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Mason County Memories

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Shirley and Clarence Dust also responded to my request for stories for the related to experiences in the service for this Memorial Day. Clarence will be 90 years old in September.

Beyond Forgetting As told to Shirley Dust by her husband, Clarence

It was in December, 1942, a month after landing in North Africa with the first wave of Yanks, that the Germans captured the first U.S. prisoners taken in the European theater. I was with that group. We had fought in Algeria and French Morocco, and had regrouped to plan our strategy for the Tunisian campaign. We were very close to Tunis when some Germans flew over and spotted us. I saw them tip their wings, letting the ground troops know we were there. They dropped a few bombs and the next thing we knew, tanks were coming up over the hill. We tried to retreat. I jumped on the command car, manning my 50-caliber air-cooled machine gun. There were nine of us, our driver, captain, medic, radio man, and myself, as well as four others who had been on foot and jumped on the nearest vehicle.

We could see it coming. They were zeroed in on us. They got us with one of their 88 mms. The first round hit us, the second exploded behind us, the third right in on us. I don't believe more than three of us survived, if that many. The medic was hurt pretty bad, but may have survived, perhaps the driver. I was seriously injured and taken prisoner.

The Germans took us back a little ways and a medic dressed our wounds. We were taken into the city of Tunis where we were put into a big old barn. All we could do was lie down and hope to be alive in the morning. The next day, along with other prisoners, we left in a rickety old German KJU88 for Sicily. Then we were taken by boxcar into Italy, first to Camp 66, later to camp 59. For nine months and six days we stayed there on a weakening diet of acorn coffee, now and then a slice of bread, sometimes a half cup of soup. Once a week we got a potato and slice of cheese.

It was the night of my birthday, September 9, 1943, that we learned Italy had sided with the Allies, but that the Germans were moving prisoners farther north. I don't know how we knew, but we did, so a break-out was planned. An English officer planned the escape and every man saved previous food from Red Cross packages, some of which had already been pilfered by the Nazis, to tide him over until the Allies came. We expected them momentarily.

We broke camp at 10:30 P.M. on September 14, 1943. All 800 or so men had intended to leave. I don't know how many got away because the guards began firing at us immediately.

By prearranged plan the men broke up into small groups. There were 11 of us at first, but after a couple days of hiding we knew that was too many, so five of us left. Then after a while my buddy, Corporal Howard Delanoy and I went out by ourselves. After some close brushes with Germans, we headed for the Apennine Mountains, getting food from friendly Italians along the way. For a time we lived with a farmer, helping him with his crops, but that, too, became dangerous, so we left.

We came to a village of six or seven houses near the mountains. People there were friendly and we stayed for a time. It was here we joined the guerilla fighters - a mixture of Yugoslavs, Englishmen and Italians. These guerillas were well organized, so well that we never saw headquarters. Our biggest trouble was getting ammunition. We'd find out where it was, usually being kept by well-to-do Fascists, and we'd go after it. We got clothes and food at the same time, then we'd take care of the Fascists.

Meantime, we were living in the open or in sheep-herders shacks. We'd cover the shacks with sod, leaves and branches so they couldn't see us. We fixed up straw beds so it wasn't too bad. Once we took care of a shoe factory. We needed shoes and the Germans were operating this one. We went after it at night and got our shoes. As for food, if they wouldn't let us have it, we'd have to take it. Sometimes we'd kill a beef.

The guerillas had a radio shack back in the mountains somewhere and kept in contact with the American Army. Planes used to come over at night and drop ammunition and supplies. It was in June, 1944 that we heard the Americans would be along in a couple of days, so we cleaned up the village of Sarnano for them, just before they got there. We went along with the Americans for about three days, then the officer told us we had had enough war and started sending us back.

Arriving in Africa, I saw Frank Thomas of Muskegon Heights for the first time since before the prison break. After a month in North Africa, I came back to the United States. Then it was a succession of Army hospitals and rest camps. I was discharged at Percy Jones Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, May 29, 1945.

I have been trying to forget most of this for over 60 years, but my wife convinced me to share some of it with her so we could get a little of it down on paper. We have skimmed the surface for this story.

If you have stories or photographs you would like to share with our readers please fel free to contact me at 757-3240 or davep@blackcreekpress.com

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