Stories of American Escapees from Prisoner of War Camp 59, Servigliano, Italy – Part I

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

At the time of the Italian Armistice on September 8, 1943, there were almost 80,000 Allied prisoners of war in Italian camps.  Among these prisoners of war were 1,310 Americans; many were soldiers captured in North Africa and airmen shot down over Italy.[1]

Most of the American prisoners of war were confined at Camp 59, at Servigliano. This camp, 15 miles north of Ascoli, in the foothills of the Apennines, held perhaps as many as 3,000 prisoners, mostly Allied enlisted personnel. Although the camp was well-guarded and thorough searches frequent, numerous tunneling projects were continually in progress. There were quite a few escapes, but most of the prisoners were recaptured. [2]

When the Allied prisoners of war learned of the Armistice, most were in a quandary as to what action to take.  Under orders received earlier in the summer, most remained in their camps under the mistaken impression that Allied forces would soon liberate them. Italian camp authorities also faced their own quandaries.  Without clear orders as to what to do, many simply opened the gates to allow the prisoners to leave their camps. During the first days after the Armistice, perhaps as many as 50,000 prisoners remained in their camps and quickly became prisoners of the Germans. Another 30,000 left their camps.  Some 16,000 were recaptured and 4,000 found safety in Switzerland.  The remaining 10,000 found safety in hiding with the help of Italians, and many found their way back to Allied lines.

The Camp 59 Commandant, apparently a hard-core Fascist, at the Armistice placed his guards around the walls of the Camp, ostensibly to “protect” the prisoners from the Germans but, in reality to detain them until the arrival of the Germans.[3]  On September 14, it was rumored in the camp that the Germans were close by and at 10pm the Senior British Officer (SBO) gave the order to evacuate the camp. As the prisoners started towards the gate, the guards opened fire and the SBO went to the Commandant and asked (or perhaps threatened) that the guards be ordered to cease fire. The order was given over the loudspeaker system and the gates were opened. [4]

With the gates opened, the prisoners took off to get as far away as possible before the Germans arrived in the area.  What follows are stories of some of the American soldiers and airmen who escaped from Camp 59 on September 14.  All of them made it to the Allied lines, some in 1943 and others in 1944.  During the process, some were recaptured, but escaped again to reach the Allied lines.  As will be noticed, all of them received help from Italians.  Without this help many of the escapees would have been recaptured and most likely ended up in a German prisoner of war camp for the duration of the war.

Private Anthony N. Proto,18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, was captured near Tunis on December 23, 1942, when his unit was cut off without ammunition.  He escaped from Camp 59 on September 14 by climbing over the wall with Charles J. Stewart, Co. A, 15th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.  Stewart, much like Proto, had been captured near Tunis on December 23, 1942, when his unit was cut off without ammunition. Walking south they reached a small town near Ascoli on September 17, where they were hidden and fed by the inhabitants who also dyed their uniforms and told them that there was a partisan band on Monte Fiore just south of Ascoli.  Proto and Stewart joined this band on September 25, but left again about five days later when German troops moved in Ascoli and the partisans disbanded. Three or four nights later they contacted an American parachutist [undoubtedly an Office of Strategic Services member of the SIMCOL operation undertaken by the Allies in October during the dark moon periods to assist escapees get back to the Allied lines[5]] who had been dropped behind the lines to assist escapees.  He told them of a scheme for evacuating them by boat from the coast near Giulianova so they set off in that direction and reached the coast on October 6.  Here they found about sixty other escapees waiting for evacuation and a large number of these were evacuated two days later but there was no room for Proto and Stewart. They continued to stay in the neighborhood and after a few days, Proto, who could speak Italian, persuaded an Italian fisherman to take them and three other escapees to the Allied Lines in his boat. The thirteen hour journey was accomplished without event and Proto and his companions reached Termoli (which had been liberated on October 3) on October 16.[6]  

