United States Army
How Joe Sangermano, the son of Italian immigrants living in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, went from a tranquil existence in his hometown to becoming a prisoner of war is a story punctuated with fear, determination, hope and downright perseverance against debilitating odds.
By his own admission, Joe was quite a character who enjoyed life and good times. His penchant for mischief started at an early age when he and his brothers would tease their mother unmercifully to make her laugh. They once tied her apron strings to the back of her chair while she was sitting at the kitchen table.
Joe was in high school when the United States entered World War II. He worked in a grocery store stocking shelves and delivering groceries for $3 a week. Joe had little understanding of what it meant when he heard that German forces were rolling across Europe.
As the war progressed, it was clear that Joe and his generation would be called to service. Joe’s uncle was a supervisor at the American Bridge Company steel mill in Ambridge and urged his nephew to go to welding school. His uncle promised him a job helping to build ships for the Navy. Upon completion of his training and passing the necessary tests, Joe was given a six month deferment that would be renewed regularly for as long as his services were needed at the mill.
Joe was ill-suited for the job of building ships, “I was working on a boat in the cold freezing water and it was extremely windy at the shipyard. It was too much for me working 16 hours a day with no fun. I had to work, work, work while all my friends were leaving for the services.”
Having had enough, Joe decided that when his next deferment came due he would not sign it. He wanted to go into the service. Although his father and uncle understood his decision, his mother was another matter. When a recruiter showed up at the Sangermano house looking for Joe, Joe’s mother, in very broken English said, “My Joe no home!” Joe was upstairs sleeping. This scene repeated itself several subsequent mornings until Joe finally answered the door. Joe reported the next morning and enlisted in the Army.
Joe was ordered to report for duty on January 3, 1943. Joe’s entire family saw him off at the train station. His father even boarded the train, giving his son last minute instructions on how to take care of himself. His father told him to write often and, “if you have the choice of becoming a prisoner of war and getting killed, choose to be a prisoner because you will have a chance to survive and return home someday.”
Joe soberly admits that his father’s last piece of advice stayed with him all during the war and for the rest of his life. Joe’s father had been a prisoner of war for four months during the First World War. Neither father nor son realized that they would share a common experience.
Joe arrived for training at Fort Knox, the headquarters for the Armored Forces. He spent 13 weeks being trained as a driver of a medium Sherman Tank. However, all was not training and drill.
Joe found time to play craps and poker three and four times a week. Joe cannot recall how he got the money to play the games, but he certainly enjoyed himself and did quite well.
Joe was a restless sort. He disliked the training, especially during bad weather. One assignment required Joe to complete a 25-mile hike with full pack that weighed about 35 to 40 pounds. Hoping to lighten his load, Joe filled his knapsack with paper instead of the emergency pack. Everything was going along fine until the second lieutenant told the troops to open their packs. “I never saw so much anger on anyone’s face,” Joe recalls. As punishment, Joe was given another man’s pack to carry the rest of the way and two weeks of KP with lots of potatoes to peel.
Joe prepared to be shipped overseas. When an expected 72-hour pass was not granted, Joe and some friends went A.W.O.L., returning home to see their families one last time before leaving. Joe remembers his mother making “homemade pasta and the best of everything she had.”
Joe and his friends returned to Fort Knox just as his company’s trucks were about to leave. They headed to Norfolk where they boarded ships bound for Casablanca in North Africa. The seven day voyage was fraught with German aerial bombings and seasickness. Some of the ships in the transport were sunk.
Joe’s mischievous nature continued to display itself even in a theater of war. After he and his comrades overhauled some tanks, they took one into a nearby town with the siren blaring. Joe describes the scene as townspeople took cover: “People were running in all directions. Not known to us was that the siren meant air raid to them. Since there was no one to stop us, we took two five-gallon cans and filled them with wine. On our way back to camp we were stopped and escorted by the MPs who took us to the company commander.” Joe and his friends were ordered to start digging latrines for the whole company. Joe left his name on each one that was dug. “Sometimes, we would get a couple of Arab kids to dig for us giving them chocolate bars and candy.” Joe soon found himself in the stockade again when he and his friends had a drinking party during a so-called off-camp trip.
Joe was transferred to the 152nd Tank Battalion, 1st Armored Division and moved from Casablanca to Algeria. Shortly thereafter, Joe caught malaria that required him to stay at a rest area. While he was recuperating, his battalion was shipped to the front. When he returned to camp, he learned that the members of the Tank Battalion had either been killed or captured. He never heard about the 152nd again.
He was sent to a transfer center in Salerno, and then to Naples where he eventually joined up with the 191st Tank Battalion. While in Naples, he again found himself on the wrong side of the law when he and some friends had too much to drink. Joe had a difficult time understanding why he could not hold his wine until he learned that the Italians were mixing benzene with the wine.
