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    Tampa Bay two-time POW in WWII remembers his war

    Tampa Bay two-time POW in WWII remembers his war

    Photo By Timothy Lawn | Cathy Quigley (Daughter) and John Quigley, stand behind a POWMIA commemorative car...... read more read more



    Courtesy Story

    215th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

    TAMPA, Fla. - ORAN, Algeria, Nov. 8, 1942, Operation Torch: “They blew holes in the ship ... I saw a shell hit a wall and tore some gears out. They even blew the turret off our boat,” said Pfc. John Quigley as he described his participation in the doomed allied landing attempt at Oran harbor.

    Quigley recalled the deadly crossfire coming from Vichy French destroyers and fortified shore batteries that commanded the harbor entrance. The enemy fire ripped into two British manned Banff-class Coast Guard sloops filled with more than 393 U.S. soldiers, officers and enlisted; four U.S. Navy officers and 22 seamen; six U.S. Marines; and 52 Royal Navy officers and enlisted. The devastating fire killed and wounded most of the surprised U.S. and allied soldiers, sailors and Marines heading into the harbor on a suicidal mission that fateful night.

    That suicidal mission that Quigley and the other American and allied soldiers, sailors and Marines were on was part of a bigger mission, Operation Torch, which was the allied invasion of North Africa.

    Operation Torch was the first major military action for the untested American military in the European Theater. The invasion was created to secure military targets such as ports, harbors and bases on the coast of North Africa and to extend offensive operations, assuring the destruction of German Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Italian and German forces in North Africa so that the allies could focus on Europe.

    Quigley’s part of the North African landing was titled Operation Reservist. He and his fellow soldiers were assigned to seize Oran’s port before the Vichy French could sabotage the port and facilities. The allied command had assembled the bulk of the landing party out of the U.S. First Infantry Division, and they had hoped that the Oran landing team would be received and greeted as friends.

    A friendly greeting for any allied landing was not in the Vichy French mind; in fact, the French would put up a fight the Americans and allies were wholly unprepared for.

    In 1940, France had fallen to the German juggernaut. The French defeat was a potential tactical game changer in the Mediterranean area of operations and the future success of the war in Europe.

    That tactical game changer was being orchestrated by Adolf Hitler, Rommel, and the German and Italian Afrika Korps. The allies were in a life-and-death struggle to maintain control of the Mediterranean. Rommel’s Afrika Korps had pushed the British onto the defensive in Egypt and Greece, and Crete had fallen, German U-boats were successfully striking fear in the passage around Gibraltar, forming a noose which caused shipping crews to white-knuckle supplies through to allied troops fighting in the Mediterranean.

    Adding to the Allied struggle for control of the Mediterranean were now more than 120,000 French troops based in Africa, and the remaining French fleet, which lay waiting for Allied or Axis capture and use. The question that was stressing the Allied war effort was this: Would French forces side with the Germans or the allies?

    Whose side would the French join? The French government was humiliated, its country’s soldiers and sailors based in occupied Mediterranean military installations and ports were unsure which side to fight on. Though they abhorred the Nazis they also had no lost love for the British. This animosity came about by Britain’s effort to keep valuable French warships out of German hands. The British had bombed and destroyed a number of ships berthed in North African harbors, killing and wounding scores of French sailors.

    To ensure the French did not side with the Nazis, and to ultimately defeat Rommel and the Afrika Korps, the allies decided that there would need to be an invasion to recapture key strategic targets and ports in the Mediterranean.

    Allied war planners had hoped that by putting an American face on the invasion of North Africa -- titled “Operation Torch” -- the French would potentially offer token resistance. The Allies would soon be in for a rude awakening.

    That rude awakening happened on Quigley’s watch at around 0300 on Nov. 8.

    Oran harbor bristled with 13 coastal artillery batteries ringing the port. Immediate French troop defensive strength was estimated to exceed 10,000, and could be reinforcable to more than 18,000 men within hours of any opposed landing. French Army and Navy airfields had more than 100 planes available and several French destroyers -- that could put up stiff resistance -- lay waiting in the harbor.

