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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Former Cherokean recounts WWII survival story

Monday, November 26, 2012

Charles King, 92, of Fairmont, Minn. and formerly of Cherokee, recently stopped into the Chronicle Times Office while in town on a visit. He asked if we ever did stories on veterans.

After informing King that we do like to highlight veterans' military service, he brought forth several documents and newspaper clippings recounting his adventure of survival during World War II.

After examining his papers, many which were only partial articles, a story of courage and survival emerged that would make any Hollywood moviemaker anxious to put on the big screen.

King was like many young men who in the early 1940's volunteered to serve their country. He enlisted in the army Dec. 11, 1940. He was a National Guardsman in the Cherokee County unit recruited by the late Sgt. Ernest Crane. With a group he left Cherokee on Feb. 10, 1941, for Camp Claiborne, La., where he received his training.

He enlisted along with Tom Patterson, Jens Nielson, Darrel Leonard, Waldo Berry, Richard Busser, Chuck Cantine, Verl Weight, Ernie Cranez, Frank Powell, Walter Sleezer, Dale Bechtel, John Curran, Tootie Graves, Forest Johnson, Don Johnson, Jim Stewart, Bob Steward, Otis Haley, Andy Cabb, Benniie Zembsh, Allan Meecham and three other volunteers who King couldn't recall.

"I remember that night we left, Mayor George Hicks gave a great send off speech for us," said King.

King, along with Dale Bechtel, also of Cherokee, were later sent to Fort Dix, N.J. From Fort Dix they were sent across the Atlantic to northern Ireland where they were stationed. That was the last place anyone from Cherokee was going to hear from them for several years.

It was a coincidence of fact that both men joined at the same time, have been "buddies" since, and anther coincidence was both have birthdays on Feb. 2. King is one year older then Bechtel.

They were in the first wave of American assault troops invading North Africa Nov. 7, 1942. Their group landed near Algiers, Algeria. King's first mission was to ride with others on bicycles and put a mobile gun battery out of action about eight miles distant from the beachhead. As they neared their objective, word came via radio that the unit surrendered.

Later they were sent to capture an airport and encountered some resistance from the French guarding it.

Finally, Sgt. King arrived at Tabarka, Tunisia, where for two days he was engaged in patrol activity before being sent on another mission.

He and Sgt. Bechtel were in a group of 50 men operating as a British commando unit and were assigned to go ashore in an amphibious landing and blow up enemy equipment on a certain road five miles from the town. He believes the allies were betrayed by Arabs. At any rate they were soon surrounded by heavy German units which killed or captured the entire group.

Sgt. King and Sgt. Bechtel were captured near Bizerte, Tunisia, December 1, 1942.

The following day the prisoners were flown to Naples, placed in a transient camp and then sent to northern Italy.

The Italians do not treat their prisoners well, King declared, saying the Germans were much more considerate and a lot more efficient. In the prison camp where he stayed the food was bad - what there was of it - and little facilities for recreation. There was a sports field, but no equipment except a British rugby ball.

There was a small camp orchestra and a library stocked with British books. Beds were hard boards with straw filled mattresses infested with lice. A 10-foot wall with broken glass on top surrounded the area.

They remained at that camp for nearly two years.

*

In January of 1944 King reported the following to the Cherokee Daily Times:

Weak and exhausted after nearly two years' imprisonment in Italy and a trek of 300 to 400 miles through snow-covered mountains following a daring break form the Axis three months ago, Sergeant Charles A. King, 22, rested Monday at the home of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Perry King, 525 W. Cedar St. He arrived there from Washington D.C.

He was up early the next day after a sound night's rest and several honest to goodness American meals. This is the story he told over his breakfast coffee:

He was in an Italian prison camp in northern Italy when the news of the armistice between the Italians and the allies came.

"We knew something was up," he said. "We were down in a valley and could see some one up on the ridge waving a paper. There seemed to be an air of excitement around the camp. Soon our guards came and told us about the armistice. Then they began hollering 'comrades.'"

The prisoners were not released immediately, however. They were told that they would be held there a certain length of time and turned over to the allies. In the meantime Italian guards with patrols organized from the prisoners were sent out to watch for the Germans. The Nazis had a camp only a mile away.