After months in Naples, Joe’s battalion was ordered to Anzio to join the attack on Rome. The tanks were prepared for the invasion. While waiting for action, Joe and a group of friends stayed below deck with the tanks and started shooting dice. Within three hours, Joe had won nearly $1,500.
At first, just after the invasion, there was little German resistance. Within a week, the German defenses strengthened. Joe remembers the German planes doing damage to the seaport where they landed. “We were under heavy fire by air and on the ground. They had tanks superior to ours with firepower better than ours.”
Eventually the U.S. Army Air Corps took control of the air and things settled into almost a stalemate. It was during this time that Joe asked if he could take a truck and go for some supplies. Joe’s ulterior motive was to visit his grandfather, who lived a day or so from Naples, and to send his gambling winnings home. Joe was able to take a truck, and he headed for the seaport to board an LST. During the trip, the German Air Force launched an attack. Joe jumped out of his truck and crawled into a sewer pipe filled with rats. “There were big rats in front of me, but as scared as I was about the bombs, the rats gave me company.”
Spotting a church on a hillside, Joe decided to take cover in the church, expecting that the Germans would not bomb it. Once inside, he opened a cellar door and was surprised to find 13 children and two adults looking up at him and screaming. Joe screamed that he was an American to settle them down. Very quickly, Joe learned that the children’s parents had been taken away to work in factories. The children were cold and hungry.
Joe put the children and the adults in the truck to take them to Naples in order to turn them over to the International Red Cross. The group stayed hidden under a tarp until they passed security at the seaport and were on the ship. Once on the ship, Joe secured food and milk for the kids. He offered the adults $500 from his gambling winnings to take care of the children. They refused but did ask for Joe’s home address. After the war, Joe learned that the woman had corresponded with his father during the war.
As promised, Joe delivered his human cargo to the International Red Cross, and then headed off to visit his grandfather in Cosenza in southern Italy. While en route, he was stopped by a British MP because the truck he was driving had a white cross on the windshield indicating that it was a combat vehicle. He was ordered to return to his unit.
Upon returning to Anzio, he was ordered to the front line and to dig in. A short time later Joe recounts, “The big push started on all fronts – British, Russian, and French, to make the invasion of France. The Russians headed for Berlin and we were to head north towards Rome.” Casualties were heavy on both sides, but Joe and his crew did make it to Rome. Shortly thereafter, they were ordered to retreat. Joe and his tank crew did not make it back.
Their tank was hit. The tank commander, the gunner and the assistant gunner were killed. Only Joe and the assistant driver survived. They escaped from the tank through the bottom hatch and tried to crawl back to their lines despite heavy German firing. “The Germans were mopping up the area to be sure no live Americans were left behind. We kept about 25 yards apart so that at least one might get through.”
As he looked up to see where he was going, he saw two big black boots in front of him. Two Germans were clearing the heavy brush with their bayonets and one of them swung back his bayonet and hit him in his leg. The German soldier pulled Joe up and started hollering at him. He then took Joe’s watch, belt and other personal belongings. The Germans left Joe quickly as the Americans launched a counter-attack. Soon an American medic was attending to Joe’s injury. Just as quickly, the Germans again made a push, and Joe was captured.
Joe was taken to a cave where he was interrogated by a German and an Italian soldier. Joe was not able to tell them much. It became very clear to Joe during this period that war was not a game and that what he was going through was very real. Joe was taken by a German sergeant to a staging area, forced to carry the German’s backpack for several miles despite the injury to his leg. They stopped at an old building that was, according to Joe, “full of Germans and some Americans.”
The Americans were Air Force officers who were being interrogated. Joe and the airmen were force marched with hundreds of other American POWs through the streets of Rome. They ended up at the Roman Coliseum where they were loaded on trucks and sent north to an Italian prison. During the trip, Joe and the others attempted to escape several times but to no avail.
Once at the jail, the group spent 13 days in a small confined area. Eventually a representative of the International Red Cross met with them giving them soap, toothpaste and some Italian lire to use in case they were able to escape. The prisoners were not provided medical assistance. While incarcerated, Joe wrote “Sangey was here” on the wall of his cell.
After nearly a fortnight, the prisoners were taken to a railroad station, loaded on trains and taken to Germany. It was a difficult journey that got worse with each passing day. The stench was unbearable. After several days, the train arrived at Stalag VIIA, located north of Moosburg. It had been built to house 10,000 POWs but was handling more than ten times that number. Prisoners entering the camp were examined, registered on filing cards, given a registration counter and passed on to be deloused.
While his stay at Stalag VIIA was short, it was awful. “We were treated like criminals. The guards did not follow the POW Geneva Convention International Law. They said they were the law and we were the prisoners.”
Joe was soon sent to a labor camp where his first job was repairing the roads which had been destroyed by Allied bombers. After several weeks, he was shipped by rail to Munich where he worked on the railroad. During this period, Joe’s injured leg continued to get worse. However, the Germans gave him no medical treatment.
