A rifleman from the 34th Division, who was captured near the Faid Pass in Tunisia, talks about his two years and three months as a prisoner of the Nazis.

By Sgt. Mack Morriss

YANK Staff Correspondent

CAMP LUCKY STRIKE, ST. VALERY-EN-CAUX, FRANCE—The story starts about here: February 15, 1943, in Tunisia—the U.S. and Allied forces are fighting defensively against two German columns which have broken through American artillery positions west of Faid Pass in a 20-mile thrust which imperils the American anchor at Gafsa, to the south…

The 2d Battalion had 10 men on an outpost and the highest rank in the bunch was a Pfc. the 10 men sat on high ground and watched a tank battle below them. It was one tank battle that the Americans lost.

jim mcquire pow wwii

American Soldiers march to the front in North Africa.

For some reason the outpost had no communications with the battalion. They didn’t have anything but two five-gallon cans of water and a growing anxiety. There was no way to get through to the battalion except by direct contact, and there was no way for them to establish direct contact. Nobody gave them the order to fall back, so nobody fell back.

Then two radio men came up and said that the battalion had moved. The men said that the battalion had moved without telling them on the other end of the line. They said they never had a peep out of the battalion, no radio contact at all.

On February 16, Marshal Erwin Rommel, using veteran tank fighters and his heaviest armor, smashed the American counter-attack and made an 18-mile thrust into central Tunisia, a total advance of 35 miles in three days.

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Two GIs share a foxhole in North Africa

About noon that day the outpost found out for certain that the battalion had moved. Led by the Pfc, the 10 of them started back for the hills behind them and in the hills they ran across 24 other GIs and two lieutenants who said they had been caught in a cross fire and had to get out. They began their retreat together now, 34 GIs and two officers, and it was night.

They retreated for eight hours and then they came to a ravine and some of the men were so exhausted that they said they couldn’t go any farther if they didn’t stop to rest. So they stopped. Some of them started to dig in and some just went to sleep on top and the hell with it.

Pvt. James McQuire of Co. E, 168th Infantry, 34th Division, was part of the 10-man outpost. McQuire had been in combat exactly 15 days. He had been in the Army exactly six months. He had, officially, fired exactly 10 rounds with his basic weapon, M1. He had never fired an aimed shot at a German soldier.

“It was getting light and all of a sudden there were some shots,” he said. “Nobody got hurt. Somebody yelled down that we were surrounded and that we’d better give up or they’d kill us all. The lieutenant said we were surrounded. I don’t know whether we were or not. I’m just a buck private. The lieutenant said we’d surrender.

“I was so tired and hungry I didn’t care. Anyway they said they’d kill us if we didn’t and they could have done it too. They told us to come up where they were. I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t think one way or the other about being a prisoner. I was just too tired.”

Jim McQuire is a stocky kid from Tacoma, Wash. He has thick blond hair and grayish eyes and even teeth with thin rims of gold on a couple of them. He enunciates very carefully but his accent is clipped so that until you get used to it you miss a word or two now and then. He was 22 years old when he was captured. He went to Roy High School in Tacoma and when he got out he worked for a grocery company and did some running around. Right after Pearl Harbor he tried to get into the Navy and they turned him down because he is color-blind. Jim went into the Army on August 18, 1942. As soon as his two-week induction furlough was finished, he went down to Georgia to a new school for paratroopers. The 506th was there then.

“They told me that if your eyes are 20-20 and your blood pressure was all right you were in. They needed fellows in the paratroops then. They didn’t tell me that if you were color-blind you were out.”

McQuire pulled guard and KP in Georgia for a few days and then he and some other people were sent to Camp Kilmer, N.J. On October 3 he sailed for England aboard the Queen Elizabeth. On November 10 he sailed for Africa as part of a replacement company. Eleven days later they hit Algiers and McQuire was handed over to the 34th; his outfit at the time was guarding an airfield 16 kilometers from Tebessa.

“We got used to going out on patrols looking for German paratroopers. I got some target practice. Used to shoot trees and cans and paper and little white ricks and things. We never did see any paratroopers, but except for 10 rounds they gave us in England that was about all the shooting I ever did. I did shoot at some Arabs one time later but I wasn’t trying to hit them. We had orders not to allow Arabs around our lines.”

After little more than a month of guard duty and patrol work, Jim and his outfit went into the line. They were in support, and on the first day some Jerry tanks chased the assault battalion back on them but American tanks came up and knocked the Jerries out. Jim could see the Jerry tanks burning. Jim’s squad went out on patrol and stayed three days but not much happened except that he found how hard it is to dig a foxhole in Tunisia. “I got down six inches and couldn’t go any deeper.”

