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Private First Class George A. Payne

I received an e-mail on May 27 from Julie Payne Williams. Julie wrote she began an archive of the WW II experiences of her father, George Payne, in spring 2003. He passed away in December 2003.

George Payne was a prisoner in Camp 59.

Julie sent me a transcript of an interview she did with her father, photos of him, and documents pertaining to his capture and internment as a POW.

Julie asked whether I might be able to provide information on the Italian civilians who helped her father, the Tirabassi family.

“The Tirabassi family lived in Comunanza,” Julie wrote. “Dad could only remember the name of the father (Francesco, called Paco) and the oldest daughter, Maria. Paco had a wife and a younger daughter also. Maria was around 18—only a year younger than my dad—and a younger (blonde) daughter was around 11.

“Dad always wondered which members of the family, if any, survived the war. He carried around a lot of guilt his entire life from not knowing if they survived or, if they didn’t, if they were killed for helping him.

“The day I interviewed dad was quite a memorable day. The family had gone to a local park. It was Veteran’s Day, of all days, and our city was dedicating a monument to all citizens who had/have served in all wars. It was a big deal.

“And my dad didn’t feel up to going.

“Which, to me, was an even bigger deal.

“He’d been sick (turns out he had cancer and none of us knew—whether or not he knew, we’ll never really know). But I think Paco’s story had more to do with why he didn’t go.

“He didn’t feel worthy.

“He always thought the (fascist) police chief shot Paco for helping him.

“I don’t know if that’s true or not but my dad worried about him for the rest of his life.

“If I could get the answers my father always wanted but was afraid to know, would that be a burden lifted or added? I think it is something I have to pursue, though, to honor him. My eldest brother and my sister are living, but we’ve lost three siblings already. I think the three of us who remain could bear the weight of what we learn.

“Thank you so much for getting back to me and for any help you might be able to provide. I hope any information I provide proves useful in some way.”

Julie told me that her father was a medic, serving in the U.S. Army Infantry’s 133rd Medical Group.

She said, “One man in particular, Robert (Bob) Mattingly never made it to the camp. He and Bob Fry had been wounded so bad my dad stayed with them. So, technically, they were the reason my dad was captured, but there wasn’t anything anyone was going to do that was going to get him to leave them before he got help for them. The best he was able to do was help the Germans get them onto trucks so they could be transported to a field hospital.

“He never knew what happened to either of them for years. He found out Bob Fry died at the field hospital because once he started going to POW meetings and had access to info about others, he looked up Bob Fry and found him in the list of casualties. He expected that because Bob Fry had one leg pretty much ruined from the thigh down and he’d bled out pretty bad.

“But he didn’t hear anything about Bob Mattingly. He assumed Bob Mattingly had died too because he’d been shot through both thighs ‘through and through’ by machine gun fire. He’d bled out bad too and my dad told me about how he’d shown him how to hold his arteries closed so he could look over the other guy.

“He talked about how he had three officers with him and he made them take off their jackets, make litters with their rifles, and then made them help transport the wounded to the trucks.

“Anyway, fast forward to the early 1980’s. My mom and dad arrived at a POW meeting at the same time as another couple who just happened to be Bob Mattingly and his wife Eleanor.”

The Veteran’s day interview follows. It begins with George’s return to the States from overseas and information about escape from the camp is near the end.

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Veteran’s Day Interview

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

We had an escort… (inaudible)… down in the water he’d go… (inaudible)… going over, you know?… (inaudible)… then he’d come back… (inaudible)… nope, we didn’t have to do any duties or nothing out there… (inaudible)… I got a partial payment on my salary, I dunno what it was, a hundred bucks or so, I think, so I got me a chaise lounge, put it right out on the sundeck, you know, that’s where I stayed the whole trip.

The ocean, it just seemed like after the war, it just settled down just as smooth as glass. Old Mother Nature knew. Them rough seas, they kept us up on the way there. Then after the war the whole ocean just felt smooth as glass. I’d lie out there on that chaise lounge and just look up at the moon, I’d just sleep out there all night long. Boy that was luxury. I’d bought a whole box of Hershey candy bars, I’d sit out there eating candy bars.

