On Nov. 16, 1944, Albert Torchia, an Army private from Verona, Pennsylvania, was holed up with his squad from the 104th Division in a house in the German town of Stolberg.
Everyone except for Torchia and one of his buddies was wounded.
“My buddy was upstairs with the BAR,” says Torchia, now 89 and living in Clearwater, of the Browning Automatic Rifle, a light machine gun. “I was downstairs dressing their wounds.”
The squad leader — whom Torchia would not name but refers to facetiously as “that fearless bastard” — said, “Let us know when it is OK to pull back to the original line.”
But that never happened.
“The Germans counterattacked,” Torchia says. “They blasted a hole in the house. It knocked me down the stairs. They started pouring through and we were captured.”
I came across Torchia in a sort of happy accident. My column last week about the French interest in rewarding U.S. troops who fought to liberate France sparked some emails and calls, including one pointing me toward Torchia.
He landed in Normandy a few months after the invasion, and his division was attached to the Canadian 1st Army, which fought for a time in France, but most of his battles were in Holland, Belgium and Germany.
Given that every day more than 500 WWII veterans fade away, his is a story worth telling.
Torchia was eventually taken to Stalag 7a, according to an online registry of those captured by the Germans and Japanese during WWII.
At first, being a POW was no big deal, says Torchia.
“When you are 18, 19 years old, you are invincible,” he says. “It really didn’t bother me that much.”
The Germans, he said, didn’t mistreat him or the other prisoners.
But they didn’t feed them much, either.
“I remember the traditional grass soup, with worms,” he says, laughing at the memory. “We had that and a slice of bread every day. And a couple of potatoes. We were not ill-treated, but of course, they didn’t have much themselves at the time.”
Eventually, Torchia was transferred to another location, where he worked on a farm, tending to potatoes.
“That last couple of months on the farm, we had turnips and potatoes, and one guy was good enough with a pitchfork that, once in a while, he would get one of the landowner’s chickens and we would have chicken soup. The last couple of months I put on some weight.”
It was the spring of 1945, and even though Torchia and the other prisoners, a group that included Polish soldiers, didn’t know any details, they knew the Americans were advancing from the West and the Russians from the East.
About May 1, while being marched along a road, Torchia says he and three others bolted.
“We went back to the farm and waited until either the Russians or Americans came,” he says.
The Russians got there first, so he and the others started walking toward the American lines.
“Most Germans didn’t want to be overrun by the Russians because of the way they treated the Russians, which was horrible,” Torchia says. “In the prison camps they gave them virtually no food at all and treated them like dogs.”
Torchia received the Purple Heart for his wounds and the Bronze Star for holding off the Germans.
After the war, he sold televisions in a Pittsburgh department store before moving to Florida in 1960, eventually opening an air-conditioning business.
And the squad leader?
“He made it all the way through without a scratch,” says Torchia, with a hint of lingering resentment.
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Few have what it takes to be a commando.
But now anyone can dress like one, thanks to a collaboration between Affliction Clothing and Operator Inc., a company owned by local retired commandos, About two weeks ago, Affliction Clothing began distributing Affliction X Operator, a men’s clothing collection “celebrating our military’s special forces and our nation’s great heroes,” says Operator founder Scott Neil, a retired Green Beret master sergeant.
The collaboration between Affliction, a former mixed martial arts promotion company turned clothing maker, and commandos is natural, says Neil.
The Affliction motto sums up that synergy.
“We are inspired by those who live fast and are willing to endure pain and suffering to push the limits of what is possible. Together we will change things. Every man dies, not every man truly lives.”
Two styles of T-shirts went on sale in Buckles stores in the Brandon area, Westfield Citrus Park mall, Orlando and elsewhere, Neil says.
They are akin to the shirts worn by “team guys,” he says.
There is a sticker on every shirt that states that a portion of each purchase goes to the Green Beret Foundation, on which Neil serves as director of strategic development. Inside each shirt is a message explaining what commandos do. Each shirt highlights one kind of operator.
The clothing collab is the latest effort by the organization best known for putting on the Shooting with SOF events that bring the commando community together with business and civic leaders.
Operator also provides “best-in-class service, support, products, and consulting to customers globally, with the motto Fear None,” says Neil. The company’s event arm, Operator Challenge, hosts a series of demanding challenges that tests competitors’ shooting, outdoor skill sets, and physical and mental prowess. Operator also provides consumers with a test and evaluation program, called Mission Ready, on products that meet the level of quality an operator uses on the battlefield.
“Operator always ensures portions of the company’s profits benefits Special Operations charities across all branches of military service,” he says.
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Congrats go out to Army Capt. Erik Anthes. The son of a Pasco County Sheriff Office deputy and 2004 graduate of River Ridge High School in New Port Richey is the Army Transportation Corps Regiment Officer of the Year.
Anthes, the interim division transportation officer for the storied 1st Infantry Division stationed at Fort Riley, received rave reviews from his commanders, including Maj. Gen. Paul Funk, the division commander.
“My first interaction with CPT Anthes was after he volunteered as a first responder to Moore, Oklahoma, after a tornado devastated the area,” Funk wrote in his nomination letter. “On his own initiative and expense, he drove down to the affected area and helped displaced residents in any way he could.”
Funk noted that with Anthes’ “expert logistics training” he was able to “collect and distribute hundreds of gallons of drinking water, non-perishable food, hygiene and comfort items to Americans who lost every worldly possession in the storm.”
Lt. Col. Troy Wilt summed up his praise for Anthes, who was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army’s Transportation Corps after graduating from the University of Central Missouri in 2007:
“This young, talented officer is a shining example of a leader that is brave, responsible, and on-point for this unit and the nation,” Wilt wrote in his nomination letter.
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The Pentagon announced the deaths of three soldiers last week.
Staff Sgt. Benjamin G. Prange, 30, of Hickman, Neb.; and Pfc. Keith M. Williams, 19, of Visalia, Calif. died July 24, in Mirugol Kalay, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, of wounds suffered when the enemy attacked their vehicle with an improvised explosive device. These soldiers were assigned 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo. Pfc.
Donnell A. Hamilton Jr., 20, of Kenosha, Wisconsin, died July 24, at Brooke Army Medical Center, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, from an illness sustained in Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.
There have now been 2,326 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.