At Sidi Bou Zid the battalion reformed its scout platoon. Jim was part of that. “We were supposed to have six weeks training,” he said. “We had three hours.” One time the platoon ran into trouble and it looked like Jim was going to get a chance at fighting a war. He and a couple of other guys were investigating some Jerry flares when the rest of the bunch hit a Jerry patrol. There was a moon and the valley was light, and in the fight that developed a lieutenant and a sergeant were hit.

“When we got back to the platoon the shooting was over, but the lieutenant and the sergeant and their guns were still lying out there.” Jim remembers, “So a couple of other fellows and myself went up and brought back the guns. The lieutenant had been hit in the face and the sergeant was cut right across the chest. Must have been burp guns. Later we came back with a couple of jeeps mounting .50s and brought in the bodies.”

Just after that came the end of combat for Jim. When he and the rest of the outpost began their retreat, they were supposed to have already been surrounded for three days. After dawn on Wednesday morning it didn’t make any difference anymore.jim mcquire pow wwii

“It was Rommel’s Panzer outfit, I guess. They made us come up to where they were and then they started going over us, looking for watches and things. They took GI watches and personal watches and they’d have got mine except that I had it in my pocket instead of on my wrist. I bought that watch in England; still got it, too.

“Some of our boys were pretty far gone for water, and the Germans gave them just about all the water they had. We were all right, though, because we’d had those two cans with us on the outpost. I never had seen a live German up close before but I certainly wasn’t scared of those people. They looked just like anybody else. At least they didn’t look like supermen; but I already knew that because I’d seen a few dead ones.”

The first 42 hours Jim spent as a prisoner were spent walking. All of them were hunting for food and water long before they reached the end of the march in Sfax, and for the first time Jim heard a German expression he was to hear time after time during the next 26 months: “just three more kilometers and there will be hot food and a warm bed.” “I don’t know why they always said ‘Just three more’. It never was.”

From Sfax Jim went by truck to Tunis where he and the rest were held about two weeks. “We had enough food to sample.” Then he was flown to Napes in a JU-52.

It was in Naples things began to get critical.

“They took our money away from us—what they hadn’t taken before. We were supposed to get receipts, but of course we never saw any receipts.

“There was never enough food and the guys started stealing Red Cross parcels from each other. I had a parcel and a half stolen from under my head while I was sleeping. Another boy tied a rope around his parcel and looped the other end around his neck and went to bed with the parcel as a pillow. That night somebody stole the parcel and almost choked him to death, trying to get away with it. I guess a hungry man just hasn’t got very many principles.”

When American prisoners left Naples the Germans paraded them through the streets to the railway station. Jim remembers it well: “The Italians threw rotten tomatoes and fish at us and spit in our faces.”

It was a four-day trip from Naples to Stalag VII-A in Germany and the weather was bitterly cold. When Jim was captured he was wearing no underwear, so his clothing consisted only of ODs and a field jacket. Thirty-six men to a boxcar never generated enough body heat to keep warm.

At VII-A they were deloused, registered with the International Red Cross, fingerprinted and photographed. They were also issued clothing. “They gave us whatever clothes we needed; overcoats, hats, and whatnot. I drew a French overcoat. Some of the boys got Polish pants. It was all confiscated stuff. They also gave us shoes, wooden-soled German shoes. We took them because we wanted to save our own GIs, and wooden shoes were good for running to the latrine.”

At VII-A the first Kommando was selected. This is the German term for working party, and working parties for PWs were compulsory.

“They sure used a funny system for getting guys on that first one,” Jim recalled. “Some officer told us to take off our hats. We did. Then he went down the line and picked out all the blond guys for Kommando. Don’t ask me why.”

From VII-A they were moved to another Stalag—V-B, at Villingen, southwest of Stuttgart. Although they were supposed to be there for only a short time, malaria broke out and Jim and his group were quarantined for five or six weeks.

Finally about 310 were taken out on Kommando to Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. The job was construction.

“We never did know what we were building, but we thought it was some kind of waterworks. There were a lot of pipes from the lake. There was a lot of sabotage there too. Guys would crack pipes and leave tools and things inside them so they’d clog up.

“We fouled off plenty. We had a Feldwebel—non-com—guarding us and he was pretty strict about Geneva Convention rules, so everytime it rained we’d start yelling to come in and he’d take us in. After a little while all other workers—slave laborers—would start coming in too. Finally even the German workers stopped work everytime it sprinkled.

