italian civilian carrying a box of pigeons.”

The agent is mentioned three times in the official I.S.9 history of escaper/evader rescues in Italy. The first mention concerns I.S.9 Boating Section landings on the Adriatic coast, north of the Allied lines. The particular landing was accomplished in late February 1944, “during the non-moon period” (the new moon was on February 24): “The seas during February were again exceedingly rough and prevented all but two operations – ‘PETER’ and ‘JUG’, both of which were successfully carried out.”

Later in 1944, the agent was described as, “not only one of our most likeable officers, but he was thoroughly efficient and sincere in his work. He had previously been in command of our Boating Section based at BASTIA, in CORSICA, where he personally planned and took part in many hazardous landing operations on the WEST coast of ITALY.”

There is a final mention of the agent at the end of 1944—the history states, “‘PETER’ had joined the CLN and was now an active ‘saboteur’. W/Cdr DENNIS said he would deal with Peter later on for deserting the cause of ex-P/Ws.”

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Glauco Cesaretti—Recognized for Heroic Action

From a contact in Rimini, Italy, I’ve received word that a framed Alexander Certificate awarded to Glauco Cesaretti has come to light. 

In an attempt to learn who Glauco Cesaretti was and why he was recognized by Field-Marshal Alexander, the person who discovered the certificate found a reference to him in a book, Faetano 1944 Victoria Cross (2008, Giunta di Castello di Faetano, publisher). 

In fact, the Alexander Certificate itself appears in the book, where Glauco Cesaretti is credited with hiding two Scotsmen from the Germans. 

Contributor Daniele Cesaretti, in a chapter entitled “Other Battles in San Marino,” describes the September 1944 battle where Glauco Cesaretti fought:

“At noon the forward Cameron troops enter Borgo and house-to-house fighting develops. In the confused fight two Scotsmen are cornered in a house in which Marino Militiaman Glauco Cesaretti is present and who swiftly hides them in the basement, fooling the Germans. Later Pte Cesaretti will be awarded by Allied Officers a certificate signed by General Alexander.” (Cameron Highlanders were among the units fighting that day.)

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Alfred Hackett, Royal Artillery

Alfred Hackett in Egypt, 1940 

Recently Nigel Hackett wrote to me, “My father, Alfred Hackett (Gunner, 31st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery), was a prisoner of war at P.G. 59 Servigliano from late January/early February 1942 to June 1942. 

“Dad was captured in a desert battle in December 1941 and was taken to Servigliano via the military hospital at Caserta and the transit camp at Capua.

“He was moved to P.G. 29 Veano from which he escaped in September 1943 at the time of the Italian Armistice.

“He made it back to the British lines at Termoli in October 1943 with the help of an Italian family, two Italian deserters, plus special forces taking part in Operation SIMCOL.

“I am a member of the Escape Lines Memorial Society (ELMS) and a supporter of Monte San Martino Trust (MSMT), and I have visited Servigliano a couple of times with ELMS.

“Dad—who was born in 1916 and died in 2002—had dictated his story to Roger Stanton, now Director of ELMS, when my father was a member of the Army Escape Club. I discovered more details at the Paradata Archive at Duxford about Operation SIMCOL some years ago.

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Mark Your Calendar for September 2023

View from the hilltop village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano, 9 km (5 miles) south of Servigliano. Escaped POWs crisscrossed this landscape in September 1943.

Organizers at London-based Monte San Martino Trust are now making plans for an eightieth anniversary celebration of the Allied Forces’ armistice with Italy, the event that triggered the escape of Allied POWs from Italian camps in September 1943.

The September 2023 anniversary activities will be based at the site of P.G. 59 in Servigliano.

Servigliano is nestled in the beautiful Le Marche region of Italy, located in central Italy between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea. The main event of the celebration will be a six-day Freedom Trail walk, on September 6–11, co-hosted by the Trust and the WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society, also of the UK.

The Trust has posted on their website information about the area, links to several area hotels and restaurants, and a brief history of P.G. 59.

The Trust’s founder, J. Keith Killby, escaped from P.G. 59, which in 2021 was designated an Italian National Memorial.

Casa della Memoria (the House of Remembrance association) in Servigliano will be supporting the anniversary activities. The group is active in preserving the history of P.G. 59. Their Remembrance Museum, housed in the renovated railroad station adjacent to the camp grounds, is a hub for educational activity—including classroom activities, tours of the camp, and historical research.

