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Official letter concerning Armie Hill’s destroyed military records

An inquirer to this site wrote to me last fall that in his search for military records concerning his father, he had come up short. He explained, “I do have a copy of the SF-180, but since the fire in 1973 his official army records may never be known.”

In 1991, my own father, Armie Hill, learned of that fire when, in response to my family’s urging, he wrote to Congressional representative Toby Roth about possible eligibility for a medal he had not received but might be entitled to—the Silver Star.

When I interviewed my dad about his war experiences in 1976, he had told me that after leaving Camp 59, he and fellow escapee Ben Farley were among the first to reach the Allied line—having traveled some 300 miles from Servigliano through the mountains of central Italy to Termoli in just 31 days.

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This undated newspaper photo was clipped and saved by British former prisoner-of-war Denis Crooks.

The source, the Evening Standard, is evidently the London Evening Standard.

The caption reads:

“‘Welcome Home’ Sign in Italy

“So many Allied officers and men are escaping through the enemy lines to the Eighth Army that directional signs have been put up for them. One of the signs in the village of Vinchiaturo.”

[The stenciled sign in the photo reads "ALLIED EX POW REPORT HERE."]

Two Transfer of Personnel Documents

Document No. 1—November 3, 1943

The following “transfer of personnel” document—my father Sergeant Armie Hill’s “ticket home” after reunion with the Allied forces following his escape—was framed and proudly displayed on our living room wall for many years when I was a child.

Armie and his escape companion Ben Farley made it to the Allied lines in 31 days, having traveled an estimated 300 miles on foot through the mountains in order to evade recapture. They escaped on September 14 and arrived at the British Eighth Army line on October 15.

These eight men were the first prisoners to turn up, and Armie later said, “They didn’t know what to do with us.”

All eight escapees listed in this document escaped from Camp 59 in Servigliano.

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Sergeant Armie S. Hill, circa 1943. I carried this photograph of my father with me to Roccafluvione and to the site of Camp 59, where he was a prisoner.

Strada Caserine winds up a mountainside westward from Roccafluvione. American servicemen Armie Hill and Ben Farley were led up this road by children to a farm where the family of Angela Bianchini offered them protection.

View into a rain-soaked valley from half way up Strada Caserine.

The story of how my father, Armie Hill, and Kentuckian Ben Farley were befriended in the town of Roccafluvione is recorded in an earlier post, “Armie’s Italian Angels.”

Take a moment to review Armie’s account, as it will help you appreciate the adventure described here—a September 2010 journey to Roccafluvione.

I had hoped to meet relatives of the Italians who had sheltered the two men. My friend Anne Bewicke-Copley said the way to get advance word out at Roccafluvione was to contact the town bars—the social hubs of the community.

In early August, I sent letters—translated into Italian—to the four bars in Roccafluvione. I also sent a letter to a city office—to the segreteria of the commune.

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Before traveling to Italy, I thought I had a good sense of what Camp 59 was like—the layout of the camp, construction of the buildings, and the encompassing brick walls.

Of course, no former POW’s story of how things were in the camp—or even actual photographs I had been sent of Camp 59—could convey so complete a sense of the place as I experienced on walking though the camp for the first time in September.

From within the walls, I could look in all directions, touch the soil, feel the autumn Italian sun on my skin, hear birds and see them flying overhead.

The camp today is a community park called Il Parco della Pace (the Park of Peace), with green lawns, shrubs, trees, and playing fields and courts for soccer, basketball, and other sports.

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Camp 59 and the blog dedicated to it

Coming upon their POW relatives on the web leads these two to Servigliano

Il Resto del Carlino
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Caption: Englishman Steve Dickins[on] and American Dennis Hill in front of the wall through which their uncle and father managed an escape. [Note: Steve’s uncle Robert was transferred from Camp 59 before the September 1943 escape; however, around that same time Robert escaped from the camp where he was held.]

MEMORIES—The meeting between an American and an Englishman, the son and nephew of two interned soldiers

They wanted news about the Servigliano refugee camp, from which their relatives fled in 1943. In doing research on the Internet, the two discovered the blog “Cam[p] 59,” dedicated to the prisoner of war camp in this town. That’s how Englishman Steve Dickinson and American Dennis Hill began a “virtual” friendship, which brought them to Servigliano yesterday—to share their family stories.

Steve’s uncle Robert, a British soldier, was captured in Africa and interned at Servigliano. “I found his diary—a sort of copybook of the Red Cross—where my uncle recorded all his activities through the war and until his death. I read those pages and decided to retrace his steps. When he arrived at Servigliano, on 18 January 1942, he described the landscape as charming, though he explained that hunger did not allow him to enjoy the place.

“At Servigliano he found consolations—his first shower in 24 days, and clean sheets. He escaped through the hole in the wall and headed north, aided people of the area. He became a partisan and settled in Gassino Torinese, which is where he died. His body rests in the Milan war cemetery.”

Armie Hill’s story is different. Dennis’ father was an American soldier who was captured in Africa in 1943 and transferred to Servigliano. “My father escaped through the hole in the wall caused by the bombing,” Dennis said, “But he headed south—to meet the Allies—and he returned home. He recalls in his story [receiving help from] Don Giuseppe Ciabattoni, the rector at Roccafluvione.