“A contractor, a guy named Herr Funk, refused to renew the contract because he said he never would get the thing finished if we stayed there. We didn’t get paid for the last month either, but nobody worried about it because the pay was in marks anyway.” Jim was in Friedrichshafen on Kommando three months. He lived in barracks housing about 300 people, sleeping in double-decker bunks placed so close together that he couldn’t walk between them. “I met lice for the first time there, too.”jim mcquire pow wwii

When he first arrived there was one latrine for 300 men. “The boys got the GIs, and you’d get up in the middle of the night and have to sweat out a line a block long.”

Jim was sent to Stalag II-B and was there for two days, and was picked for another Kommando, this time on a farm in Pomerania a few miles from the Baltic Sea. He was there for 18 months. “It was quite a good-sized farm, wheat and barley and flax; but rye and potatoes were the main crops. There were 10 of us GIs in the beginning with 14 Frenchmen and 18 civilians. We did the usual sort of farm work, shocked grain and all that kind of stuff.”

Working hours on the farm changed with the seasons Jim and the others spent 10 hours a day in the fields in the summer, nine hours for two months as the days grew shorter, then eight hours during another two months, and finally, for one month, seven hours.

“As soon as we’d eat we’d usually go right to bed. We were too tired to do anything else.”

On Kommando there wasn’t much variety in reading material at first but the Red Cross came through with some stuff later and then it wasn’t so bad. There was Ellery Queen and there were some works of biography, some Shakespeare, some legitimate novels and a few comics.

“I read the New Testament all the way through,” Jim said simply. And then he added a little incredulously: “I even read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ too.”

The months dragged. “Guys would argue. They’d argue about anything on earth—how to operate equipment on a farm, who made the longest nonstop flight on record, when to plant tomatoes, what time it was in Chicago. They’d tell tales about things they did back home.”

Most of the time the food was adequate, but sometimes there would be serious shortages when Red Cross packages failed to arrive.

“It didn’t bother me much, but when-cigarettes ran out I’ve seen guys smoke bark and tea leaves. I’ve seen ‘em fight over a cigarette, and I mean fight with their firsts. Some of the guys here say they’ve seen boys smoke soluble coffee; I never saw that, but I wouldn’t doubt it.”

For the men who had known freedom all their life, captivity was not an easy thing to swallow. For men who worked alone in their captivity it was even harder.

There was never very much departure from routine and men lived from one date to the next and then started living toward another date—when the mail came, when it was Sunday, when Red Cross packages came, when the harvest was over. Occasionally, something happened.

“One day the man who owned the farm had to show his records to the Gestapo. They took him away. We heard that he hadn’t been keeping his books straight, that he had more sheep than he put down and stuff like that. He was in jail for about eight months and then died. They brought him home to bury him.

“Some Frenchmen went to the funeral. None of us did. The old man had two daughters who’d been helping him run the farm so they kept on running it after he died. They’d ride around the place and look down their noses at us—what bitches! One day a relative came to visit them and they went out in the fields where we were working and the relative said: “I see the slaves are working very well.”

And so it went.

Then on February 18, 1945 the Kommando was recalled to a Stalag at Laurenburg. On March 28, 120 men began an exodus to the west. The Russians were coming. Before they were through, Jim and his fellow prisoners had walked 130 kilometers—a march across Germany that ended after five weeks of circling and dodging and being shepherded by guards who themselves did not know where they were going or when they would stop.

“When we started the Germans didn’t seem very excited but they told us to get ready for a long walk. We walked for three or four days and then lay over a couple days. One time we walked from 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 8 o’clock the next morning and we would up three kilometers from where we started.

“We didn’t know exactly what was happening but the guards found out from the civilians along the road. As things got worse for them the guards told us they were going to surrender to the Americans as soon as we got to some Americans they could surrender to.

“I got separated from the main body but I heard later than some of the boys wouldn’t let the guards off that easy. They beat hell out of a few of them and then let ‘em surrender.”

The caravan of Kriegsgefangenen—prisoners of war—crossed the Elbe. Finally, on May 3, in the town of Griefen, Pvt. James McQuire once more became a free man.


POWs at Camp Lucky Strike line up for chow

“I was up a street trying to get some bread when tanks came into the town.

“I walked down to where the fellows were ganged up around the tanks and we told the tankers we were glad to see ‘em. We were, too, but there wasn’t much excitement. We figured we’d run into ‘em sooner or later; but it did feel good to see Americans. I don’t remember whether it was the 7th Armored of the 3d.” It was the 3d.

Jim Mcquire, with 63 points, sat on his canvas cot at Lucky Strike waiting to go home. He talked about food, it was still the most important thing. At Reims a few days before he had eaten K rations for the first time.

“I thought they were good,” he said naively. “Food’s O.K. here, too, except they don’t give you enough bread. Two slices. Ought to be at least three.”

Food was more important than anything, even women.

For More on the 34th Infantry Division Check Out:

Dogfaces Who Smiled Through Tears

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