The Freedom Trail walk will take hikers through Tenna Valley terrain crossed by escaped soldiers, visiting historical landmarks and meeting with families of Italians who assisted the escapees. Historians on the tour will serve as guides and answer questions.

For more information on the activities of Monte San Martino Trust, visit msmtrust.org.uk.

Queries about the anniversary events can be sent to the Trust at info@msmtrust.org.uk.

More on the Escaped Prisoners at Fontanaluccia

In Pursuit of Freedom, published by Corgi Books

Yesterday my friend and fellow researcher Anne Copley shared information related to a post I wrote in 2017. See “Escaped Prisoners and Airman at Fontanaluccia.”

“One of the names there is W. J. Bishop,” Anne wrote. “This is Jack Bishop who wrote a book, In Pursuit of Freedom, about his wartime experiences. (He was one of the first to end up on Italian soil as a PoW—captured when his submarine was rammed on 31 July 1940.) 

“Jack has a whole chapter on the convent at Fontanaluccia (which clearly acted as a sort of hospital as well), and in particular a Sister Maria who gave him a rosary. He was with someone he only ever calls ‘The Corporal’, who must be the R. D. Smith who turned up on the same day in October. Jack talks about him having a bad leg. He was eventually betrayed and recaptured. I haven’t been able to trace him post-war. 

“Jack was an OR (enlisted man) but, although he didn’t much fancy being someone’s servant, he volunteered to be a batman in an officers’ camp, knowing the conditions would be better. Thus he ended up in Fontanellato. He actually escaped on his own initiative a day or two before the mass breakout organised by the Camp Commandant and the Senior British Officer Hugo de Burgh. 

“He met up with ‘The Corporal’ later, after those he had escaped with decided to stay on with an Italian family.”

Many thanks to Anne for sharing this new information.

Travis Fowler—A Family Connection

Private Travis L. Fowler, U.S. Army Infantry

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the United States—an appropriate time to remember a particular soldier who lost his life in World War II. 

For his family, details of Private Travis Fowler’s death have remained unclear for decades.

As a prisoner-of-war who had escaped—very likely from P.G. 59—in late 1943, Travis had evaded capture in Italy for months. Then, while attempting to cross the Allied lines, he was shot by a German sentry. He died 78 years ago this month. See “Travis Fowler—Nearly Home.”

When I wrote about Travis in January 2021, I had not been in contact with anyone from Travis’ family. 

Four days ago, I received a note from his nephew, Jeff Fowler.

Jeff wrote, “Travis Fowler was my uncle. I am the son of Jessie D. Fowler. Until recently I did not know that Travis was a POW; today, thanks to you, I learned even more.”

Some information known to older relatives in the Fowler family may not have been passed down. 

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Reginald Skinner in Switzerland

Escaped Allied POWs bask in the beauty of their Swiss harbor

Many Allied soldiers who escaped from prison camps in northern Italy in the fall of 1943 made their way safely to neutral Switzerland.

Reginald Skinner was among them.

Reginald’s granddaughter Hannah Angell doesn’t know in which Swiss community he found shelter. Other POWs represented on this site found refuge in Alpine resort villages such as Adelboden, Arosa, and St. Gallen.

Reginald kept the following photographs as reminders of his time spent Switzerland.

(See also “Reginald Skinner—P.G. 59 and Beyond.”)

Reginald Skinner—Notebook Poetry

A poem from Reginald Skinner’s prison camp notebook

Reginald Skinner’s prison camp notebook contains seven full-length poems. (See “Reginald Skinner—P.G. 59 and Beyond.”)

The poems are:
Reflections of a P.O.W.
The Fireside Fusiliers
The Mirage
The Long Range Desert Group
A Father’s Story to His Son

Reginald did not record the authors of the poems, but some of the poems appear with attributions in other prisoner’s notebooks, most notably Robert Dickinson’s “Servigliano Calling.”

“Reflections on a P.O.W.” is in G. Norman Davison’s diary, and the same poem also appears in “Servigliano Calling” with the shortened title “Reflections.” See “Camp 59 Poets.”

In addition, “The Mirage” and “The Fireside Fusiliers” are in “Servigliano Calling.” All three poems are credited there to Cpl. D. Nevitt. (See “The ‘Servigliano Calling’ Poets,” “‘Servigliano Calling’ Camp Poem #8,” and “‘Servigliano Calling’ Camp Poem #10.”)

Of course, it’s entirely possible Reginald wrote some of the poems in his notebook himself.

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