USGenWeb Cherokee County Iowa IAGenWeb

Cherokee County WWII War Stories

CHARLES A. KING                                      DALE BECHTEL

ESCAPE FROM AN ITALIAN PRISON CAMP - Captured during a commando raid in North Africa, and placed in an Italian P.O.w. Camp, Sergeant Charles A. King escaped and made a three-month trek through German occupied territory to allied lines.  These unusual exploits sound like the adventures of the hero of a novel.  However they did happen during World War II, to a Cherokee County native.  He survived his ordeal and returned to his native land to be with his family, and to pursue his life in the America he fought in defense of.

Charles A. King is the son of Mr. & Mrs. Perry King of Cherokee.  He enlisted in the Army Dec 11, 1940.  He was a national guardsman recruited in the county.  With the group, he left Cherokee Feb 10, 1941, for training at Camp Claiborne, LA.  Later he was sent to Fort Dix, NJ, and then to northern Ireland.

Sgt. King was in the first wave of American assault troops invading North Africa on Nov 7, 1942.  His group landed near Algiers, Algeria.  Their first mission was to knock out a mobile gun battery located about eight miles from the beachhead..  As they neared the objective, word was received that the unit had surrendered.

The next assignment was to capture an airport, where they encountered resistance from Vichy French who were guarding it.  After this he went to Tarbarka, Tunisia, where for two days he engaged in patrol activity.

He and Sgt. Dale Bechtel were a part of a 50 man team operating as a commando unit.  They were assigned to go ashore in an amphibious landing and blow up enemy equipment near Bizerte, Tunisia.  The outfit was soon surrounded by heavy German units, which killed or captured the entire group.  Sgt. King believes that they were betrayed to the Germans by Arabs.  Sgts. King, Bechtel, and others were captured.

The following day, the captives were flown to Naples, where they were imprisoned in a transient camp and then were transferred to a P.O. W. Camp in norther Italy.  The Italians did not treat their prisoners well.  A ten foot wall, with broken glass on top, surrounded the area.  The beds were hard board with ,straw filled mattresses, infested with lice.  The food was bad, what little there was of it.  There were few facilities for recreation.  There was a sports field, but no equipment, except a British rugby ball.  The camp had a small camp orchestra and a library stocked with British books.  In Sgt. King's words, "The Germans were much more considerate and a lot more efficient."

As far as is known, Sgts. King and Bechtel were the first Cherokee County men taken prisoner by the European Axis members.  Their families were unaware of their fate; until they were informed through Catholic sources, that their sons were prisoners of war in Italy.

A message was received to that effect by Father F. P. Schultes of the Immaculate Conception Church of Cherokee on Dec 31, 1943, from Bishop Edmond of Sioux City.  Bishop Heelan had received the news from Archbishop Cicognani, apostolic delegate to the United States, who in turn had received it from Cardinal Maglione at the Vatican in Rome.  The letter indicated that the two Cherokeans were together in Italy at Camp 66, Military Post 3400.

Sgt. King was in an Italian Prison Camp in northern Italy, when the news of the armistice between the allies and the Italians arrived.

The prisoners knew something was up, when they saw someone on a ridge waving a paper.  There seemed to be a general air of excitement around the Camp.  Soon the Italian Guards came and told them, about the armistice, and then began yelling, "Comrade!"

The prisoners were not released immediately.  They were told that they would be held at the Camp for a time and then turned over to the allies.  In the meantime Italian guards with patrols from the prisoners were sent out to watch for the Germans, who had a amp only a mile away.

Sgt. King and others, including Sgt. Bechtel, decided to make a break for it and try to reach the allied lines, the allies having invaded Italy by this time.

The only clothing issued the prisoners by the Italians were lightweight British uniforms, and it was in such attire that they effected their escape during the night.  Some days later Sgt. Bechtel separated from the group, and Sgt. King did not see him again during his adventure behind German lines.

The escapees trudged through the Italian mountains day after day, dodging German sentries and patrols, making only as much as a mile some days; sometimes begging food from Italian farmers, but usually subsisting on the land.  Their diet in the Prison Camp had been only enough to sustain life; but many days while they were on the march with nothing to eat, prison camp fare would have seemed munificent. Once in a while a farmer would give them some stale bread; but the farmers, themselves, had little to live on.  Occasionally they would kill a sheep in the mountains, build a little fire and cook and eat the meat.

During their trek, they came across a half-dead American soldier from Maryland, and he accompanied them the rest of the way.  Later, some other allied soldiers joined them.

For shelter they stayed in little stone huts used by sheepherders, who ordinarily did not use them in the winter; but at this time were using them, because they had taken their flocks in the mountains to keep them from the Germans.

On several occasions, they were shot at by Germans they encountered, but were never hit and always managed to escape.  They would look for telephone wires on the ground and follow them until they came near the German outpost and would then skirt around them.  Once in awhile, they would be challenged by German troops; but they would yell something in Italian, and the Germans thought they were some Italians wandering around and didn't bother to investigate too much.

One close call they experienced occurred when they passed through a town occupied by Germans.  A Nazi sentry spotted them and shouted for them to "Halt."  The American soldiers were barefoot as their shoes had worn out.  Barefoot or not, they sprinted around buildings, jumped into ack-ack gun pits; over barbed wire entanglements and other obstacles and escaped.

After months behind German lines, they were found by an allied patrol.  After a checkup, they were sent on to headquarters, and shortly afterwards they were sent by ship to the United States and assigned to Camp Patrick Henry, VA.

On Jan 4, 1944, Sgt. King's parents received a telegram from him confirming that he would be arriving in Cherokee to visit them.  On the 6th, he telephones; and his parents heard his voice for the first time in three years.  Jan 9, 1944, he arrived in Cherokee for a furlough.  He was still weak and exhausted after nearly two years' imprisonment in a P.O. W. Camp and a three month trek of 300 - 400 miles through German occupied Italy.  He remained on furlough until Jan 31st, when he had orders to report to Fort Sheridan, IL.

So ended the daring World War II adventure of Sergeant Charles A. King.  Today he lives in the American Southwest, thousands of miles from the mountains of Italy.  Distance or time can not erase the memories that when he returned to allied lines, he was so weak he could scarcely walk; and that even after his return to the U.S. he could eat only small amounts, because of the condition of his stomach --accustomed as it was to the meagerest of diets and months of semi-starvation.

 Source: Cherokee County Historical Society Newsletter, Vol 15, Num 2, Feb 1980, Sec VI, Pg 4

Return to War Stories Index

Return to Home Page