Alessio Carassai

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A Dickinson family outing to the beach. At front are Robert, youngest brother Len on the lap of his mother, and his father. In back are brothers James and William.

On this occasion—the Thanksgiving weekend, when American families gather to feast, remember the past, and meditate on their blessings—I’ll pause for a moment to reflect on the universality of family ties.

Here are three families—British, American, and Italian—who have connections to prisoners from Camp 59. The stories of Robert Dickinson, Marino Palmoni, and Armie Hill are well-covered in a number of posts on this site.

In celebration of this holiday, here is an international family album.
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John Davison, his family, and new Italian friends explore the grounds of the old Cararola farm, where Norman Davison was at first assigned to work and where he later found shelter.

Steve Dickinson and Dennis Hill were among visitors to Camp 59, where Steve’s uncle Robert Dickinson and Dennis’ father Armie Hill were imprisoned. At center was the hole in the wall—since mortared shut—through which many prisoners escaped from the camp.

For three individuals who have an intimate family connection to the prisoner-of-war camp at Servigliano, this fall was a unique time for discovery.

John Davison this year made contact with descendants of Giovanni Bellazzi, the northern Italian farmer who sheltered his father, escaped prisoner G. Norman Davison. Giovanni and his friends helped to arrange for Norman’s safe passage to Switzerland.

Norman had been a prisoner at Camp 59 before he was transferred to camps farther north, where he was required to work on farms.

In early September, John and his family visited the town of Vigevano and experienced a thrilling welcome. (See posts In Their Fathers’ Footsteps, Part 1 and Part 2).

Then, at the end of September, Steve Dickinson and I were among visitors to Camp 59 in Servigliano, where Steve’s uncle Robert Dickinson and my father Armie Hill were interned.

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Left: Armie met Eini Seppa on while on leave in Chicago after his return from Europe. The two became engaged and soon after married in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on August 13, 1944. This is their wedding portrait.

Right: Armie and Eini enjoy a warm day at Spectacle Lake in Phelps, Wisconsin, October 1999. Armie died in April 2000.

On this site I’ve posted most of the war interview material I recorded with my father, Armie Hill. This last account covers the time he spent at the end of the war as a guard at the Port of Embarkation in New York City.

This portion of the interview picks up where “Escape—Armie Hill’s First Account” ends. The recording was done in 1976.

To New York City

After the 30 days I reported to Fort Sheridan. It was like going back into basic training again. I had to fill out all of my papers because they had been lost. And I had to have all my shots again and take some basic training.

As I was trained as an army engineer, they looked for an engineering unit that I could be assigned to. Finally the sergeant in charge said that I would be assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There I was to report to the 325th Engineer Battalion. They were called the 100th Division. Many of the fellows there hadn’t had much training. A few of them had had overseas training. I was in Company A. When I reported in at the camp it was a Sunday and a lieutenant was in charge.

He asked me, “Which outfit were you with before you went overseas?”

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Armie Hill landed in Vichy-controlled French North Africa on November 8, 1942 during “Operation Torch,” the Allied invasion.

The following month he sent this holiday card to his family. The French Bonne Année is a wish for “A Happy New Year.” The card pictures a snow-covered village framed by holly and mistletoe and a Christmas herb (possibly rue). In one corner is a horseshoe—symbol of good luck.

On the back Armie wrote:

Wishing you a happy Christmas.
Loads of Love
Armie

The following February Armie was captured at Kasserine Pass. He spent most of the year in captivity.

Happily, the Christmas of 1943 found him celebrating Christmas at home in Phelps, Wisconsin on furlough. Many soldiers who escaped from Camp 59—those who were not killed or recaptured—spent Christmas 1943 hiding in the Italian countryside.

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Al Maly provided this photograph of his father, Joe Maly, taken when Joe was in Italy and while he was being sheltered by the Papiri family of Montefalcone.

To the best of my knowledge the writing on the back of the photo reads:

Montefalcone li 25-6-1944 (A. Piceno)

Mio dovere come patriota, lasciarvi a tutti il ricordo
Famiglia Papiri, Nello Papiri

The first line indicates the village name (Montefalcone Appennino), the date (June 25, 1944), and the province the village was a part of at the time (Ascoli Piceno). Montefalcone is today a part of the newly-formed Province of Fermo.

The next two lines translate as “My duty as a patriot,” plus something along the lines of “I’ll leave you all this record [or keepsake].”

And it is signed,
“Papiri Family, Nello Papiri”

According to Al, the first man standing on the left is a son in the Papiri family. Next to the son is Joe Maly, and beside Joe is James Guillary. The other three men in the photo were also escaped POWs. Joe and “Gilly” were both housed in Hut 4–Section 11 of Camp 59.

Al told me his dad “was one of the men who made it out through the hole in the wall and in his group one of the men was shot. They could not go back for him as they were under fire. He never talked much about the war, only little indirect statements when I was young and a little more detail as I got older and more close to him.”

After the escape, Joe fought with the Italian resistance. He eventually made it to the Polish lines.

Joe passed away in January 2000.

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