Captured at Anzio
American machine gunner Cordino “Cor” Longiotti was trapped with a handful of other soldiers in no man’s land — caught in the crossfire between Allied and German forces.
In 1944, the Allies had invaded near the coastal town of Anzio in Italy. But the Germans, determined to drive them back into the Mediterranean Sea, strafed and bombed them with planes, then attacked with tanks.
Suffering from massive casualties, Allied troops pulled back, leaving Longiotti and his small machine gun squad alone on a road with their wounded sergeant.
“This was the worst battle of the war that I have seen; it was like being in hell itself,” said Longiotti, who recounted his experiences in an interview and a book he wrote titled “The Way It Was: WWII.”
Longiotti, 94, now lives outside Ashland.
Being a machine gunner had always been one of the most dangerous jobs in World War II. Because of their firepower, machine guns were often targeted. Machine gunners were at risk of being shot or blown up with grenades.
A German tank fired at Longiotti’s machine gun, knocking it out and leaving the squad with only a rifle and pistol.
Surrounded by the deafening noise of gunfire and mortars exploding around them, the men hoped the Allies would gain ground and come back.
Instead, on Feb. 18, 1944, German soldiers with bayonets on their rifles snuck up from behind, poked the men in their backs and ordered them to put their hands up. The men were forced to surrender.
Longiotti saw thousands of bayonet-wielding Germans racing across an open field, their eyes glassy as if they had been drugged. Rather than running in a zigzag pattern or taking cover as Americans did, they appeared to make no effort to avoid Allied fire.
Researchers would later learn Nazis delivered millions of doses of methamphetamine to fuel German soldiers.
Carrying their wounded sergeant on a blanket, Longiotti and the three other remaining members of his machine gun squad were marched past fields of dead Allied and German soldiers to a German first-aid station. Many of the soldiers had been blown to pieces.
“It was the most horrible sight of the war that I have ever seen and it was a great loss for both sides,” Longiotti wrote.
After delivering their sergeant, they never saw him again.
American fighter planes then veered toward the first-aid station — which had military vehicles and ammunition boxes nearby — and fired.
“No American got hit, but a German sitting behind me on a box of ammunition was hit. He never got up,” Longiotti said, noting he was killed by a strike to the chest but still held a sandwich in his hand.
Longiotti was eventually moved to Camp Laterina in Italy, a large prisoner-of-war camp that held Allied prisoners from many nations.
The camp was surrounded by two tall barbed-wire fences about eight feet apart. Guard towers were at each corner, and German shepherds patrolled the perimeter.
Water was scarce, and the POWs received barely enough food to survive.
Breakfast was a cup of coffee. Lunch was a cup of watery soup. Dinner was another cup of soup or tea, plus a small loaf of dark bread that had to be divided among six men.
The bread was made of rye, sugar beets, sawdust, minced leaves and straw.
Fights sometimes erupted over the bread because it was almost impossible to divide each loaf into six exactly equal pieces. To prevent fights, the person who cut the bread would put a piece in each hand behind his back, then ask another person to pick a hand.
Within three months, Longiotti’s weight had dropped to 90 pounds.
Conditions in the camp were filthy.
“Everybody had lice. You would sit out in the sun and pick lice off you,” Longiotti said.
Anyone who tried to escape was put in solitary confinement with only bread and water. Those who successfully escaped were usually captured and killed, their bodies displayed for all to see in the camp.
Despite the danger, a select group of POWs, including Longiotti, knew of a plan underway to tunnel through a barracks floor and burrow underground out past the two lines of fences.
Men digging the tunnel would let dirt sift from their pockets down their pant legs and onto the ground of the camp. Dirt was also thrown into latrines.
One night, 50 men prepared to go through the tunnel to freedom. But tunnel engineers estimated the passageway was about two feet short of the outside fence — meaning the escapees would come up between the two fences.
The attempt was aborted.
“It was a real good, dark night,” Longiotti said. “If we’d have got out, the Italians would have helped us.”
The next day, a Scottish soldier told the Germans about the tunnel. The Germans crushed the tunnel, filled it with rocks and dirt and placed many POW officers in solitary confinement for weeks.
The prisoners learned the tunnel had actually reached out past both fences.
About a month later, Longiotti and other prisoners were crammed into boxcars. They took turns standing and sitting for the three days it took to reach Stalag 7A, a German POW camp.
Upon arrival, the prisoners were stripped, placed in a shower room and sprayed with a chemical to kill lice.
Longiotti later learned it was the same type of shower room where Germans killed Jews and other people with poison gas.
Longiotti and others were transferred to another camp and spent their time going out to clean up rubble in a German town bombed by American and British planes.
One day for lunch they were presented with a large pot of snail soup.
“Some of the snails were still alive and clinging to the sides of the pot, and it had a terrible odor,” he wrote.
The men went hungry that day.
Longiotti was interviewed at the camp. He claimed he had been a farmer before the war and knew how to milk cows, plow with oxen and do other farm chores.
Along with 17 other prisoners, he was sent to work on a farm.
There he shared whatever the farm family ate. Meat was rare, but cabbage, sauerkraut, potatoes, soup and beer provided a better diet than what they had eaten in the POW camps.
They worked seven days a week, plowing fields and cutting wheat and hay fields by hand with scythes.
Farmers had to give most of what they raised to the German government.
Food was so scarce, inspectors would weigh the milk to be sure it was being turned in.
“They could keep only a very small amount of milk for small children, no adults,” Longiotti wrote.
The farmer who Longiotti worked for secreted food away for his family, hiding potatoes in a cellar and stashing burlap bags of wheat beneath hay and straw.
“They would hide the wheat in the hay loft in the barn so they would have food because Germans were starving,” he said.
In the winter, the prisoners went to the woods and brought back wagon loads of firewood using oxen. Longiotti fell deathly ill and was diagnosed with the infectious bacterial disease diptheria — an experience that brought back childhood memories of his 9-year-old brother, who died from diptheria.
While Longiotti was lying in a hospital, his mind was filled with fears that he would die there and his family would never learn his fate.
Fortunately, he recovered and was able to go back to farm work.
The POWs saw Allied planes flying overhead, dropping strips of aluminum foil in an effort to evade enemy radar. As Christmas approached in 1944, the men picked up foil that drifted down onto the fields and used it like tinsel to decorate a small evergreen tree.
With the war drawing to a close, the German people seemed anxious and excited for the Nazi reign to end, although they would not speak openly against Adolf Hitler for fear of reprisal.
In April 1945, American soldiers arrived, and Longiotti was free after spending more than 14 months in captivity.
“It was the most beautiful sight we have ever seen, the American troops arriving in town with no resistance from the enemy,” he wrote. “It was a day that I will never forget.”