First Sergeant Karl Huddleston, Co. A, 81st Reconnaissance Bn., 1st Armored Division, was captured at Sidi Bou Zid in Tunisia on about February 21, 1943, and eventually ended up at Camp 59. On September 8, 1943, as soon as the news of the Armistice reached the camp, Huddleston took part in planning for the evacuation and dispersal of the camp and the collection of food for this purpose.  Early in September an Italian officer from Ancona got in touch with the Italian interpreter of the camp, unknown to the Camp Commandant, and asked for two prisoners of war to accompany him through the German lines to make contact with the British Forces. Huddleston was one of the two chosen and on September 11, along with Capt. Matheson of the British Army, scaled the wall during the confusion caused by an attempt on the part of the remaining prisoners to storm the gates. Guards fired on them as they left but failed to hit either of them.  As arranged they met the Italian officer who procured civilian clothes, and set off on their journey south. Travelling on foot and by train their route was via Monte Giorgio, Porto San Giorgio, Pescara, Ortona, San Vito, Santa Cruce, and Istonio, which they reached on the morning of September 16. Here the Germans machine-gunned the train in order to compel the occupants to evacuate it but the escapees were not injured and continued their journey by boat and on foot to Termoli where they procured a boat to take them to Bari and reported to Headquarters 15th Army Group.[7]

Nineteen-year old Private Daniel J. McNally, Co. A, 6th Armored Infantry, 1st Armored Division, was captured about 8 miles from Tunis on December 6, 1942, and eventually ended up at Camp 59. On September 14, he left the camp. Walking south alone he was able, after a few days, to exchange his uniform for civilian clothes and grew a mustache for further disguise. Continuing in the direction of the Allied Lines, McNally avoided all towns and highways and received food and shelter from friendly Italian farmers who also gave him news of the Allied advance.  His journey was made without event until, as he neared the battle front, he unexpectedly came upon a German camp but was successful in making his way through it. On October 18, he made his way through the enemy lines at Campobasso and joined British troops.[8]

Sgt. Theodore D. Drazkowski, 514th Bombardment Squadron, 376th Bombardment Group was captured when he bailed out of his crippled plane on the evening of January 11, 1943. He was taken on January 12 to Naples and on February 1, to Camp 59. Drazkowski, left the camp with seven others, through a breach in the wall.

holeinthewall1_smx

Patched hole in the wall, through which Drazkowski and others escaped. Photo credit: Ian McCarthy of the Associazione Casa della Memoria

They proceeded on foot to Monte Palcone and stayed with a friendly farmer for two days.  On September 28 he and three others left for Ascoli Picano, reaching there on October 1 and contacting a partisan band who sheltered them for two more days.  Continuing south they met five American paratroopers [Office of Strategic Services members of the SIMCOL operation] near Penne who advised them of a projected boat evacuation between Pescara and Francavilla on the night of October 10. Drazkowski and his companion met another American escapee and the three of them proceeded on foot to Pescara were they obtained civilian clothes.  That day they saw German troops searching the houses so they retreated to the hills.  On the morning of October 10 two more American soldiers joined the party and all five walked to the rendezvous area.  They waited there until 2am without result, and continued along the coast until they contacted a partisan band who fed and sheltered them for two days.  After an unsuccessful attempt to obtain a boat,  Drazkowski and one of his party left together to walk to the Allied Lines.  They crossed the Maiella Mountains and walked south for 12 more days, reaching Torella on October 25 and staying there until October 31. On that date they passed through the enemy lines and contacted advanced Canadian troops on the morning of November 1, 1943, near Campobasso.[9]

Private Edward M. Greenberg, HQ Co., 1st Bn., 18th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, was captured on December 23, 1942 at Mehez-elBab, Tunisia. On September 14 he took part in the mass exodus from Camp 59. With two companies he walked across country to a village a few miles southwest of Ascoli Picano. While hiding in a civilian home for eight days he received information that all escapees were heading for Monte del Fiori and an Italian Captain told him that several thousand escapees had joined the partisans in the hills. Greenberg spent a week with the partisans who were then ordered to retreat so he and his companions headed in a southeasterly direction. Some civilians told the party of four paratroopers [members of the SIMCOL operation] who had been dropped behind the lines to aid escapees. Greenberg and his companions were conducted to these paratroopers who told them of a scheme to evacuate them from a beach just north of Giulianova. Guided by the paratroopers the party reached the rendezvous area on the night of October 6.  They gave the pre-arranged signals on the nights of October 7, 9, and 11 without result, so Greenberg and other escapees of the party decided to work out their own evacuation.  One of the party persuaded an Italian fisherman to take them to Termoli and, in spite of the presence of German troops in the town, Greenberg and his companions successfully evaded them and boarded the boat on the night of October 11 and reached Termoli on the morning of October 12 where they reported to Allied troops. [10]

