WHITE CITY — When Cordino Longiotti sits down to a bountiful lunch honoring former prisoners of war today, his thoughts will likely go back for a moment to leaner times.

WHITE CITY — When Cordino Longiotti sits down to a bountiful lunch honoring former prisoners of war today, his thoughts will likely go back for a moment to leaner times.

Back to the days in 1944 when he was in a POW camp in Italy.

"All we got for breakfast was a cup of coffee," he recalled. "For lunch, we had a cup of soup and a slice of bread. Dinner was either a cup of soup or tea."

And he'll tell you the soup was thin, the coffee and tea weak and the pieces of bread small. Fights broke out over food. His weight dropped to a skeletal 90 pounds.

Longiotti, 84, of Ashland is one of a dozen former POWs from throughout the region being feted at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in observance of National Prisoner of War/ Missing in Action Recognition Day.

Hailing from Greenville, Pa., the retired hardware store owner and remodeling contractor was drafted into the Army on Feb. 4, 1943. Before donning a uniform, the son of Italian immigrants met a beautiful young woman named Loretta Sanitate. The two kept up a correspondence as he was deployed to North Africa, Sicily and finally to Italy.

Serving as a machine gunner for the 179th Infantry Regiment, he saw action in Salerno and Anzio. It was during the latter that he would be awarded a Bronze Star.

"Everybody should have received a Bronze Star there — it was real bad," said the former private first class with a shrug.

In the bloodbath that was Anzio, his regiment lost some 55 percent of its men. The battle began Jan. 22, 1944, and waged well into spring.

After a day and night of combat, Longiotti and four other soldiers in a machine gun emplacement along a road realized on the morning of Feb. 18 that they were alone.

"Everyone had deserted us," he recalled of other American troops who had apparently fallen back.

But the enemy had not. Rounds were striking the emplacement from both the front and back.

"We couldn't even stand up," he said. "And our machine gun was no longer working."

Germans soldiers with their bayonets fixed came up from behind. The Americans raised their hands in surrender.

The Nazi soldiers took his pistol and the watch Loretta had given him.

"We carried our sergeant out in a blanket — he was wounded," he said, adding, "I don't know whatever happened to him."

Back in Pennsylvania, his parents and girlfriend were told he was missing in action. They would not know he was alive for another five months.

The POWs spent three months at the camp near Laterina in Italy, where food was scarce.

"We were starving to death," he said. "There was a lot of diarrhea. And lice. Oh man, we were loaded with louse. You'd pick them off and kill them."

When a POW escaped and was caught, the soldier would be shot and put on display, he said.

"They'd bring them back in a box and put them out in the yard for everybody to see," he said.

Yet there was an attempt to tunnel out. The tunnel started in the officers' barracks about 40 feet from the fence.

"Every day they would walk out in the yard and pretty soon dirt would start falling out of their pant legs and pockets," he said. "They'd scatter that dirt around."

Longiotti was preparing to escape with other POWs through the tunnel when the escape was called off.

"They figured out they hadn't reached the outer fence," he said, explaining there were two fences. "They had miscalculated."

Unfortunately, a POW from Scotland informed the guards about the tunnel. The informant was transferred to another camp and several POWs were placed in solitary, he said.

"We found out later they had tunneled beyond the second fence after all," he added.

Longiotti was later transferred via train to southern Germany to a POW camp near the hamlet of Unterthurheim. When he was interviewed, Longiotti, who had never milked a cow in his life, informed his captors that he was a farmer.

With food difficult to find, he figured there would be some on a farm. He and 17 other POWs were kept in the camp at night but sent out to work on a nearby farm by day.

"We ate what the farmers ate," he said. "It wasn't a lot but it was food. There was a lot of sauerkraut and soupy stuff."

The solider, who at one point became extremely ill with what doctors there believed was diphtheria, was able to notify his loved ones that he was alive.

"Nobody knew where I was for five months," he said, noting he received only about three cards from Loretta during the time he was a POW. Loved ones could only send one card a week and were restricted to writing 25 words.

His camp was liberated on April 26, 1945.

"They let us go to the farms," he said. "We all knew the Americans were coming. One guard, a sergeant who stayed in the same house I did, gave me his pistol when the troops got there."

Longiotti returned home and asked Loretta to be his wife. The two, who have two children and numerous grandchildren, will be married 62 years come Oct. 2.

"I thought he would come home in a box," she said. "We didn't hear from him for a long, long time. When I found out he was alive I sent a lot of cards but he didn't get very many."

The two went to Italy for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome in 2004. They met President Bush and Laura Bush during a celebration at the U.S. Embassy.

"My experience wasn't as bad as some," Longiotti said of other POWs. "We didn't get beaten up. But it was bad enough."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.