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This note reads:

“SEC. No 11. received from Canteen 30 KILOS of onions at 3 LIRE per kilo TOTAL LIRE = 90 Lire To be payed on the 16/9/43.

“8/IX/1943 [signed] Armie Hill Sec. Sergt.”

This scrap of paper, which was both a receipt for onions received and an I.O.U. for payment owed, was in Armie Hill’s pocket when he escaped from Camp 59 on September 14, 1943.

Armie was the Section 11 “section sergeant,” the serviceman who was put in charge of the 35 American servicemen who lived with him in Hut 4—Section 11.

The date of the receipt is written 8/IX/1943, seemingly a combination of Arabic and Roman numerals. If this is the case, then the transaction date was September 8, 1943—the day the Italian Armistice was signed.

And the due date for payment was September 16, 1943—two days after breakout from the camp.

It’s interesting to learn the price on onions from this slip (paid for in special Camp 59 POW money, of course), and to know that at least on occasion purchase of food on credit was allowed.


On August 4, 1942 Robert Dickinson wrote in his diary:

“A new invention in the camp ‘a Blower’. Denis has got cracking and has made lots of improvements and now we have a blower. Affair of wheels and belts and a fan. Turn the wheel slow and get about 1000 revs a minute, guaranteed to burn charcoal (other peoples embers), socks and even sawdust.”

In the drawing above this poem, an ode to the evening “brew,” by Cpl. D. Nevitt, a camp cookstove, or ‘blower,’ is shown in remarkable detail.

The Brew,
it must go through

I have passed some weary times,
Trying hard to make up rhymes,
But now I think I’ve found one that will do;
It’s about a thing we say
Every evening, every day,
That’s our motto: “The Brew, it must go through.”

Every night there can be seen,
’Tween the wall and hut thirteen,
Scores of men all kneeling down, and what a crew,
There they waft and there they blow,
Private, sergeant, W.O.
Never mind the rank, the brew it must go through.

If H.Q. could only see
Those sergeant-majors on one knee,
They would cry “what is our army coming to”?
If they had one scoop per day,
I’m sure that they would say,
“Most decidedly, the brew it must go through.”

There are patent fire cans,
Ovens, stoves and frying pans,
And they’ve even got a new invention too;
It’s a belt-propelled affair,
Wails and whines, and blows out air,
And all because the brew it must go through.

But the fuel’s very poor,
Old socks, cardboard, even straw,
But we do get wood sometimes, it’s true;
But if we use much more;
We’ll be sleeping on the floor,
But even then the brew it must go through.

Men have suffered many times
For this noblest of all crimes
And they’ve had to pay a lot of lire too,
So raise your brews and drink
To those martyrs in the clink,
And the toast is to the brew that must go through.

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.

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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.

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