We pulled into Boston, and we were getting off the ship, some guys were so excited they jumped off. We were pulling into the dock, you know, hell, it must have been two stories from up there on the deck of the ship down to the dock but guys would just jump off there & break their damn legs, you know, they were so excited to get home.

I remember one of them old Sergeants, walking down the gangplank, and he fell over dead from a heart attack. It was the darndest thing.

Camp Miles Standish, that was the most beautiful military camp I was ever in. It was built right in a pine forest, you know. And the regular cabins, the ones that you lived in, there was quite a few of them cabins. Nobody recognized rank anymore, I was in there with a bunch of Master Sergeants, I think, lieutenants & everybody else. We didn’t care who you was or what you was, it didn’t matter.

They yelled chow & I said, “How the hell do you find the chow?” Where was the kitchen, you know? They had paths through the woods, but you couldn’t see any other barracks or anything, I didn’t know what the hell path to take to go eat, you know?

We weren’t there very long. Just a day or two. I don’t even know what we stopped there for. It was someplace for the ship to dock, I guess. Then we got on a train.

They took us all the way to, oh, down in Missouri there. Fort Leonard Wood. Maybe it was Fort Leonard Wood, I guess. They put us in the barracks there maybe a day or so. They processed us, gave us our travel orders to go home. But first they ran us all through a barracks where they gave us all brand new uniforms, everything was brand new. Boots, pants, shirts, everything new.

They had a bunch of German prisoners there.

They were putting regulars & stripes & stuff, whatever your unit was, decorating your uniform. That was in ’45.

I had travel orders. I still got the travel orders. Ya, in there (pointing to bedroom).

They thought of everything. Everybody else, a lot of guys, they didn’t want travel orders. They just wanted to take the money & get home the best way they could, you know. But, no, I thought, I’ll take government transportation. So, I let Uncle Sam pay for it, to get me home.

I’m getting wheezy now.

I’d never been to the Quad Cities before. So, we got into Rock Island or Moline or something, into the Quad Cities & I thought, Well, where do I get off?

So I stuck with it til Davenport. They said, you just stay on the train & we’ll take you to Davenport. There was all this switching back & forth, back & forth, and they finally switched us over & we pulled into the station down there & I got off the train.

I knew where mom was working. I knew she was working at Hanson’s Hardware, but I didn’t know where Hanson’s Hardware was at, so I called up Hanson’s Hardware.

The operator answered the phone and I said I want to speak to Mrs. Georgia Thomas… hold the line a minute… and mom got on the phone. I told her who I was and she said, “Where you at?”

I told her, “Well, I’m down here at the train station.”

“Well, you stay right there, I’ll be right down.”

I thought, Jesus Christ, a big city like Davenport, but hell it was only a block up & a couple houses down. And she come right down there.

She sure was glad to see me & was sure glad to see her.

So we walked back to Hanson’s together, you know, and she told them she was going to take the rest of the day off.

So we took the bus from downtown up to 12th Street, and walked over a ways down east 12th, and then Laura was still in bed. And mom told her, “Look who’s here,”

I hadn’t seen them in five years.

Then I hung out with Bob. Bob was in the Aleutians about a year, there was a big battle up there. But they’d already brought him back, he was in some camp in Oklahoma. I’d been home maybe a week or two, I’d been working nights over at Farmall. I got a job at Farmall. I just took on a night shift. I was in bed when Bob come home. He come upstairs, he hadn’t been discharged yet, he was still in the service. I guess he was scheduled to go to the Pacific, you know.

I told him, I said, “I’ll take your place. I’ll go there for you.” But I couldn’t do that. And the war was over before he could ever be sent back. He was discharged just a little after that. So he come home, went back to his old job.

We was in a camp in France. Camp Lucky Strike, they call it. Most of the guys in Europe, I think, went through Camp Lucky Strike. They had all these camps set up, you know, for people who were heading back to the states and they named them after the cigarettes. There was Camp Lucky Strike, Camp Chesterfield, Camp Camel, places like that. But I was in Lucky Strike.