PFC Harold S. Arneson, Co. I, 181st Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division was captured in Tunisia while on daylight patrol with nine others when they ran into a German ambush of about 45 men and were forced to surrender.  Arneson was taken to Tunis by train and from there he was flown to Palermo, handed over to the Italians and placed in Camp 98, on May 17, 1943 was transferred to Camp 59.  Arneson with PFC Arnold L. Anderson, escaped from Camp 59 on September 14. Anderson, 151st Field Artillery Battalion, 34th Infantry Division, had been captured by the Germans on March 10, 1943, in North Africa. On March 30 he was taken by plane to Palermo and handed over to the Italians who took him to Camp 98 where he remained for two days and was then transferred to Camp 59. Arneson and Anderson walked about ten miles until they came to a house where they were well received by an Italian family.  They stayed here for a week, but seeing that the Italians were apprehensive about the treatment they might receive at the hands of the Germans should they be found sheltering escapees, they moved on.  They traveled all that night on foot and the next day they came to another family who kept them for about three weeks. However here they could not get any news of Allied positions so they decided to move on.  They started off walking towards the front lines obtaining food and shelter wherever they could.  They followed along the foothills of the mountains, crossing the Gran Sasso and the Maiella ranges. After making their way down to Pescara, they spent about a month trying to get through the German lines. Finally with the help of a guide they passed through the lines and succeeded in contacting British forces on December 26, 1943 near the town of Guardiagrele. [11]

Private Hilbert H. Balk, No. 1 Commando, detached from 168th Infantry Regiment, was captured by the Germans in Tunisia on December 1, 1942, while on a mission to harass enemy transport and troops behind the lines at Biserto.  He and nine other prisoners were flown to Palermo on December 2, 1942 and from there to Camp 66 at Capua. On January 13, 1943, he was taken to Camp 59 where he remained until the time of the Armistice.  On September 14 Balk left Camp 59 and, with two American companions, walked southwest to a town about 20 miles from camp. At this point his companions left him and he continued alone walking for two days to the town of Portella. Here he met two more American escapees and spent four days hiding with them in a dry river bed after which the party continued south, avoiding main roads and walking at night until they reached the vicinity of Ascoli. At this point they were contacted by four paratroopers [members of the SIMCOL operation] who had been dropped behind the lines to aid escapees and told of a scheme to evacuate escapees from a beach one mile north of Giulianova. Guided by these paratroops they reached the rendezvous area on October 6.  They gave the prearranged signals on the nights of October 7, 9, and 11 without result so Balk and other members of the party decided to work out their own evacuation.  One of the party persuaded an Italian fisherman to take them to Termoli and, in spite of the presence of German troops in the town, Balk and his companions successfully evaded them and boarded the boat on night of October 11 and reached Termoli on the morning of October 12, where they reported to Allied troops. [12]

Private Roland B. Light, Co. C, 18th infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division while attempting, with thirty other men of his regiment, to take a hill position near Medjes El Bab, in late December 1942, was captured by the Germans.  They were removed to Tunis where they remained for four days after which Light was removed to Sicily and placed in Camp 98. He remained at this camp for one month and in the early part of February was taken to Italy by boat and then by train to Camp 59.  On September 14 Light with four other prisoners escaped from the camp and set out for the woods where they remained in hiding for three weeks. At the end of this period the party separated and Light and a companion set out on foot and worked their way to Pescara. They crossed the Pescara River without incident, in a small boat and traveled on until they reached Chieti. While in Chieti they had their British Battle-dress uniform dyed black and received help from an American citizen living in the town.  On learning that the Fascist Headquarters was in Chieti they lost no time in leaving and headed southwest, he and his companion reached a point north of Ortona, where they were picked up by the Germans, who mistook them for Italians, and put them to work. That night the two men slipped away from their guards and headed for Allied Lines.  On December 29, 1943, they met an advance party of Canadians in the vicinity of Tollo.[13]

Private Lawrence J Ruzzo, 2nd Bn, 509th Parachute Regiment, at the time of the Italian Armistice was a POW in Camp 59, having been captured on December 28, 1942, while trying to get back to the Allied lines after an attack on a bridge at El Djem, Tunisia.  On September 14, Ruzzo with 30 other Americans, traveled south until 3am when the party split up to facilitate travel and Ruzzo with Sgt. Russell Jobusch (formerly of Co. A, 168th Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, attached at time of capture to No. 1 Commando (British), had been captured on December 1, 1942 during a raid on an enemy strong point near Bizerta) and Private John Savageau (509th Parachute Regiment, who had been captured December 27, 1942 during an attack on a bridge behind enemy lines at El Djem, Tunisia) set off in a southeasterly direction. Travelling always by night and hiding in the daytime, the party bypassed Ascoli and passed west of Chieti resting three days at a small village. The party then walked to a village west of Ortanova where they were shown a track which took them to the advancing British troops.[14]

For more on prisoners that were not able to return to Allied lines until 1944, read Part II.


