The following is article is a memoir of Charles Vargo, a GI from the 45th Infantry Division who became a POW on the Anzio beachhead. It was written by Matthew S.L. Cate, a staff reporter form the Chattanooga Times Free Press. It was published in 2004.
Ex-POW Recalls Days Behind Enemy Lines
When the Nazis came for him in the middle of the night, Charles "Chuck" Vargo was 18 years old and had already seen death surround him.
A private in the U.S. Army's 45th Division, Mr. Vargo and his comrades were pinned in their foxholes in the early days of the attack on the Anzio beachhead on Italy's Mediterranean coast.
"I was a replacement," said Mr. Vargo, now 79 and ready to share his story, which he told with laughter and tears. "I didn't even know my commander's name."
The retired service station owner and steel mill worker is one of about 130,000 U.S. soldiers held prisoner during World War II, according to the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization. An estimated 33,000 were still alive as of the beginning of this year.
Taken during the beginning of the infamous 1944 assault, Mr. Vargo spent 15 months as a captive, nearly half of that doing forced labor at two German prison farms.
He has lasting mental and physical scars.
To this day, Mr. Vargo said he continues to receive counseling at the local Veterans Affairs clinic. "It does a lot to your mind," he said.
He also has to each day place wraps on his feet and shins to cope with the residual effects of frostbite he suffered 60 years ago.
I MADE IT
After a smooth beach landing at Anzio the Germans held off the Allied forces' advance with heavy armor to the point where, Mr. Vargo said, "We couldn't go nowhere."
From his position, Mr. Vargo could see Allied battleships afloat in the Mediterranean Sea, their guns aimed on the German tanks.
"They fell short on us," he said, wiping his eyes. "They wiped out about a whole battalion." Then one night, a German patrol took Mr. Vargo and four others from their foxholes. At a railroad crossing guarded by Allied machine guns, the men and their captors crossed one at a time. Mr. Vargo said his good friend from his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, went first.
"Our machine gun opened up and killed him," he said. "I ran over (next). I made it."
A few days later, Mr. Vargo and scores of others were shipped to Germany.
"You couldn't even lie down," he said of the rail cars that could hold either 8 horses or 40 men.
The Nazis filled them with men.
THE OLD MAN DIDN'T LIKE ME
After some time at the Stalag 17 Nazi prison camp immortalized by the 1953 film of the same name, and some more time at another facility, Mr. Vargo went into forced labor on a dairy farm.
For the next six months prior to his liberation Mr. Vargo worked on the farm by day and slept under the watch of an armed guard in a cold, abandoned cheese factory by night.
For the emaciated and shoeless Army private, it was a dream.
"At least on the farm I could eat," said Mr. Vargo, who lost 30 pounds in the first months of captivity.
His German captors had to move him to another farm early on. The man at the first farm had three daughters, Mr. Vargo said smiling.
"The old man didn't like me," he said. "And he had a horsewhip."
He never got whipped, though, Mr. Vargo said, and the man at the next farm was kind enough to him, too.
"But no daughters," he said.
After the American Red Cross began to send care packages to Mr. Vargo and the several other prisoners, the Nazi guard played on an old phonograph songs recorded from the musical "Oklahoma!" each morning to wake his captives.
It was that kind of kindness from his guards and farmers that he said helped keep him from losing all hope.
"They were nice," he said.
'WE KNEW WE WERE FREE'
Then it was dear to the Nazis the war's end was near.
"They just opened up the door and disappeared," he said.
Thus liberated, Mr. Vargo and some pals stole the town mayor's car and hit the road.
"We went to Paris," he said, adding they had to catch a ride with other GIs when their gas ran out halfway.
"It was a good feeling because we knew we were free."
They arrived on V-E Day, and like thousands of others Mr. Vargo celebrated.
And here I'm running around with no shoes on," he said.
'I WAS LUCKY'
The 11th of his parents 12 children and the youngest son, Mr. Vargo and three other brothers all fought in the war.
"We all came home," said Mr. Vargo, who was the last of his parents boys to leave the States, but the first to return. "I was lucky."
After several weeks of stateside rest and medical treatment, he was nearly re-deployed to the Pacific.
But the war ended, and Mr. Vargo just started over. He met and married his wife, the late Virginia Vargo, within a couple of years. They had three girls and watched them grow up. He followed one of them from Cleveland, Ohio, to Ringgold Ga. about 15 years ago.
"I just liked it here," he said. Mr. Vargo eventually got involved in veterans' organizations, including the local chapter of the American Ex-Prisoners of War after he had a heart attack in 1999.
Chapter Commander AI Johnson said connecting with other former prisoners helps deal with difficult memories, even though POWs don't usually bring up the past,
"Most of us that went through that, when we got back, we just picked up our lives and didn't dwell on being POWs and what we went through," he said. Mr. Vargo, he said, understandably gets emotional when he does talk about the war and his captivity.
"We've had a number of people who have been through very traumatic experiences," said Mr. Johnson, who was also a prisoner during World War II.