Before that I was in, when I got out of… (inaudible)… I dunno what we was there for, waiting to be called back, to go back to Reims, France. The war was still going on then. It wasn’t over with yet.

I was sitting on a Red Cross cot, looking out over the field. I was drinking me a cup of tea. Here come two FW’s (Focke-Wulf, German fighter plane), they swooped down and landed on the field, German fighters. Everyone was surprised to see two German fighters just come in and land, waiting for them to strafe the place or bomb the place, but they just flew down, landed and surrendered. They had full machine guns and bombs and everything onboard, they could’ve raised hell, but they didn’t. They just surrendered.

Sergeant… (inaudible)… there was thousands of us there. Thousands upon thousands. We was so thick it was bumper to bumper, elbow to elbow. We had enough soldiers there to lick the whole dang thing. Or Germany itself, I think.

We was all milling around there at night and all of a sudden the loud speakers come on, you know, and it said Attention Everybody. It had a big announcement to make. Everybody just stood there quietly. And that’s when they said The War Was Over.

Not one man there ever said a word.

There were thousands of us there and nobody said a word.

Pretty quiet.

I’ll never forget. We just turned to one another and just… just looked at one another.

Like a condemned man just got a reprieve. I guess that’s what it was. Best way to put it, I guess. Just a condemned man that got a reprieve.

Then after ten or fifteen minutes everybody started talking. The whole attitude, everything changed just like that.

We had German prisoners by the hundreds doing all of our work for us. They was doing the KP duty and all the cleaning up.

There was always pictures in the newsreels, you know, of the German occupation forces, in Norway & Sweden & places like that, you know, Finland, all over. Greece and everything. All German civilians, you know. And they all walked home.

I always thought to myself, that’s awful cruel. But an enemy soldier has to walk home too, if they’re in enemy territory. Where’s a man gonna eat, or sleep, you know? Because everybody was death against Germans.

But I guess it all wore off in time.

They’d always give them the dirty jobs.

You gotta admit the Germans did a very good job of cleaning their country up. Great modern towns now. I don’t think there’s any sign of any war damage. But, boy, they didn’t have much to work with, I tell ya.

That was a long, long, long, long time ago. Half a century ago.

Most of them guys were pretty good guys. The German guards, the Italian guards. They were just people who left their home the same as we did, to fight a war they didn’t want to be in.

We used to walk through some of them villages, ya know, when I went back & people would be out in the street, throwing rocks at us when we’d go by. And cussing us. I dunno if they were cussing us in German, I didn’t understand what the hell they said. But I can understand why they disliked us so much. When we’d go in there and blow their country up. Someone had to pay for it. You know how it is.

A whole town filled with our guns and cars. Well, we did it. I liked that country. You wouldn’t believe what that looked like after the Russian army went through. After our army went through. Bombs, unexploded bombs sticking halfway out of the ground, artillery shells unexploded, mortars, mines, personnel mines, antitank mines.

Whole trees, you know? A grove of trees just sheared off from a burst of 50 caliber machine guns. Dead cows, horses and stuff all over the place. Bomb craters in the roads. You couldn’t travel fifty feet on the road because of the bomb craters. You had to travel down & go outside and around the crater, go down another fifty feet, go around another crater.

Burnt out vehicles. Burnt out vehicles by the hundreds.

Back then we didn’t have radios, you know, not like they do now where they can communicate one unit to the next. They had to string telephone lines, that was the signal corps. You’ve got hundreds of units up there, you know, and they all want telephone lines back to the headquarters and they ain’t got no telephone poles to put ’em on so they have to string ’em from tree to tree and stuff like that, you know. I used to see telephone line up, well, you know how big a telephone line is, very small, but they’d have a bundle of them up in a tree this big around (made with his hands about the size of a cake plate) and the signal corps from another unit would just add another wire.

But our army, they might’ve been greenhorns when we started but they sure had it down to a science by the time the war was over. They were good. Very good. Somebody run into resistance anywhere, they all knew just exactly what to do and they did it. A very smart army when we were done over there. There weren’t no greenhorns anymore. Long way from it.

