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I made two audio recordings with my father, Armie Hill, about his war experiences. This account of Camp 59 is from the second recording he made, on August 1987.
I just learned today, in reading Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi’s dissertation on the prisoners of war, that the doctor Armie refers to is actually J. H. D. Millar, not A. B. Miller, as Armie recalled. My corrections are in brackets.
“I was in a prison camp in Tunis until we were flown across to Sicily. I was in prison camp on Sicily—Camp 98.
“Just before the Allies landed in Sicily, I was taken by a transport to Italy and then by train to a prison camp in northern Italy—Camp 59. The British ran that camp. When I got to the camp I was in bad shape. I couldn’t even walk. Some of the Italians were in charge. They ordered us off the back of the truck. I couldn’t even get up at the back of the truck so they had some of the fellows carry me to an area that was like a small hospital within the prison camp. I was there for a couple of weeks. The doctor said I had rheumatic fever and he gave me about 10 aspirins a day.
“I got more rations there. In a bunk by me was a British soldier who was ready to die. He was just skin and bone almost. He had tuberculosis. He couldn’t eat anything, so he gave me all his rations. He ate a few bites and then he gave me the rest of his rations. He was a really nice fellow. We talked. He was from Great Britain. I can always remember the doctor’s name because they called him Alphabet Miller—his name was A. B. Miller. [Note: The doctor’s name was J. H. D. Millar, and the three initials help to explain why the men might have called him 'Alphabet Millar.'] In time he was put in charge of the camp. In got to know him when I was sick.
Private 1st Class Francis A. (Frank or Francesco) Thomas, of Muskegon, Michigan enlisted in the army in 1942, was quickly trained for combat and became part of Operation TORCH, the first American military involvement in the European conflict of WWII. Operation TORCH involved various invasions of North Africa, with the intent of capturing North Africa and moving north across the Mediterranean Sea into and through Italy. Frank was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division – the Big Red One – and served in the 18th Regiment, 4th Platoon, 1st Battalion, C Company. He was captured in Tunisia at the battle for Long Stop Hill on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1942. He and others captured were shipped north to Campo #98 in Palermo, Sicily, where he was held for 10 days and fed only twice, then to Campo #59 near Servigliano, Italy. He was a POW there until the Italian Armistice allowed a general escape on September 14, 1943. He was then aided by the Italian people in the area and settled in the area of Comunanza (20 km SW) where a family kept him and his comrade, Guss Teel from New Mexico and an Englishman safe from the Germans who were constantly looking for the escapees (usually successfully). His “home” was a hunting shed for the next nine months until the American forces coming north repatriated him in June, 1944.
Camp 59 issued its own paper currency for use by prisoners. The money had no value outside the camp, and so could not be used for bribes.
Armie with his youngest son, Dennis, at home in Phelps, Wisconsin. July 1961.
As the youngest of Armie and Eini Hill’s four children, I was affectionately called “the kid” by my siblings.
As a boy, I liked to rummage in my dad’s old Army trunk, which was full of treasures, including his medals, photographs, and foreign coins. I asked questions, but Dad let me know when it was time to shut the trunk and return to the present.
Growing up, I didn’t know much about my dad’s prison camp experience. He rarely talked about it. Once in awhile, he would count in Italian for us kids, “Uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto, nove, dieci….” And he’d explain, “I used to count the men in Italian, in the prison camp, every morning.”
Sometimes he would wake at night crying out, “Who’s there! Who’s there!” And I knew he had been dreaming about the war and being hunted after his escape from the prison camp.
In 1976, when I was in college, I got my dad to tell his story on tape. The taped story began in August 1942, when he and his fellow troops left the States, and ended with his work as a guard at the Port of Embarkation in New York City near the end of the war.
In 1987, my dad again recorded a part of his story for me on tape, this time beginning with his induction in 1941 and ending with his return to the States after the escape from Camp 59. The second tape had new details of his war and POW experiences.
In presenting his story here, I’m rely on these taped accounts, as well as letters he sent home, the notebook he kept while a prisoner, and other documents he saved over the years.