My father, Arthur T. Sayler, was in Africa fighting the Germans when he was captured and made a Prisoner of War in Italy at Camp 59. I’ve written a little about it in my post Mapping Military Service. I’ve been attempting to learn more about this time in my father’s life.
I recently ran across Dennis Hill, who created the website Camp 59 Survivors. It turns out that his father was a prisoner at Camp 59 as well. I was curious about his reasons for creating this website. I asked him about his motivations and I am sharing that interview here:
Guest Dennis Hill
What inspired you to create a website dedicated to Camp 59?
My father, Sgt. Armie Hill, served in WWII. He participated in the Allied invasion of North Africa, and he was captured in Tunisia. He was held in North Africa and Sicily, and ultimately sent to Italian prison camp 59 (P.G. 59), where he was interned May 17–September 14, 1943.
He escaped during the mass breakout from the camp on the night of September 14. He was on the run for a month, traveling some 300 miles through the foothills and mountains of central Italy, before reaching the lines of the British Eighth Army near Termoli.
As a kid, I knew my father was in the war and I knew he had been a POW. But he didn’t say much about the war. He had nightmares and would wake up in a sweat yelling, “Who’s there? Who’s there?” We didn’t ask about his experiences because we assumed sharing the stories would be painful.
In 1976, I was in college as the country was celebrating the American bicentennial. There was tremendous interest in history and in recording personal stories about the past. Using a cassette tape recorder, I interviewed both my mom and dad concerning their childhoods. I asked my dad whether he would be willing to talk to me about his war experiences. To my surprise, he said sure.
I prepared a few questions, but he mostly talked on his own, starting with his induction into the service and ending with his discharge at the end of the war. He was a great storyteller and I was amazed at his recall of detail after so many years. I typed a transcript of the tapes and several years late we did another recording session, during which he recounted episodes he hadn’t included the first time around but had come to him since.
After my dad passed away in 2000, I began trying to find out more about P.G. 59. Where was it located, I wondered, and did anything remain of the old camp? I learned the camp was in the Italian town of Servigliano, and in 2007 I made contact with members of a group there called Casa della Memoria (House of Memory) dedicated to preserving the history of the camp. The members of the group helped me to connect with families of several men who, like my dad, were interned there.
In January 2008, I started the Camp 59 Survivors blog to share information I had collected, and I have continued to add to it ever since, publishing my own research and posting stories and photos people send me.
Will you tell us a little about your father’s experience?
In the Army, my dad was assigned to the 19th Engineers.
At Kasserine Pass, his company had just finished mining the desert beyond the pass, when they were overwhelmed by Erwin Rommel’s powerful Afrika Korps and he was captured.
My dad had been promoted to sergeant before going overseas, and in P.G. 59, in part because of his rank, he was put in charge of a section of 35 men (Hut 5, Section 11). It was his responsibility to see to their welfare and represent them to camp authorities regarding any concerns that arose.
At the time of the escape, he paired with a man from his section, Ben Farley, and they stuck together until they reached the lines.
After his return to the States, my dad was assigned to a guard detachment at the Port of Embarkation in New York City, ensuring the security of troop transport ships while in harbor for the remainder of the war.
My dad’s interviews are on the Camp 59 Survivors site, accessible through typing “Armie Hill” in the search box on the site.
What do you hope to get out of it?
Primarily, the site is a way for me to honor and maintain a connection to my dad. He felt a strong dedication to and affection for his comrades and so sharing stories of the soldiers is a way for me to remember and honor them on his behalf.
The site also allows me to share the stories of the many Italians who sheltered escaped POWs, who in doing so were risking their lives and the endangering their own loved ones. It’s a way for me to thank them for their sacrifice.
What do you hope your readers gain from it?
I have heard from many family members who have told me they’ve found answers to questions they have had for years on my site, and that they have come to a greater appreciation what a father or uncle went through during internment. On occasion, I have been able to help someone contact the Italians who helped their soldier.
Over the years that I’ve kept the site, I’ve heard increasingly from grandchildren, and great nieces and great nephews of soldiers. I’m pleased to see the interest this new generation is showing for these stories. In many ways, the escape stories are universal, epic, and timeless.
How many different families and from how many countries have contacted you about your site?
I have heard from dozens of families, primarily from the U.S. and England, but also from Canada, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. I’ve also heard from, or made contact with, many Italian families that sheltered escaped POWs, or Italians who assisted in other ways.
Was your father aware of the British order for the soldiers to remain at the site of Camp 59 and wait to be picked up? Many were recaptured.
I don’t know if my father was aware that there was a “stay put” order. However, he knew that Italy had capitulated, and he felt it was in the prisoners’ best interest to leave the camp before the Germans arrived to take control.
Concerning avenues of research:
Are records available from Italian prison camps about who was imprisoned?
I am not aware of how to access records from Italian camps. I suspect they are in archives in Italy, perhaps in local archives throughout the country.
I was told there are interrogation records available from when soldiers were debriefed upon returning to the United States. Have you looked into that?
I have seen many British interrogation reports (from the British National Archives) and a few American interrogation reports. My family attempted to access to my dad’s records in 1991, and we received this response:
“The military records of former members of the Army are maintained by the National Personnel Records Center, National Archives and Records Administration, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri 63132. A major fire occurred at that Center in July 1973 and Mr. Hill’s record was not recovered. Although a number of alternate sources exist which enable that Center to reconstruct the essential facts of military service, these sources do not contain his complete Army service record.”
Some enlistment and POW records are available on the U.S. National Archives website. Many records are not digitized and require in-person research.
Is it possible to contact the Red Cross and get records about who they delivered Red Cross packages to?
Family members of WWII POWs can request Red Cross records from the International Committee of the Red Cross in Switzerland. I have requested and received my dad’s records. However, these the records I received are brief and have disappointingly little personal information. They do, however, confirm the camp that my dad was held in at the time of Red Cross inspections.
It appears to me that they are now documenting Italian resistance fighters and those who helped Americans, when they become known. Does this apply to your father?
There is a great deal of interest in Italy in the history of the partisan resistance during the war. This includes assistance given to Allied servicemen in enemy-occupied territory as well as action against the occupying German forces and Italian fascists. Most of the research that I am aware of is being done though small local or regional groups.
Do you have any ‘best tips’ for researching information about prison camps? Are there new areas being researched?
I’ve found that creative searching online is as good as anything. Online chat groups that share information about WWII are a resource, especially if you have a specific question. Following up to confirm accuracy is always a good idea. Networking, especially making contacts in Italy. Networking takes time and patience, but is its own reward as friendships develop and information surfaces.
Do you have any other comments you would like to share?
People are very generous in sharing materials with me and allowing me to post them. I make every effort to acknowledge contributors and to treat each story with dignity. Many of the stories have not been shared outside individual families, and many yellowed old news clippings, photos, and documents are seeing the light of day for the first time in decades.
Together the pieces are like bits of a larger puzzle, and my role in helping to assemble it is tremendously satisfying.
Thank you, Dennis.
Dennis’s website also contains information about life inside the camp, including currency used and Red Cross packages. It even included a map of the camp layout.
Sgt. Armie Hill’s experience and my father’s were very much the same. If you are researching a specific area in your ancestor’s life, keep looking. There is really a wealth of information out there.
Pictures are courtesy of Tony Vacca and his daughter, taken in 1968.