Detail of Joe Pojawis’ military identification card, issued in July 1942 before his overseas departure
I received a note this past week from Wally McCollum of Maryland.
Wally has a family connection to American soldier Joseph Pojawis, who was interned at PG 59 January 23–September 14, 1943. In his note, Wally related how he and his wife discovered new information about Joe’s combat and POW experiences just one week ago (over the U.S. Memorial Day weekend):
“This past weekend at a family reunion I came into possession of a diary kept by my wife’s uncle Pvt. Joseph E. Pojawis, who served in a light mortar squad, Company A, 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. He was captured on December 23, 1942 in the Battle of Tunisia. He was first taken to a POW camp in Sicily, but was transferred to Camp 59 in late January 1943. In addition to the diary I have ten letters he wrote while at the camp. He was among the mass escapees in September 1943. He eluded capture for several months, but was unable to get through the German lines to freedom. He linked up with Allied forces and was sent to the USA, where he was discharged in poor health in December 1944.
“He wrote the diary from memory while at Camp 59. It covers the period from his enlistment in January 1942 until his capture. He had vivid memories and wrote incredibly detailed accounts of his training in Scotland and the convoy to North Africa. His unit was in the first wave of Operation Torch and fought to Oran and at St. Cloud. His accounts of the fighting November 8–11, 1942 are meticulous. His letters are less informative, probably due to censorship.
“Joe married the sweetheart he sent letters to and lived until 1961. He died in Detroit, Michigan, and his remains were interred in his home town of Shamokin, Pennsylvania where his widow returned to after his death.
“Until the reunion after the death of his widow I had no idea that this diary existed.”
Wally provided me with this short biography of Joe Pojawis:
Joseph E. Pojawis
Joseph E. Pojawis was born May 29, 1918 in Shamokin, Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. His parents were Leo and Annie Pojawis, immigrants from Poland who arrived in America in 1905.
Joseph enlisted on January 26, 1942 and was processed into the U.S. Army at New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. From there he went to Camp Wheeler, Georgia, for 13 weeks of training. On May 18, 1942 he left Camp Wheeler for Camp Blanding, Florida, where he drew his equipment. He spent ten days at Camp Blanding, then went by convoy to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he and his fellow soldiers lived in tents for about a month. They then boarded a train on June 21, 1942 for Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. While there he was able to get back home a few times, because it was only about 50 miles away. On August 1, 1942 he boarded a train for New York where the Queen Mary awaited to transport soldiers to an unknown destination. They left on August 2 with about 20 thousand men on board. They anchored in Greenock, Scotland, on August 8 and then went on to Tidworth, near Andover and Salisbury. Training resumed there and they took daily five mile hikes. One hike of about 25 miles was to Stonehenge. He had one three-day pass to London.
From Tidworth they moved to Rosenheath, Scotland, in September 1942 where they trained for a week with the Navy on Landing Craft Assault (LCA) boats. They then boarded the Reina del Pacifico and after two days at sea were transferred to an unnamed ship. From this ship they did night training on the LCAs in the vicinity of Dunoon, Scotland. In a place called Innelan they practiced “street fighting.” After leaving this ship they boarded a train for Glasgow and camped in the Pollack Shaws estate, where they trained and slept in tents for a month. They then boarded a ship crewed by Canadians called the HMS Etterick. They were on board for a month.
Aboard the HMS Etterick they learned that their destination was North Africa. Joseph was assigned to a light mortar squad, Company A, of the 18th Infantry Regiment in the First Infantry Division under General Terry Allen. They received many briefings on the mission and studied maps of their landing zone. They rendezvoused with a convoy from the USA. They passed the Straits of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean. For most of the day on November 7, 1942 they cruised unopposed. Local radio broadcasts indicated that the convoy was probably headed to Malta. That night at 11:00 they went over the side into the LCAs. They hit the beach unopposed and moved inland. The moved easily through St. Leonie, then met stiff opposition at Renan and St. Cloud. It took three days to take St. Cloud. Joseph’s company lost 13 men in the battle for St. Cloud, including their company commander, Captain Joseph Hill.
By November 11 an armistice had been signed. Joseph’s company moved on about 10 miles to a town called Demesne, where they stayed for two days. Then they were called to assist Company B which had run into resistance at a town called Perregeaux, which was not aware of the armistice. They continued to move into the mountains and engaged in the Battle of Tunisia. The fighting was fierce and the Germans had air superiority. The Germans pushed the Allied forces back. Joseph and four or five other men of the Second Mortar Squad dug in and were initially by-passed by the counter-attacking Germans. However, they were quickly found and forced to surrender about 10:30 on the morning of December 23, 1942.
