Town resident recalls his years as a German POW

Top Photo by Daniel Jackovino Relaxing in his Walnut Street home, Thomas Stivale looks through his World War II diary. Bottom left, Stivale during his service years.
Top Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Relaxing in his Walnut Street home, Thomas Stivale looks through his World War II diary. Bottom left, Stivale during his service years.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Some things you cannot forget, and Bloomfield resident Thomas Stivale, 96, a WWII Army veteran, has a diary almost 75 years old to prove it.

Stivale kept a diary of his time in military service. Writing sporadically, he highlighted some of the events that immediately surrounded him, the people with whom he lived, and the thoughts of a young soldier incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war deep within Nazi Germany for almost two years.

Sitting on the sofa in his Walnut Street home earlier this week, Stivale clicked off the names of the forts where he was stationed after being drafted from the National Guard into the Army, on July 9, 1941. His daughter, Joanne, had rummaged through several drawers and come up with the diary her father had written while a POW. Reading it, a person could follow the names of the forts as Stivale recited them from memory.

“I was drafted to Fort Dix and sent to Benning and Claiborne, Fort Lewis, Camp Adair, and back to Fort Benning, for parachute training,” he said

The diary is written in a remarkably beautiful and flowing cursive penmanship. It sometimes adds a detail omitted by Stivale’s recollection. For example, in the trip to Fort Claiborne, a journey made to Louisiana by truck, the diary said two men froze to death.

Stivale was born on Oct. 15, 1919, at 11 Newark Ave. in Bloomfield. The house is still standing. He said the property had some land around it and the family raised chickens for the table.

“We didn’t have doctors back then,” he said. “We were all delivered by a midwife. I was brought up on goat milk.”

Stivale attended Fairview Elementary School; Park Grammar for eighth and ninth grades; and Bloomfield High School, graduating in the Class of 1938.

As a paratrooper, he was in the 82 Airborne Division, 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion.
“First of its kind to be formed in the US,” the diary said.

Stivale’s departure for Europe is written boldly across the first page of the diary. From it, we understand he shipped out from New York, on April 29, 1943, aboard the S.S. Montrey. This ship name appears to be a misspelling: an Internet search lists a troop ship departing from New York on April 29, 1943, named “S.S. Monterey.” The Monterey was a luxury liner, converted to a troopship in 1941 and outfitted to transport 3,500 soldiers per voyage.

“We landed in Casablanca,” he said. “We couldn’t go into port. It was bombed.”
“Sight of land May 10, 1943,” the diary read, “and finally Africa. Two weeks in Casablanca and then to Oujda, Africa. 3:00 sharp anchor fell.”

Stivale said from Oujda, he and his outfit were flown over Sicily for a nighttime jump into enemy territory.
“The next day, I didn’t know where I was,” he said. “Four German SS guards showed up. I had three grenades and 150 rounds. What could I do? The first thing they did when I put my hands up was take my watch.

“It was my first combat jump,” he continued. “My first and only. That’s how the airborne operated. They scattered us like garbage. I was supposed to pick up a radio. I didn’t find anything.”

In his diary, Stivale wrote: “July 10, 1943. Jumped 12:30 a.m. 1st nite jump made by me. Captured July 10, 1943, Saturday at 3:30 p.m. after two years service to the exact date.”

After the Germans rounded up the captured paratroopers, Stivale said those who were Jewish were taken away.

“I don’t know where they took them,” he said. “I never heard.”

Again from the diary: “Taken to Northern Sicily then Capua, 15 miles from Naples. From Capua by Box Car to STALAG II-B and Hammerstein, Germany. 5 miserable days.”

The boxcar, he said, had one window and was crammed with 40 prisoners. There was a rumor that Allied troops had bombed the Brenner Pass, through the Alps between Italy and Austria, but that proved false. The train went through the pass and the POWS arrived in Germany.

They stayed only two weeks at a prison camp designated Stalag II-B, Stivale said, because the Germans had to vacate the area to avoid advancing Russian troops. The POWs were marched several hundred miles into central Germany, to Parchim.

“They had a potato farm,” he said of the area around the camp. “The prisoners were American, French, Polish, and a girl from Denmark. They had oxen to cultivate the potatoes. We’d throw them into a cart and cover them with straw until the spring. The big ones would go to Hitler, the smaller ones to feed the swine.”

Stivale said the French had already been prisoners for a long time. They were even allowed to go into the local
village.

“They were POWS for so long, the Germans let them roam,” he said. “They couldn’t escape. We were centrally located.”

At night, Stivale said the POWs would have their shoes confiscated. In the morning, they would be returned.
“No one tried to escape,” he said. “Even if you did get away, you had to speak German. The guard, he was wounded on the Russian front. He was OK because he went through it.”

For the most part, Stivale said the prisoners just sat around with nothing to do for nearly two years. He would make entries into a diary. The prisoners received packages from the Red Cross and packages from home.
Joanne, Stivale’s daughter, interjected that she remembered her grandmother telling her that when she found out where her son was, she contacted the Red Cross to have the packages sent.

In them, Stivale said there were cigarettes, chocolate bars and Spam.
“The Germans were good that way,” he said. “At least we got the boxes.” He traded cigarettes to the French prisoners for bread. In the POW camp, he said the bread was black and tasted terrible, as if it were made with sawdust. But the French got the white bread from the village since they were allowed to go there.

From home, prisoners also received censured letters and postcards, and no news. Joanne said she saw some of the postcards and the words “I love you” were always blacked-out by the Germans. The prisoners had no connection with the outside world, Stivale said. There were no new prisoners who might have brought some news in.

A quote from St. Paul, under the heading “A prisoner’s prayer,” is in the diary. It reads: “Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, instant in prayer” The diary noted this was “taken from a little prayer book Dec 25, 1943.”

Stivale also wrote down some of his own thoughts.
“Here I am a ‘Prisoner of War’ in Germany, and thinking to myself, it was better for me to come over here than to have them go over there,” he wrote. “Tears may come to my eyes but they are tears not to be forgotten for homesickness does that to me.”

Another entry in the diary near the end of the war in Europe and the collapse of Nazi Germany: “April 7, 1945, Some of the sweetest bombing seen yet. About 300 Flying Forts hit airport on outskirts of City of Parchim.”
And another: “April 12, 1945, heard President Roosevelt died.”

This was the date Roosevelt died but Stivale could not remember how he found out.
On the day the camp was liberated, Stivale was out walking in the woods. He said he was with another POW, Bob Vogo. The diary has a page with a list of POW names and the places they lived. Vogo’s information is one of the entries. He came from Plano, Illinois. Stivale wrote about the first day, after almost two years, when he was no longer a prisoner in enemy hands.

From the diary: “May 2, 1945, Freedom at last. Russians came in Parchim after dinner and really took the village over. This same date was almost killed by Russians when taking the village over. One got hit in the chin and came out his neck. Name, Bob Vogo, from Illinois. Would never want to live this day over. In Russian hands for two days.”

Stivale said Vogo was unconscious but not dead. He carried him back to the camp. He did not know what happened to him. He believes he died.

“May 4, 1945. Back to American hands after 21 months of prison life. Feeling cannot be expressed in writing.”
When he got back to America, Stivale said he was sent to Ft. Bragg, then Selma, Ala., and then Washington, D.C.

“The Army gave me $200 to get home,” he said.
He returned home to Bloomfield, and to Pauline, his future wife.
“My mother probably kissed him to death,” Joanne said. “They were engaged.”

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