    That resistance was immediate. Quigly recalls watching in horror as the ship around him was shredded by enemy fire.

    The fire was deadly accurate because of the narrow confines of Oran’s harbor. Quigley’s ship was exploding and it started to sink. His survival instincts kicked in, and though wounded he stripped down to his undershorts, dove into the water and swam to shore. Upon reaching the relative safety of land Quigley noticed wounded men floundering in the water and on a floating deck still being targeted. The Vichy French were intentionally firing at the soldiers in the water, raking them with heavy machine gun fire. Quigley realized his fellow soldiers would perish if they did not get out of the kill zone.

    Without regard for his own life, Quigley jumped back in, swam out to the deck and assisted wounded men to safety. By his own recollection, Quigly said he pulled about 20 men out of the water that night.

    “Staying in shape was good,” Quigley said. He credited his survival and ability to rescue other wounded men who would otherwise have drowned that night to his excellent pre-war physical conditioning. That same conditioning would later help him again on more than one occasion.

    The mission to seize the port that night failed miserably. After the smoke cleared, Quigley and an estimated 47 survivors became prisoners of war of the Vichy French, Quigley’s first Prisoner of War experience, by his own recollection, lasted just six days.

    His actions that night earned him the Silver Star.

    Quigley’s initial POW ordeal in World War II would not be his last. Later, in North Africa, he became a prisoner of the Germans. Though twice a POW he would continue fighting on until 1944.

    In order to understand Quigley’s story of fighting and survival as a POW and enduring the physical and mental hardships of the war, you have to look at where he came from, and how he pushed himself to survive.

    He was from the Bronx. Quigley was born in 1919 in the Harlem section of New York.

    By 1936, Quigley’s physical prowess soon made him an aspiring Olympic track star. Training with an Olympian, he entered Manhattan College in 1939 and joined the track team. He trained with some of the best athletes of his day. He was twice voted Most Valuable Player of the Senior Met AAU Championships. Quigley’s best track time was the quarter mile in 47.20 seconds, a track record not broken until 1954. Hoping to go onto the Olympics, Quigley ran track until war broke out. His accomplishments were put on hold, he was drafted in 1941 and he did not resume running until seven years later.

    Drafted and sent to Camp Dix in New Jersey for basic training, Quigley was assigned to the First Armored Division. He spent six months training in the U.S., England and Scotland, and then shipped out for the invasion of North Africa.

    Quigley had the unfortunate experience of being one of the first U.S. troops thrown into the fight against a battle hardened and determined foe, the Afrika Corps, at Kasserine Pass.

    “It seemed as if the Germans were chasing us the whole time,” Quigley said.

    Describing the fighting at Kasserine, Quigley recalled his experience in combat as being strictly an infantryman’s battle.

    “The fighting was always at night,” Quigley said.

    On April 23, 1943, Quigley’s unit had spent the past several days fighting. Their objective was two medium-sized hills which had been sown with mines and booby traps. Upon capturing the objective Quigley’s company immediately spread out into defensive elements of platoon- and squad-size units.

    Platoon Sergeant Quigley was ordered to take a few men and secure a hill while the rest of the company regrouped.

    Quigley and his soldiers set in and waited. At some point in the middle of the night, Quigley realized a German patrol was heading his way with the intent of retaking the hill.

    In the ensuing firefight someone threw a grenade, wounding a German. The rest of the Germans retreated back to the safety of their lines but left their wounded comrade.

    At dawn, Quigley and a couple of men set out to investigate the ambush and provide medical aid to the wounded German.

    Upon reaching the soldier, Quigley and his men realized they had a prize, a young officer, but he had passed out from a loss of blood. The German officers’ comrades must have been observing the unfolding situation, because within minutes artillery fire was raining down on Quigley and his fellow soldiers, and they had to retreat from the disabled solder. Quigley ordered his men to fall back to the more secure company-held area, but he and his men ran out of time.

    “I was sitting against a wall or stone outcrop and was waiting out the artillery ambush, I felt something tapping my helmet,” said Quigley. When he looked up, a German soldier was standing above him and ordering him to stand up.