They were marched at night to Tunis where they were interrogated. On Christmas day they boarded an Italian destroyer and were transported to Sicily where they were placed in POW Camp 98. Two British POWs died in camp. After 25 days they were put on trucks and transported to Palermo then by train to Messina. They then were taken by ferry to the Italian mainland and put in box cars for a three day trip to Camp 59. Enroute they passed through Naples and at Portia St. Georgia were transferred to an electric train. They arrived in Servigliano on January 23, 1943.
On arrival Joseph was assigned to Hut 2, bed #161. He later said he was well treated by the British prisoners in camp, who gave him cigarettes, socks, and underwear. While he was in the camp from January until September 1943 he wrote letters home to his sweetheart, Sophie Smallets, of Paxinos, Pennsylvania. He was allowed two single-page letters a month. Joseph expressed optimism about his health and the future, but he was always concerned about not getting timely responses.
On September 14, 1943 there was a mass escape from Camp 59. Joseph eluded capture from that date until July 2, 1944 when he encountered a patrol from the British 8th Army. He was taken to Foggia Army Airfield and flown to Oran, North Africa. From there he was taken by boat to Boston, Massachusetts, where he arrived on August 2, 1944. He was in very poor health and was assigned to a training battalion where he served until his discharge on December 2, 1944.
Apparently while he was eluding capture, he was assisted by an Italian family in the town of Penna San Giovanni. In a letter to Joseph dated August 22, 1946 a woman named Yolanda relayed the Tussici family’s best wishes and ongoing concern about his well-being. She asked for a quick reply. We do not know if Joseph replied.
Joseph married Sophie Smallets in Paxinos, Pennsylvania, and they moved to Detroit, Michigan. He died there in 1961 at the young age of 43. Aside from a stillborn daughter, Joseph and Sophie had no children. Joseph’s remains were returned to Paxinos for burial and his widow moved back home where she re-married and had children. She survived her second husband by many years and lived on a farm with her widowed sister.
When the sister died in early 2015 a box of Sophie’s memorabilia was found in her house and was shared at a family reunion just one week ago, on Memorial Day weekend. Among the photos and personal documents were Joseph’s War Department identification card, his service record, his discharge paper, 10 letters from Camp 59, and a detailed diary of his military experiences from his enlistment until his arrival at Camp 59.
Joe and Sophie Pojawis at home in Detroit, 1949
Joe sent the following postcard and letter from Camp 59 to his fiancée Sophie Smallets:
28-1-43 [January 28, 1943]
Got a chance to write you a line. I am now a prisoner of war in the hands of the “Italians,” and well and in best of health. Please don’t worry, okay? I know you will be surprised, and am sorry it happened that way. Only allowed to write 1 letter and card a week. So I wrote my mother a letter for stuff. Will write soon. Please write. Love “Joe.”
Feb. 1, 1943.
Writing you a letter this time instead of a card. I hope you received the card, if not well I am now a prisoner of war in the hands of the Italians. And I’m well and in the best of health, don’t worry. I hope my mother and father don’t take it too hard, and I know your very much surprised too. But it couldn’t be helped. And I couldn’t write sooner. And it’s a long time since I heard from you. And I sure miss you, more than ever. I hope this thing is over pretty soon.
“Darling” since I’m in the Army I never asked you to send me anything. Well now I am which I hate to do. But I can use almost anything right now, especially food, so I want you to send me a box of candy bars, Hersheys, or any kind and cigarettes, if that isn’t too much. And listen go to a wholesale dealer and tell them who it’s for. I believe they will send it, and much cheaper. But first go to the American Red Cross, and find out how to send the stuff. And how much you can get. Get all the information from them. I sent my mother a letter last week for a package of food you know canned stuff and different things. “Darling” tell her to send me packages as often as they allow her to. Also tell her to send me a package of candy bars and cigarettes, besides the food package. It does a long time for it to get here. And I sure can use them. And I hope I get one soon. And I’m only allowed to write one letter and one card a week. But please write too. And tell my mother to send all she can. For I can use it, anything, especially peanut-butter and Ritz crackers and jam even cocoa and condensed milk. Well, “Darling” closing now till I hear from you, and I hope its soon. I sure do miss you a lot. Good-bye and don’t worry. Love and kisses “Joe.” P.S. Don’t forget information from Red Cross.