Joseph Kearney experiences life in a prisoner of war camp
Joseph Francis Kearney of St. John’s was eighteen when he enlisted in the First Royal Artillery Contingent during World War II and deployed to England. After the arrival of two other contingents, they became the 57th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery. Kearney then applied and was accepted into the elite 11th (Scottish) Commando. The Scottish Commando merged into “C” Battalion Layforce. Kearney first saw action with this unit in June 1941, when he went ashore on the coast of Syria to reclaim a bridge on the Litani River from the Vichy French. Despite the units sustaining heavy losses, Kearney and four other Newfoundlanders played a major role in the success of the mission. After Layforce disbanded, Kearney was the only Newfoundlander who stayed with the 11th (Scottish) Commando. He played a key role with the unit in the secret mission to kill or capture Rommel in
November 1941. The raid was unsuccessful, but Kearney and six others escaped. They were eventually picked up by the Italians, allies of the Germans. From 1941 to 1945, Joseph Kearney was in and out of prisoner of war camps in North Africa, Italy, and Austria. After repeated attempts to escape, he finally succeeded. His fortunes improved when he intercepted American troops chasing the retreating German armies. This an excerpt from a new book about Kearney’s war experiences published by Flanker Press. ‘Joseph Kearney and the Hunt for Rommel’ is written by Frank Galgay with Kearney’s daughter, Donna Kearney Adams and is available in local bookstores.
Joe Kearney was in and out of prisoner of war camps from November 26, 1941, to April 28, 1945, after he was taken prisoner at Mekili. His
mother, Bridget, saved all the letters that he sent home; a significant number related to his stay in the various camps. At that time his parents and family were unaware of the suffering and deprivation that he was experiencing. He was always upbeat, inquiring of his mother, father, immediate family, friends, and neighbours. Joe continuously encouraged them and always mentioned he was feeling fine, keeping in mind that they received the keen eye of the censor. He was very concerned, as periodically referenced in his letters, about their financial situation and continued to send home a significant amount of his pay to help his family. The Kearney family remembered a conversation they had with Bridget regarding Joe being reported missing in action. His mother recalled the incident quite vividly: “One day the priest came by. He told me he got a notice saying Joe was missing and feared dead.
My husband would assure me that Joe would be fine. I thought it would be better to know that he was dead than to be wondering if he was dead or alive.” One can readily imagine how quickly the anticipation and excitement of Christmas was superseded by the anxiety of not knowing Joe’s whereabouts. Was he dead or alive? Was he hurt or being harmed? Donna Kearney Adams’s grandmother Bridget told her on several occasions that she felt he
was still alive. She continued her daily visits to the Basilica down around the corner and up Garrison Hill to light a candle for Joe’s safe return. She tried to do this every day he was gone, often when chores were finished and the children were settled in for the evening. Her faith was the bulwark that enabled her to do what had to be done for her large family during the very difficult time that Joe was missing and for all the years he was away. On the morning of January 9, 1942, there was a knock on the door of 9 Livingstone Street, and a telegram was delivered to Joe Kearney’s parents. The dread and anticipation of its contents went through their minds as they opened it. It stated: “OR/ 45151 Information received No-970050 Gunner Francis Kearney, Royal Artillery now Prisoner of War Stop.” Six days later, a telegram arrived from Joe: “Best Wishes for Christmas and the New year. Please don’t worry. All my love.” He was still thinking of
his family and reassuring them with his usual phrase “please don’t worry.” William Kearney received further information in a letter from the War Office dated January 15, 1942. It stated: “In confirmation of War Office cablegram dated 9th of January, 1942 I am directed to inform you that a report has been received that your son, No. 970050 Gunner Joseph Francis Kearney, Royal Artillery, is a prisoner of war in Italian hands. No details have yet been received regarding his camp address or prisoner of war number but as soon as any information is received you will be informed immediately. A leaflet is enclosed which indicates the procedure for communicating with a prisoner of war.” It seemed an eternity before his mother received her first letter from Joe after he was taken prisoner. Many months would sometimes pass before mail reached its intended destination, if it ever did. Donna Kearney Adams, Joe’s daughter, remembers her grandmother telling her a story, when she was in one of her storytelling moods, about that event. Bridget Kearney had been sitting on the stairs in the hallway when the mailman arrived. Perhaps it was something she did every day in anticipation of news from Joe. The letter was dated January 15, 1942, from Italy. The camp was blacked out. It was a short, breezy note relating when he was captured: “Dear Mom, captured Nov. 26th, first chance to write. Hope scarcity of mail didn’t cause undue worry. If you send anything send RED CROSS. Would like chocolate and Target [tobacco] if possible. Will write whenever possible. Love to all and look after yourself. GOD BLESS YOU! Loving son Joe.” This letter contains his first mention of the Red Cross. He would eventually be a lifelong supporter of the organization and blood donor when he returned to Newfoundland. Joe spent time in transit
camps in North Africa from the time of his capture on November 26, 1941, until mid-January, 1942. These were holding camps that held prisoners while awaiting transfer to the more permanent ones in Europe. Joe was first sent to Derna, then on to Benghazi and Tripoli. He describes the conditions there to the War Claims Commission concerning claim for maltreatment: “For two months after capture I was forced to go around in what could only be termed as shreds of canvas and the weather was often freezing . . .” He further related that when he was held in Tripoli he spent “two days and nights travelling and stopping and finished at the same place we started. . . . I myself as well as a great many others had contracted a type of dysentery as a result of the condition of the boxcar that was terrible. We were also packed in like sardines.” Kearney’s War Claims Commission statement outlines the deplorable