    The Germans who overran his position were even backed up by a Tiger tank, and they were completely surrounded.

    Their predicament was serious, and the Germans immediately began interrogating Quigley. One of the interrogators accused him of taking the wounded soldiers’ private property. It was not uncommon that American or German soldiers who were caught with a enemy soldiers accruements as war souvenirs were shot on the spot by angry enemy comrades.

    “I was convinced that our captors were going to execute us right there and then. I was kind of lucky,” Quigley said.

    Somehow Quigley convinced the Germans that they truly intended to treat the wounded soldier and not strip him of his effects. In one of war’s mysterious circumstances, enemy-to-enemy chivalry among combatants was upheld. Though they let him and his comrades live, Quigley and his men had no free pass to freedom. They immediately impressed Quigley and his fellow soldiers into carrying the wounded German to the safety of his comrades.

    Once they safely delivered the enemy soldier Quigley was on his way to a POW camp in Tunisia, where he was incarcerated for a couple of weeks.

    “A German soldier told me not to say I was from New York City, but from the Midwest,” Quigley said. He added that the Germans intentionally put soldiers into hard labor if they found out you were from the city.

    Quigley also was surprised he actually met several German soldiers whom had grown up in the U.S., but had been caught up and drafted into the German Army while visiting home or relatives in Europe.

    From Tunisia, Quigley and his men were taken to a ship for transport to Italy, but the Germans never finished the prisoner transport to the mainland.

    By this time the Allied armies had defeated the Africa Corps and had liberated North Africa. Allied airpower ruled the skies and they bombed and strafed anything that attempted to leave the ports.

    In desperation the Germans simply beached and abandoned the ship that Quigley and several hundred American and allied prisoners were on in the middle of the night, allowing the POWs the opportunity to safely escape.

    “The Germans knew it was useless for them,” Quigley said, and he realized that they knew the war was over for them.

    Quigley was free to fight again at his next stop, Italy.

    Shortly after arriving in Italy, Quigley was re-united with a reconstituted Co H., 3rd Bn, 6th Arm. Inf. He remained with this unit throughout the Italian campaign. He would spend more than six months fighting in the Anzio and Monte Cassino area. Quigley had few words to describe his experience.

    “The fighting was tough … A lot of death,” he said.

    In June 1944, Rome was liberated. Quigley was on his way back to the U.S., and upon arriving stateside he was reassigned to a training unit preparing units for deployment to the Pacific Theater, to push Japanese forces back to their homeland and for the final battle of Japan.

    Amazingly, once released from the Army, Quigley went back to running. It had been almost seven years since he last dashed down a track, and his physique also had changed.

    “I went from 270 down to 160 pounds,” Quigley said.

    He eventually ran in the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration in 1948. Quigley’s running days were behind him, though.

    Quigley admits that the war took its toll. He commented that he later found solace in alcohol. For his sheer survival at war and in hard combat, from Oran throughout North Africa into the mountains of Italy and throughout the duration of the war as an infantryman until 1945, Quigley credits his pre-war training, physical condition and sheer luck as his reason he is alive today.

    Today, Quigley calls Florida home. At 95 years strong, he lives with his daughter, Cathy, who cares for him. Cancer and its treatment have slowed him down a little. Photos of Quigley in his pre-war college track glory days and his war medals hang in frames upon the living room wall.

    The frame with his medals hangs in prominence on the entry wall. Quigley’s awards include the POW/MIA medal, the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the European and World War II Campaign medals, along with his Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

    On the occasion of his interview he is decked out in his official Rolling Thunder, Florida Chapter 7, motorcycle club black leather vest adorned with the POW/MIA insignia and pins from some of his POW/MIA guest speaker journeys.

    Quigley’s World War II ordeal from the waters of Oran’s harbor, through Kasserine Pass and the mountains of Italy and POW stints may be long over, but not far from his mind.


    U.S. Army in WWII, Mediterranean Theater of Operations, Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West. George F. Howe



    Date Taken: 05.25.2015
    Date Posted: 05.25.2015 16:26
    Story ID: 164461
    Location: TAMPA, FL, US 

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