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Private First Class Felice Vacca

I first heard about Felice “Phil” Vacca when his son Mario wrote to me last January:

“My father, Felice Vacca, escaped from PG 59 along with Peter Calvagno, Edmond Petrelli, Joe Mandese and Tony Spicola. I have visited the camp twice. I do have some history if you are interested.”

When I wrote back that of course I was very interested, Mario then sent me a long, detailed account of Phil’s experiences.

Mario had clearly invested a great deal of thought and effort into recording his father’s story. The format he chose was that of a scholarly research paper, complete with extensive footnotes, cross references to historical accounts of the war in North Africa (where Phil was captured), and links to web resources.

What I am posting here, with Mario’s permission, has been taken from that larger paper. Although I’ve removed the notes and references to external sources, the posts contain Phil’s full account of his experiences as well as additional details provided by Mario’s brother Jim.

Mario’s brother Tony was a resource for the paper, too. It was Tony who, when stationed in Italy during the 1960s, found the Virgili family—Phil’s protectors after his escape from Camp 59.

Two posts on this site related to Phil’s story. The account of his cousin Bucky’s death is in the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial post. And the story of Tony’s 1968 visit to Camp 59 is documented in Twenty-five Years After the Escape.

This first part of Phil’s story begins with Phil’s family origins and covers his life through capture and transport as a POW to Italy. “Camp 59 and Escape” will cover the remainder of his time in Italy, and “War’s End” will wrap up his final military experience.

Felice “Phil” Vacca

The Account of His Capture and Escape During World War II

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Phil in uniform

My father, Felice Domenick Vacca, was born in America on October 5, 1919. His nickname was Phil.

Phil was also known as Felice Rocco. I’m not certain why the Rocco name. Phil often explained the Rocco name by saying you had one name for your family and one name for business.

In November 1903, Phil’s father immigrated to America from Italy at the age of 15. His name as it appears on his immigration papers is Dominick Angelo Antonio Rocco. His name as it appears on the ship’s manifest is Domenicangelo Vacca. However, Phil’s step-grandfather was Vitale Felice Dominick Vacca, but he went by Felice Vacca. Confused? So am I.

Family history might help explain where the last name Rocco came from. Around 1888, there was a wealthy Vacca known as Cosmo Damiano Vacca who lived in Castelpetrosso, Italy. He was married to Terenziana Notte. They had two sons—Annibale and Gaetano—and a daughter, Delina.

Cosmo’s wife became ill and died young. A good neighbor, Aldino Cifelli, sent his daughter, Fiorangela Cifelli, to Cosmo’s house to do housework. Cosmo had an affair with her and she became pregnant.

At the same time, a crippled shoemaker who lived in the neighborhood, Vitale Felice Vacca, happened to be looking for a wife. Cosmo Vacca offered him Fiorangela as a wife, provided that Vitale would make Cosmo a pair of shoes.

Fiorangela must not have been showing her pregnancy.

Vitale Felice Vacca accepted the arrangement and the couple married. Shortly after their marriage a baby boy, Dominick Angelo Antonio Vacca, was born. When Vitale Felice figured out what had happened, he wanted to send Fiorangela back to her family.

Cosmo Vacca, the real father, offered Vitale Felice Vacca a lamb if he would keep Fiorangela. He also asked Fiorangela’s mother to encourage Vitale Felice to take her back. He took Fiorangela back, and they raised Dominick Angelo Antonio together and had children of their own.

Domenick Angelo Antonio’s half brothers and half sisters were: Tommaso (Thomas Alec), Carmine Raffaele (born June 22, 1892), Rocco Berardino (Benjamin or Benny—born December 12, 1895), and Antonietta (born April 4, 1898).

Phil talked of his Uncle Benny coming to visit while he was growing up. There is a picture of Uncle Benny in the family album, and I presume that Uncle Benny is Rocco Berardino Vacca and hence that is where the alias Rocco comes from.