[1] Memo, H. J. Byrnes, Maj., Officer Commanding, Allied Screening Commission (Italy) to G-2 (P/W), AFHQ, CMF, Subject: Allied prisoners of war held in Italian Concentration Camps prior to September 8th, 1943, January 15, 1945, File 2-5 Correspondence with G-2 (PW) AFHQ CMF File July 1944-March 1945, General Correspondence (NAID 25777725) Allied Screening Commission (Italy), Records of the Allied Screening Commission (Italy) and Prisoner of War Claims Screening Commission, Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331.

[2] Lt. Edwin R. Korth, 2nd Lt., A.C., Prisoner of War Camp Conditions Report-Italy, MIS-X Section, POW Branch, July 23, 1943, File: Italy-6950, Regional File, 1922-1944 (NAID 1560885), Military Intelligence Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165.

[3] Memo, P. V. Holder, Maj., A. C., Comdg. Headquarters, 2621 Platoon (Special) (Overhead) to Commanding General, North African Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [First Sergeant Karl Huddleston, US Army], October 25, 1944, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207) Allied Screening Commission (Italy), Records of the Allied Screening Commission (Italy) and Prisoner of War Claims Screening Commission, Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331; [     ],  Black List No. 1, n.d., ca. August, 1944, File 3-5 Black Lists, General Correspondence (NAID 25777725), RG 331.

[4] Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Lawrence J. Ruzzo], December 3, 1944, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331; Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Anthony N. Proto], December 3, 1944, ibid.; [     ],  Black List No. 2, September [    ], 1944, File 3-5 Black Lists, General Correspondence (NAID 25777725), RG 331.

[5] The SIMCOL operation was commanded by Lt. Col. A. C. (Tony) Simonds, head of the Cairo office of M.I.9 (technically, “N” Section of “A” Force). The operation to help escapees was set in motion at the end of September and put into operation the first days of October 1943. The plan was to drop uniformed parties by parachute along the Italian coast where they would contact ex-prisoners of war and escort or direct them to four pre-selected rendezvous points on the coast. At those points they would be met at prearranged times by parties coming by sea who would embark them to Allied territory. The troops forming the operational parties were drawn from the First Airborne Division (British), the 2 Special Air Service Regiment, the Office of Strategic Services (part of an Operational Group, consisting of Italian-Americans), and No. 1 Special Force of Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE personnel would be involved in the SIMCOL seaborne operations, under the Senior Naval Officer Landing Adriatic.

[6] Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Anthony N. Proto], December 3, 1944, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331; Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Charles J. Stewart], December 3, 1944, ibid.

[7] Memo, P. V. Holder, Maj., A. C., Comdg. Headquarters, 2621 Platoon (Special) (Overhead) to Commanding General, North African Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [First Sergeant Karl Huddleston, US Army], October 25, 1944, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331.

[8] Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Daniel J. McNally], December 3, 1944, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331.

[9] Memo, Philip V. Holder, Lt. Col., GSC. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Sgt. Theodore D. Drazkowski], May 29, 1945, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331.

[10] Memo, Philip V. Holder, Lt. Col., GSC. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Edward M. Greenberg], June 3, 1945, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331.

[11] Memo, Philip V. Holder, Lt. Col., GSC. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [PFC Harold S. Arneson], May 29, 1945, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331.; Memo, Philip V. Holder, Lt. Col., GSC. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [PFC Arnold L. Anderson], May 31, 1945, ibid.

[12] Memo, Philip V. Holder, Lt. Col., GSC. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Hilbert H. Balk], June 2, 1945, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331.

[13] Memo, Philip V. Holder, Lt. Col., GSC. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Roland B. Light], May 28, 1945, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331. Identity Card is from the series Identity Cards for American Prisoners of Italian Army  (Entry UD 1024), Records of the Allied Screening Commission (Italy), Records of Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331

[14] Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private Lawrence J. Ruzzo], December 3, 1944, Bronze Star Medal Recommendations Oct. 1944-June 1945 (NAID 68121207), RG 331; Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal [Private John Savageau], December 3, 1944, ibid.; Memo, Richard N. Tandler, Lt. Col., A.C. G-2 (P/W) Section, Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 to Commanding General, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Subject: Recommendation for Award of Bronze Star Medal Sergeant Russell Jobusch], December 3, 1944, ibid.

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