conditions: scarcity of water and food, hot by day, cold by night, sleeping on floors, open cesspits with dysentery were rampant, travel in overcrowded boxcars with little ventilation, many deaths. Ronald G. Kelland noted: “After spending a horrible month in the North African POW camp, Kearney was sent to Campo, Concentramento 66, at Capua, about twenty-nine miles north of Naples. Here he was able to receive regular delivery of mail from home, family members, and friends in England, as well as packages from the Red Cross, the Newfoundland War Comforts Committee, and other charitable groups. Most of the letters Kearney sent while imprisoned spoke of the men’s efforts to dispel the monotony of life as a POW. He spent a lot of time reading, playing sports, and taking various courses offered by fellow prisoners who were former professors and tradespeople. He tried learning
ballroom dancing, basic accounting, cooking, and numerous languages.” Kearney was detained in the transit camps at Derna, Benghazi, and Tripoli, North Africa, from November 26, 1941, until mid-January, 1942, before arriving at Capua, Camp 66, Italy, where he remained from January to February 1942. He then moved on to a much longer period of detention at Camp 59, Servigliano, Italy, northeast of Rome, from February 1942 to June 1943. Joe’s light tone in his initial communication with home from the prison camp bore no trace of the trauma of starvation, anxiety, and fear before capture that he and his companions experienced before entering the transit camps in North Africa. His letters at this point continued coming at regular intervals, often written less than a week apart. While he could not be direct or specific because of censorship, there are hints of boredom that was part of his experience.
Joe’s letter home to his mother from Camp 59, Servigliano, Italy, on February 8, 1942, reads in part: “Everything going fine, received a Red Cross parcel this week and must say they deserve praise. You will have to pardon the writing as my hands are
a bit cold. Yes sometimes when I look out I think I’m back home with snow on the ground and what not. I was saying the other day I hope I arrive home around March so that I might enjoy a good feed of flippers. I am the only Newfoundlander here but get on quite well with the fellows.” It’s amazing to realize that Joe had been carrying on with this steady communication with his parents, having never received a letter from home. It was not until August 1942, after almost nine months, that he finally heard from them. His letter dated August 2, 1942, from Camp 59 mentions: “I was sure glad to receive your letter. It was dated February 8th and to learn that Dad spent a happy birthday. It must have been a relief to know that I was a prisoner… Sorry to hear that your rheuma
tism is worrying you and about that 10 pounds I couldn’t wire it so I just sent a money order. Don’t know what became of it. Since I got captured I wrote to the paymaster and asked him to send on another 10 pounds as there was a notice here in the prison camp saying you could do so. It was about four months ago. It’s over twelve months since I made the allotment. They’re sure slow.” Joe was longing for his much-loved Newfoundland. By early October 1942, he was sending Christmas greetings in hopes that the family would receive them
on time and expressing his desire to be with them for the next one. On October 4, 1942, he writes his mother and father from Camp 59: “How are you all. Everything is well here. Never felt better in my life regards health. Wish you a Merry Xmas and Happy New Year. It should arrive in time. Hope the next time I say it that it won’t be on a letter card. Remember me to all.” On November 8, 1942, he writes from the same camp to his mother and father. This correspondence was “Opened By Examiner 4565.” He writes: “Have grown a bit since I left home and still weigh somewhere around 150 pounds . . .” When Joe Kearney signed up for the army, he more than likely envisioned the adventures and challenges in serving his country. His situation as a POW did not fulfill this dream.
Although it isn’t obvious from his letters, Joe and his fellow prisoners had been trying to take action to escape. They laboriously dug a tunnel and managed to escape from Camp No. 59, Servigliano, Italy, but were captured after just one day of freedom. What is also not apparent is that Joe had already spent his first time in solitary confinement following the incident, a violation of the Geneva Convention. Soon after this, Joe was moved to another POW camp, near Bari in Southern Italy. His letter of June 24, 1943, to his mother and father from Campo PG 85, however, was unusually down for Joe. Perhaps by this time he was feeling the effects of the failed escape and realizing that the new location provided no more room for action than the previous one. At this point Joe had been a POW for
over a year and a half. He writes: “Well I might as well say something and not sit here as I have been doing for the last ten minutes trying to find something to write about. The things one would like to write about such as how the war is progressing and such isn’t allowed so we come to what? I am not going to trouble you with the every day life of a prisoner of war . . . the time passes very well ‘under the circumstances.’ . . . Well I think I’ve managed it this time. I’ll probably think of something else for next week.” The Italians and Germans surrendered to the Allies in the spring of 1943 in North Africa. Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, was deposed, and around September the Italians had surrendered. It
was then that the Germans invaded northern Italy. The progress of the Allies was slowed down, with periodic losses and gains to the Germans as they led into 1944. However, plans were being made in the summer of 1943 to move the POWs into German territory. Between August 2, 1943, and October 14, 1943, there were no letters. One might consider that they could have been lost in the process of reaching Newfoundland either through misdirection, by boats being sunk, or as a result of censorship. The Battle of the Atlantic, which was in full swing in late 1942 and into 1943, resulted in the sinking of many vessels by German U-boats, but it was effectively over by early summer.