Phil’s mother, Jeanette Linico, was born in the U.S. to Italian immigrants. Phil grew up in a home in New Jersey where Italian was spoken—speaking Italian was to be very useful to him in time.

Phil never shared much of his childhood experiences with us. He grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. His family didn’t have much, although Phil did have a favorite toy as a child—a bronze horse figurine. The horse—a part from someone’s discarded table lamp—was something Phil’s sister, Angelina, would keep for many years.

Angelina was a year younger than Phil, and he was very protective of her. At some point when Phil was young, his mother divorced his father. When their mom was unable to properly feed her children, Phil and Angelina were placed in an orphanage. I am not sure how long the two were separated, but when things got better they were reunited with their mother.

For a period of time, Phil was raised by his mother’s brother, Uncle Buck (Battista Linico Sr.), while his sister remained with their mother. Uncle Buck’s son, Battista Jr., was two years younger than Phil. The boys became close friends and Bucky was like a little brother to Phil.

Phil often told us that when he was a kid, he and his friends used to scrape up a nickel to go and see a movie. They always stayed for the second showing. When the second movie started, they would make a ruckus and get booted out. Their money was summarily refunded, so they returned to see another movie the next week.

To make money, Phil delivered newspapers. His daily route took him by the Lindbergh house during the time of the famous Lindbergh kidnapping. By the time he was 17, Phil joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. While in the CCC, he worked hard and earned enough money to open a savings account and buy some land.

At age 21, 11 months before Pearl Harbor was attacked, Phil and Bucky, joined the Army together. About two years later Phil would be a prisoner of war.

Phil told us that when he was listed as “missing in action,” his sister and mother took his property and cleaned out his bank account.

To add insult to injury, upon his return his mother—wanting his life insurance money—said to him, “We would have been better off if you had never returned.”

He never spoke to his mother again, and failed to attend her funeral.

Although Phil told us he didn’t speak to his sister again, it wasn’t true. Pictures of his return from the war tell a different story.

Phil moved to North Dakota after the war and never returned to New Jersey. I was younger and really knew nothing of my relatives out East. There had to be an occasional but infrequent phone call. Phil had an Aunt Linico that he always talked about and that was the first relative on his side that I ever met. Perhaps she moderated conversations—I really don’t know.

I learned years later that upon his return, Phil brought a pair of white leather shoes for Angelina’s young daughter, Phyllis. Phyllis tells us that the shoes had gotten wet and the family, knowing how expensive they were, put them on the wood stove to dry. The shoes shrank and no longer fit her, but they never told Phil.

When Phil’s son Jim was burned in an accidental fire, Angelina, on learning the news, worked an extra job to send money to help pay Jim’s medical bills.

Later in his life, Phil worked for Garrison Powerhouse in North Dakota. A contracting company from Philadelphia, Franklin Engineering, was hired to perform studies for the company. By coincidence, Phil learned from the contractor of a Vacca who worked for Franklin Engineering. A meeting was arranged for Phil to meet this Philadelphia Vacca, and that trip, in May 1981, brought him to a final family reunion. It had been 37 years since Phil and his sister had spoken to each. On their meeting, Angelina returned Phil’s “toy” horse.

Over the years we were told lots of short stories—what led to Phil’s capture, his treatment while a prisoner of war, and how the Italian people sacrificed so much to help him.

Phil was a hero, but he never acted like it. As life went on, his memories faded. He seemed a broken man, not the proud and feisty person we saw in pictures of him from before and just after the war. The experience of being captured early in the war, humiliated, and mistreated by his “own” people took its toll. Phil often broke into tears when he talked about the war. It was only later in life that he found the ex-POW organization, which allowed him to open up and share his story as he became friends with others who had suffered similar fates.

How Phil actually escaped has always been a mystery to me. After reaching the American lines he signed a nondisclosure statement, vowing never to tell the details of the escape. Years later, he wrote to the Department of the Army, asking for permission to disclose those details. The government’s reply was ambiguous. It only added to the mystery and my desire to know what happened.