He was then sent to Frankford where he worked on the railroad morning and night. German troops and dogs guarded the men closely. Joe was still wearing the uniform he had been captured in and “by this time they smelled like rotten garbage.”
“It is hard to explain being a POW with nobody to assist you in any way. We were humiliated, just as bad as being slaves, with very little food, less freedom to talk. Some of the younger Germans would spit on us and throw rocks at us. They laughed at the way we walked.”
After a couple of weeks working on the railroad, the Germans gathered about 30 POWs from different nations including Joe. The group was marched to the railroad station. Joe remembers that the group was worried, unsure what was about to happen to them. They had been given old, dirty and tattered uniforms to wear. The letters “KG” were painted on the back of them, identifying them as prisoners of war. The group was herded onto a cattle car and sent to a different labor camp a couple of days away.
The new camp was a government-owned farm where Germans worked to produce food and fuel for the German army. The morning after their arrival, Joe and the other prisoners were told that they would be working in the field picking sugar beets, potatoes and wheat. In the winter they were to cut ice out of the nearby water holes.
During roll call that morning, Joe and the others realized that one of the POWs who had been with them the day before was missing. His name was David Levine, an American Jew. Despite pleas from the other POWs, David refused to change his name to avoid execution. Joe remembers David saying, “I am a Jew and I stay a Jew.” Joe somberly recalls that, “David wasn’t with us anymore.” When queried, one of the German guards said that he had been sent to another camp.
Work on the farm was exhausting. The POWs worked from sunrise to sunset. Joe noticed there were political prisoners working on the farm as well as Polish, French, Belgians and Czechs men and women. Despite the awful surroundings, Joe remembers a situation that made him realize that there was still good in the hearts of these people, forced into despicable conditions. One day a young Polish girl gave birth in a wheat field. The others in the camp, even the German girls, took turns hiding the baby from the guards.
If daily quotas were not met, the prisoners were forced to work into the night. What little food there was for the prisoners consisted of a cup of potato soup and loaf of bread for 13 men to share.
Conditions during the winter were brutal, cold and damp. Joe was forced to cut ice with a makeshift saw without gloves. He wrapped his hands with old rags. At one point, some French POWs were able to get Joe and the others wooden shoes and some rags to wrap around their feet.
The holiday spirit was lost on Joe and the other prisoners as Christmas 1944 approached. Just before Christmas the guards and some German civilians went on a hunting trip for jack rabbits. They used the POWs as decoys. The prisoners were lined up near the end of the forest and told to walk through to the other side, making all kinds of noise with tin cans to scare the rabbits. The Germans would shoot the rabbits. “We were scared as hell, thinking they would miss the rabbit and shoot us.”
Christmas day was brutal for Joe. He was caught trying to steal some food. Beaten and humiliated, the experience left him scarred for life. The days wore on and Joe sank into a deeper depression. His feet were black and blue and always seemed to be wet.
In late February or March 1945, Joe cannot remember for sure, the Russian army began to advance. The POWs were marched west. It was rumored that the U.S. government had warned the Germans that they did not want any American POWs to fall into the hands of the Russians. The prisoners marched for about three weeks, day and night. In April, they reached Stalag IIB and met up with other GIs. The camp was overcrowded. There was no food, and water would come on only one hour a day. Through the grapevine, Joe and the others heard that the Russians were about two or three days away. At night, the sounds of Russian bombs could be heard.
At dawn one morning, the prisoners awoke to see Russian soldiers killing the German guards. Joe was afraid to leave his camp fearing that he too would be killed. Joe describes the scene: “They opened the gates to the POW camp….There were political prisoners, French, Polish, Czechs, and Lithuanians, men and women, you name it, they were held as prisoners. The women had their own side of the camp. We never saw a woman until we were liberated. I had never seen anything like this in my lifetime and hope never to see it again. We were full of lice, dirt was caked on certain parts of our bodies; long beards, dirty clothes, just a bunch of nobodies. I see now how a homeless person looks and feels.”
Joe’s imprisonment of 366 days was finally over.
After about a week that included medical evaluations, the Russians released Joe and many of the others. Joe started his long journey back home. Joe finally arrived in Fort Dix, New Jersey. He soon went to Philadelphia to see his girl, Helen. From there, he and Helen went to Ambridge to be reunited with Joe’s family.
The road to recovery and adjustment to civilian life was difficult for Joe. His injured leg continues to be a problem. Joe and Helen married and have two children, Maria and Joe, Jr. After more than 40 years in the business world, Joe and Helen moved to Ocean City to enjoy retirement. They recently celebrated their 59th anniversary. Joe continues to stay active. He is commander of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, Maryland-East Chapter. He is also a member of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Knights of Columbus, St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Sons of Italy.