They used to bring those prisoners in, Christ Almighty, a hundred-thousand prisoners, and I thought, How the hell are they gonna feed that many men, you know? You take ’em prisoner, you gotta feed ’em, you can’t just let them sit there and starve to death. But I guess they did it. (Fed them) They were real organized.

“Don’t you want to go ahead & go?” (To the dedication at the park for the Veteran’s Memorial where the family had gone)

(Shook my head no)

“Why?”

“Cuz I’m hanging out with you.”

“Oh, well I appreciate that, honey. Did you have enough to eat?”

“I’m alright. I’ve got stuff at home.”

He was from New Jersey. Bill Nesbihall. A little bitty character. A little character, he had crossed eyes. He was kind of a character. A shell landed in front of him, blew him out of the hole & he come rolling down the hill & all the ammunition in his belt had went off from the concussion. He never got a scratch. Of course his belt was shredded on the bottom. That’s why I say he was a comical little guy.

“He probably didn’t find that too funny.”

No, probably not. But he didn’t take it too serious though. For some reason or other he latched onto me for a buddy.

In Italy in the prison camp you had to have two guys on a food parcel, you know, they’d issue one parcel & then you had to split it with two of you. Old Bill, he latched onto me as a partner.

Anyway, at the camp, Bill came up with it, we were going to go out together, but we got outside that camp and it was so God damned dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Absolutely pitch dark.

“Was that when you escaped?’

Ya, in Italy. Actually, if you wanted to stay together you’d have had to handcuff yourselves together to stay together. There was no way to stay together other than that. We didn’t last long. We probably got separated in the first twenty-five feet.

Walked all night that night, I couldn’t find a road. Come dawn there was a creek, a river, we followed that little creek, it was kind of like Duck Creek or something, maybe not even that much water in it, I don’t know. We were traveling that, we figured that was heading south, you know, water usually is headed south, we figured that was our best bet for south. We just followed the water south.

But it wasn’t Bill I ended up with, I was with some guy from Indiana. I’d seen him before in the barracks. Had a hell of a time getting down there. Hungry. Stopped by a farmhouse to see if we could get some food, but most of the Italian families were scared of you because if they got caught with you, you know, the Germans would probably shoot them.

I’d hide in haystacks and stuff like that. We did that for, I dunno, maybe a day or two, until they’d come along and tell us we needed to move on, they didn’t want us on their property. So we did, we moved on down back to the river again.

The next day or two we were on that river all night long. We’d kind of hover (?) the bank, sleep or something, just kind of dozing off. Heard all these voices up on the road. Pretty little blonde come over. We couldn’t speak Italian or nothing. She saw us, you know. She went back and told her daddy & then a man come over there. Then her big sister come over there.

That was old Paco. What the hell was his name? Francesco Tirabassi. That was his name. Francesco Tirabassi. The oldest daughter’s name was Maria. He was a regular comedian. He was big. He was like a big, fat Italian waiter, or something, you know? He had a big beard. He had about a four-day growth of whiskers on him.

Strange people. They led us on over into Comunanza & into a woodshed high up on the hill. That’s where they stored their firewood & stuff, outside of town.

We got our own blankets. I had sores on my feet, I couldn’t hardly walk. That guy from Indiana, he…

(Family members come home)

“Here we are.” (Mom)

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Two photos of George Payne

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Julie wrote, “As far as we know my dad is on the middle level of the ship just to the left of the netting, standing on something and waving his fool head off. But I have no way to prove that. And I don’t know what newspaper this is from.”

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George is pictured in this newspaper photograph from the Chicago Herald-American (November 23, 1946). He is the serviceman in the center who is walking forward, while clutching his discharge paper and duffle bag in one hand.

The caption reads, “It’s all over! Gleefully waving their discharge papers, three veterans of the European Theater bid goodbye to still-waiting buddies. They never want to see khaki again the ___mor of civilian life beckons. They’re through with the army and ___ ways!”

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