Phil Vacca and his cousin, Battista “Bucky” Linico, enlisted in the U.S. Army under the “buddy system” at the post office in Trenton, New Jersey, on January 3, 1941. The United States would not declare war until December 11 of that year. Jobs were scarce and Phil was paid $21 a month. When he enlisted, he figured there might be a war. As he put it, “the Germans were taking over a lot of countries.”

Phil and Bucky were sent to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York, for training. Both became members of the 18th Infantry, Company A, of the 1st Division (the “Big Red One”). The 1st Division, at the time scattered across the country, was reorganized with the 16th, 18th and 26th Infantries, located at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

They were at Fort Devens when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941.

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Phil practicing with the B.A.R.

The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war against the Japanese Empire. Three days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and Congress responded by recognizing a state of war with the Axis powers.

Phil and Bucky spent that winter and spring in Camp Blanding, Florida, and then at Fort Benning, Georgia. Most of that time was spent practicing boat landings. From there, Phil and Bucky went on to Indiantown Gap Military Reservation in Pennsylvania, and then they boarded a train to New York City.

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Picture found in Phil’s memorabilia

On August 2, 1942, the First Division boarded the Queen Mary for England. It was the first time a complete division was carried on a ship. The 1st Armored Infantry Division (15,125 troops, 863 crew) was comprised of three regiments of infantry: the 16th, 18th, and 26th. Craps was the game of choice while en route.
On August 7, the ship disembarked at Gourock, Scotland.

By August 9, the regiments and other division troops had moved into Tidworth Barracks near Salisbury in southern England to continue practicing maneuvers. Phil remembers passing through Stonehenge during one of these maneuvers. He later joked that he got to pee on Stonehenge.

Stonehenge is about halfway between Tidworth and Salisbury, just west of the town of Amesbury and 90 miles west of London.

An Allied command decision was made on September 5 to attempt landings at three sites in Morocco and at half a dozen beaches around Algiers and Oran.

Packed into over 200 ships that were part of an 850-ship convoy coming from England and the U.S. mainland, the invasion forces began their journey to war. Where they were going was unknown to the men. The time and exact places of attack were a mystery. They headed out of the English Channel on the morning of October 27. The armada zigzagged in many directions to mislead German air or water reconnaissance patrols about the final destination of the invading fleet.

En route to North Africa, the troop ships traveled to Greenland and then crossed the equator in the attempt to fool the reconnaissance.

On November 1, officers were briefed about the impending attack. On November 6, the silent convoy headed for the pass to the Mediterranean at the Rock of Gibraltar. The 18th Infantry was to land on beaches a few miles east of Oran, near the area’s second principal port town of Arzew.

At 12:55 a.m. on November 8, General Terry Allen ordered the assault forces of the “Big Red One” to head for the beaches.

Allen and a larger portion of his 1st Division descended on Oran from the sandstone hills above St. Cloud, a key crossroads east of the city. At mid-afternoon, the battalion attacked once more, down the road from Renan, joined by the 2nd Battalion in an attempt to outflank the defenders on the south.

Upon landing, the sign and countersign was “Hi Ho Silver” and “Away!” Failing to respond correctly had dire consequences. One soldier was shot for failing to do so. The bullet lodged in his Browning automatic rifle ammunition belt, which saved his life.

The Army had trained Phil well. He was an excellent marksman with a B.A.R. and a 45-caliber pistol.

“I had a chance to take out a French soldier,” Phil said. “We had been told the French would not fight, so I decided not to fire.”

St. Cloud was a town of 3,500 inhabitants, with sturdy stone dwellings surrounded by vineyards. The town had been reinforced with the 16th Tunisian Infantry Regiment of the 1st Battalion of the Foreign Legion, an artillery battalion, and paramilitary troops of the Service d’Ordre Légionnaire.

