|Cherokee County WWII War Stories
CHARLES A. KING
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
Cherokee County Historical Society Newsletter, Vol 15, Num 2, Feb 1980,
Sec VI, Pg 4
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