The struggle of an imprisoned warrior

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(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ashley N. Steffen)

DAVIS MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz.  — Sweat and water mingled in dripping beads, caressing the cheeks of muddied Soldiers in a land rotting with war.

It was early in the morning; the world was still black with a sleeping sun. In anticipation, U.S. Army Pvt. Tony Gargano, in Fox Company, waited to launch a secret attack on the German soldier’s front line.

Not all were willing to fight, for some the war had taken its toll on their minds and bodies; leading to acts of desperation to get out of battle.

“One of the guys shot himself in the foot, he didn’t want to go,” Gargano described.

The man with a fresh limp was taken off to medical while everyone buzzed with emotions for the approaching battle.

They started to move forward as the U.S. Army Air Corps flew overhead dropping flares to expose the enemy’s front line. Hollywood style spot lights pointed towards the German troops in hopes of blinding them in combat.

“The Germans knew we were there, they put artillery on us,” Gargano said. “Boy they were really accurate. The first aid man, Willy, a good friend of mine said, ‘Tony you got to help me, these guys are bad.’ One guy had his hip off, another was dead.”

The mêlée roared on around Gargano as he helped identify the living from the dead.

Up ahead the battle pressed forward, in the disarray of artillery, explosions sounded.

The company’s leaders, Capt. Earl E. Swanson stepped on a landmine. Lt. Robert W. Rankin went after his comrade and suffered the same fate; leaving Fox Company without an officer in charge in the midst of combat.

The sun rose over the horizon blessing Gargano with morning light to see. With his sight he stepped in foot prints like stepping stones leading him across a meadow of death.

“Now it was my turn to walk across the mine field,” Gargano said. “I could see the foot prints of the guy in front of me; I would step in his prints and stop. Any minute I was ready for an explosion.”

For Gargano, the explosion never came, machine gun fire opened up forcing him to hit the ground and crawl the remainder of the field to a stone wall encircled church.

Through the crawl Gargano reached back for his grenades. His hands pressed against his garments in search for what was not there. He had lost them in the pandemonium.

“I reached back and they were gone, I lost them crawling. I hoped I didn’t pull the pins.” Gargano says with a smile recounting his mistake. 

In view was a church resting in a small village with only one street; inside the church was shelter for Gargano, a handful of other Soldiers and German prisoners hiding from the rain of bullets.

The fight had turned; Gargano and the other Soldiers were enclosed by relentless Germans. The Germans fired making it rain copper and steal ammunition on the small-town church.  

The Soldiers who were held down in the church had attempted to send a sign of surrender, “We sent one German prisoner out with a white flag. They shot him.” Gargano said.

Marking his disbelief when their surrender was no longer an option. Quickly finding an available field of fire, they set up preparing for the worst.

Guns rested on the cemetery wall scanning the field for any hostile targets, as time pressed they attempted their escape from their temporary sanctuary, and ran down a hill.

“I don’t know if it was a tank or artillery, but we turned to go downhill away from it. As we made our way there was the Germans with a four barrel machine gun, the kind they used to shoo low flying aircraft,” Gargano said. “We were running so fast down that hill as they were coming up we couldn’t have turned around to head back up without them shooting the hell out of us. We’d be dead. So we gave up.”

The Germans took away his freedom; that was the day Tony Gargano became a Prisoner of War.

“I was surprised at how many of our guys were captured,” Gargano said softly. “It was disappointing.”

Living conditions were harsh within the walls that held men of war; lice crawled in forests of hair and over plains of skin of the captured Soldiers. Food was presented once a day and consisted of potato peels mingled and floated with meager vegetables, paired with a piece of bread.

“We marched for thirty days,” Gargano said. “On the way we had to beg for food.”

While Gargano was lined up along the roadside for a head count with other POWs; a horse drawn wagon bumped and jostled down the road passing the line of men. In the back of the wagon was a mountain of potatoes.

“As soon as the wagon came by me,” Gargano raised his voice in excitement over the memory. “I jumped on that wagon and I grabbed potatoes, stuffed them in my shirt. I still remember how many I got to this day; 21 potatoes,” He said. “I ate well for two or three days.”

They marched on through German fields tilled by artillery and explosives; through leveled villages and towns.

Pushed into a large barn the Soldiers waited for their German captors to give direction, but they never came. A lone Soldier came into the barn announcing the Germans wanted to kill their hostages earning him a beating from one of the prisoners. They walked out of the barn expecting to see the Germans prepared and waiting. They were nowhere to be seen, the captured men were abandoned.

“There was a road running alongside the barn and here comes our guys, recon outfit, in two armored vehicles and a jeep with a machine gun,” Gargano said. “They knew about us and I think they were purposefully breaking through the German lines to get at us.”

The freedom washed over the men in a wave of pure relief.

“I couldn’t believe it,” He repeated. “I couldn’t believe it, I felt free, like a big stone was lifted off my chest.”

Tony Gargano’s POW memorabilia is going to be displayed at a POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony at the Pima Air and Space Museum located at 6000 E Valencia Road, Tucson, Sept. 18, at 3 p.m. This is a free event and open to the public.