“A sniper positioned in a bell tower had us pinned down,” Phil said. “I used my B.A.R. and painted a cross with several rounds across the sniper’s window. The sniper was never heard from again.

“We spent one night in a cemetery. That was the scariest night of my life.”

Sometime during the battle for St. Cloud, Phil witnessed his cousin Bucky’s death. Bucky’s mother would receive news by telegram that he was killed in action in the “Western European Area” on November 10. He was 21 years old. (add link)

The 1st then proceeded to St. Cloud and on to the Tunisian front.

Phil said, “On the night of December 22, 1942, we climbed up the mountain to take our position. We put up a battle on the morning of December 23. The German’s Afrika Korps was waiting for us.

“My squad sergeant was killed in the action. Before he was killed, he ordered me to move to another spot.” After he took Phil’s former position, the sergeant was shot.

About 7:30 or 8 a.m. on December 23, Phil became a POW. He later recalled the weather was cloudy and misty in the mountains of Tunisia and on the hill called Longstop, later renamed Hill 609.

In Phil’s words, “Of our company of roughly 250 men, half to two-thirds were gone. Upon orders of the captain, most of the men surrendered. In our platoon, I was the gunner with the B.A.R. rifle. Upon my capture I dislodged the trigger mechanism, which fell apart and could not be used. I did have two hand grenades in my overcoat pocket. I gave them to the German soldier, who handled them very carefully. The German also threw the bipod for my B.A.R. well out of reach. It weighed around two-and-a-half pounds.”

“The captain of our company was Jewish.” Phil said. “After being captured, he managed to lose his dog tags. Otherwise the Germans would have treated him differently.

“We were ordered to march in a group to the city of Tunis, where we were herded into a large barn. The German major who was there said to us, ‘We are going to lose the war, but we are going to make it hell for you.’

“The major had gone to college in Montana and still had a girlfriend there. We receive no food the night of December 23. On December 24, we were interrogated by German officers. Questions asked were: When did we leave the U.S.A? How many men were in the outfit? Et cetera. The Germans knew more about the war than we did. They told us when, where, and dates of our leaving the U.S.A. Our meal that night consisted of bread and jelly.

“Our company commander, a captain, was taken with us to Tunis. That was the last we saw of him. He was flown to Germany. All soldiers and non-coms were with us. It was assumed that all officers were taken to a camp of their own for special interrogation. The difference in rank had no effect on me. At the time of our capture they told us our family would be notified. At that time the Germans made a recording, having each soldier give his name and state that he was from the front lines. There were gun sounds in the background.

“The Germans split the captured prisoners. Although we were captured by the Germans, we were handed over to the Italians. The Germans flew theirs to Germany and the Italians took theirs to Italy. We were loaded on an Italian destroyer and taken to Palermo, Sicily—arriving there late that same night.

“To the Germans we were soldiers. To the Italians we were traitors. As we disembarked, the Italian soldiers had to keep the Italian people away. Our names were called out as we walked down the gangplank. The Italian mob was jabbing their fingers trying to hit us in the eyes and spit on us as they heard our names being called. Us, being of Italian descent, did not agree with them. They shouted, ‘Come combattete la vostra propria anima!’ (You come and fight against your own blood!) At Palermo, they placed us in a riding stable and we were checked out by a doctor. On December 25, we had soup for Christmas dinner.

“When we arrived in Palermo, we received orders that all those of Italian decent would be sent to Rome for interrogations.

“We were later taken by truck to Camp P.G. 98 near Monreale, Sicily—out in the country near a mountain pass about 20 km from Palermo. Camp P.G. 98 had tents—about 75 to 100 feet long and 30 feet wide—sort of two tents in one unit, with about two feet space between them. We had no heat. The beds were made of wood frames—double-deckers with straw mattresses. Food was rice soup with a slice of bread. The latrine was an open pit style. Wire enclosed the camp.

Story continued in “Felice ‘Phil’ Vacca, Part 2—Camp 59 and Escape.”

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