By Sgt. Ralph G. Martin

Yank Field Correspondent

TUNISIA—When the British Eighth Army drove toward Tunis, there were 691 American and British soldiers jammed on an Italian prison ship in the harbor. Our side had no idea the prisoners were on that ship, and as a result the prisoners had a hot time for two days before they were liberated.

What happened to these men was told to this correspondent by Maj. William R.C. Ford, a former Pittsburgh lawyer, and Pvt. J.M. McGuire of Dutton, Ala. They were aboard the ship.

Maj. Ford, two other officers and a driver were captured in the now famous “mouse-trap” sector while searching for their armored divisional CP. They took a wrong turn and ran smack into the middle of concentrated gunfire. They hit the dirt in a wheatfield, all wounded except Maj. Ford. When the shooting stopped, Ford’s party was rounded up by German machine gunners.

About that time in walked Pvt. McGuire. He had been a chauffeur for four French news correspondents who were out looking for a French Foreign Legion regiment near Pont du Fahs. While bypassing a wrecked bridge they ran into 47-mm and machine-gun fire. Before they could move they were captured.

Everybody in the camp was marched to the Tunis docks and piled in a prison ship. The air overhead was thick with U.S. and British planes which started plastering the ships in the belief the enemy was evacuating some of its own army. As the bombs dropped around the ship and guards took cover, quite a few prisoners escaped. The rest were herded to the Tunis town park.

Shortly after dark a few daring citizens of Tunis approached a group which included Pvt. McGuire and gave them wine, bread and spaghetti. “If it hadn’t been for those civilians,” McGuire says, “we’d have been in bad shape.”

During the night they were loaded aboard the prison ship, which sailed to Cap Bon. Germans manned the guns aboard this Italian vessel.

But the United Nations planes came back. “It is bad enough,” McGuire reports, “to be bombed and strafed by the enemy, but when you see your own planes coming down at you again and again all one day and all one night, and can’t do a damn thing about it, it’s hell, brother.”

Fifteen times in two days the planes attacked the harbor. First there were two Spitfires, strafing and small-bombing. They forced the prison ship back to Tunis, where the Spits struck twice again. Then a dozen Kittyhawks swept in from the sea and planted an egg square on the ship. The boat’s seams opened and water came in, and the ship ran aground in shoal waters off La Goulette, about three miles from Carthage. All the German and Italian officers put ashore in barges, leaving one Italian soldier behind to guard the entire boatload of prisoners.

This Italian wasn’t so dumb. As soon as the last barge left, he threw all his ammunition overboard, sat down and grinned. American and British officers took over right then and began planning an escape. It was impossible to swim ashore, as Germans were still in the town.

That night the Germans scorched the earth and fled. Eight barges loaded with Germans passed the ship and headed seaward. U.S. planes found them and sank several.

One big barge came within half a mile of the prison ship and trained on it the guns of a Mark IV tank, but there was no firing. An hour later a U.S. officer went ashore in a rowboat to size up the situation and if possible get through a message to the Air Force to lay off bombing the ship. He got through.

Civilians in two fishing boats hailed the ship about noon and began taking the erstwhile prisoners ashore 40 at a time. The people of La Goulette gave the men wine and food. When an element of the British Eighth arrived about nightfall, instead of finding stragglers of the enemy, it found several hundred Americans and British promenading in the streets.

“Leaving that ship,” said Pvt. McGuire, “made me feel as though I’d been born again.”

tunis wwii north africa

The Red Cross gave a block party for a Yank division on its first visit to a North African town. Girls being pretty scarce, the stag line was the biggest on record

For More on the War in North Africa Check Out:

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943

Torch: North Africa and the Allied Path to Victory

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