Finally, King and several others, including Bechtel, son of Mr. and Mrs. Earl Bechtel of Cherokee, decided to make a break for it and try to reach the allied lines. Attired in scanty British uniforms, the only clothing issued them by the Italians, they slipped away one night. Some days later Bechtel decided to take another route or go back, or possibly wait for the allies - King said he did not know which, At any rate he did not see him again.

Dodging German sentries and patrols, the allied soldiers trudged through the mountains day after day-making only as much as a mile some days, begging food from sometime friendly, sometime hostile farmers, but mostly subsisting on the land.

Their diet in the prison camp had been only enough to sustain life - 200 grams of bread and 40 grams of cheese daily and some kind of stew "made of weeds" which was so unpalatable "nobody ate it."

But this would have seemed good many days when they were on the march with nothing to eat. Once in a while a farmer would give them some stale bread, but the farmers had little to live on. Occasionally they would kill a sheep in the mountains, build a little fire, cook and eat the meat.

Sgt. King was accompanied by a buddy, Sgt. Lee Gorshey of Des Moines. They came across a half dead American soldier from Maryland in the mountains and he accompanied them the rest of the way. Later some other allied soldiers joined them.

For shelter King and his companions stayed in little stone huts used by sheepherders who ordinarily did not use them in the winter, but this winter took their flocks into the mountains to save them from the Germans.

Several times the men were shot at by Germans whom they encountered but were never hit and always managed to escape.

"We used to look for telephone wires on the ground and we'd follow them until we came near the German outpost and then skirt around them," King related. "Once in a while we'd be challenged but we'd always yell something back in Italian and then beat it. The Germans thought we were just some Italians wondering around and didn't bother too much to find us."

One of the closest calls the Cherokean experienced, however, was in the German lines when they passed through a town "full of Germans" one night.

A Nazi sentry spotted them and shouted, "Halt!" But the American soldiers, barefoot now as their shoes had long since worn out, sprinted around buildings, jumped into ack-ack gun pits, over barbed wire entanglements and other obstacles and escaped.

Finally an allied patrol found them and after a check-up sent them on to headquarters. Shortly afterward they were sent on a boat to the United States and arrived at Camp Patrick Henry, Va.

"We were the happiest family in town last might when Charles came home," Mrs. King declared the following day. "We have just lived for this to happen."

When Sgt. King returned to allied lines he was so weak he could scarcely walk and he was completely exhausted. He was given hot tea and canned rations and later a warm bed and clothing.

King went back to active duty and was then assigned to serve in Pacific Theater. It was believed at the time that both King and Bechtel were the first men from Cherokee County to be captured by the Axis.

*

In August of 1944 it was reported in the Cherokee Daily Times that Sgt. Dale Bechtel, Italian prisoner, and Sgt. Darrel Leonard, who was reported "missing in action," both men of Cherokee whose whereabouts was a mystery for several months, are back in this country.

News that the two Cherokeans were back "home" came in a telephone call Wednesday evening from Leonard to his sister, Mrs. Walter Rhoads. Leonard did not tell where he was calling from but reported that Bechtel was with him.

He told his sister that he would call her again in a couple of days to report where he was stationed. Leonard was reported "missing in action" January 15, 1944 in the Mediterranean theater. A form telegram June 26 reported that he was "safe, without a scratch" and "back with the allied force." Later the family received a letter but gave no details of Leonard's experiences.

According to the Daily Times article, Bechtel returned to duty June 29, 1944. Later the Bechtels received a letter dated July 7, 1944 reporting he was safe.

His experiences after being taken prisoner and escaping behind the German lines in Italy for nine long months will always stand out in the memory of Bechtel, one of the battle-trained veterans who is taking part in "Here's Your Infantry," the Army Ground Forces sponsored demonstration that is touring the country in the 7th War Loar.

A squad leader in the 34th infantry division, Bechtel saw action in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy. He has the European theater ribbon with four battle stars, the American defender ribbon and the Good Conduct medal.

Bechtel, now deceased, was later discharged in July of 1945.



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