By Jill N. Smith
Union County Heritage Museum
PFC. Howard Camp of Blue Springs, MS was one of six Union County soldiers, along with 18 other Mississippians killed on January 26, 1944, when a U.S. Navy Landing Ship Tank hit a mine in the sea near the City of Anzio, Italy, about 30 miles south of Rome 76 years ago.
At approximately 4 a. m. on that cold morning in January 1944 survivors recall being awakened by the explosion as the ship struck a mine. Passageways were choked with smoke as men tried to get out of their sleeping quarters and get to the fresh air on deck.
There were 600 soldiers on board, and the ship was about 10 miles out at sea. The sea was very rough. The U.S. Army’s 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion was headed from North Africa and Sicily on their way to Anzio heading toward the assault on Rome. Nearly half the units, Companies A and B, was aboard the lead ship. These men were specially trained in chemical warfare called shock troops using 4.2-inch mortars to shoot at the German and Italian armies from land, as other simultaneous attacks came from air and water. But many of these soldiers never made it to shore.
It was raining and sleeting as soldiers jumped from the burning ship, laden with ammunition, into the icy waters to get away from the fire and exploding shells, which began exploding after the ship struck the mine. Exploding ammunition included the phosphorous incendiary weapon, designed to ”burn, burn, burn,” one survivor recalled.
Camp, 24 years old, had left Union County 15 months earlier. Letters in the collection of the Union County Historical Society, from Howard Camp to his mother Mrs. A. P. (Bessie) Camp of Blue Springs, tell a story of him “being in action quite a bit and that the mail is coming faster now, it takes about 11 days to get a letter…”
In an August 1943 letter he says, “I can’t say much about the war hear (sic) except that things were pretty exciting the first few days. I think I have a few gray hairs in my head.” In a letter dated December 2, 1943, about six weeks before he was killed, he writes to his brother Spencer who is also in the Army “…I had my first shave today in about a month and am at the time pretty dirty. I wish everyone in the states could see what war is really like in Italy. I am glad it will never come to the states. I don’t believe it will last much longer in Europe because of the bombing in Berlin. I have seen some of the bombed out cities.“ And that was the last letter received from Howard Camp.
Letters from Camp to his mother and then from his mother to his sister Madie are part of the Howard Camp story in the museum archives. He is also included in the World War II exhibit. His Purple Heart that was presented to his mother after his death is on exhibit in the World War II exhibit. As Mrs. Camp writes to her daughter who was living in Memphis, she writes on April 11, 1944, almost four months after he was killed: “I have not heard any more from Howard. A Mrs. Clayton from Myrtle wrote to me that her boy was missing the 26 Jan too. Said she got a letter from Curtis Gregory who was with them got out and said he would write her as soon as he could what happened the 26 of January. Said it was bad and he was in hopes that more of them would have come out. She was afraid that they were wounded and captured by the Germans. She said she would write to me if she heard anything… I got a letter from James Brassfield who is in the Veterans Hospital at Jackson, said he and Howard were wounded in the invasion of Sicily and went to the hospital together. Howard soon got out and went back to the co. He said he would have thought he (Howard) would have got to come home for a rest…”
But he did not come home but was assigned back to his unit, and family and friends did not hear anything other than Camp and six other Union County soldiers were missing in action.
By May 22, 1944, Mrs. Camp had given up hope, she writes to her daughter Madie: “Will write you this morning as we got a letter from Vera May, she said that J. C. wrote her that Howard was killed and that Newman told him that he knows all about how he was killed and would write us as soon as he is allowed to. I now and almost gave up hope the morning I heard these death bells ringing in my ears just like they did when your papa took sick to die.”
With two other sons in the service, Spencer and Eldridge, Mrs. Camp had many worries during the war. She writes this to her daughter in May 1944: “I know he (Howard) was a good boy to have to go through what he was having to and God saw best to take him out of it. I would not care so much to live on if it was not for the rest of you. But we have to take things as they come.”
Howard Camp did not receive the letter that his mother wrote to him, on February 8. It was returned to her. And on June 6, 1944, a letter was received by Camp’s mother that told her that her son, Howard, was missing in action and on July 18, 1944, she received a letter from the War Department that said: “…the late Private First Class Howard Camp was killed in action in Italy on 26 January 1944. A report has now been received in the War Department relative to the circumstances preceding your son’s death. This report discloses hat Private Camp was … embarked from Naples, Italy on 24 January 1944 en route to the Anzio Beachhead. Due to rough sea, the troops were unable to disembark upon arrival. The following day the ship was struck by a mine and the order given to abandon ship…”
”In an article in the New Albany Gazette dated January 31, 1946 the names of all of the Union County men who had been killed on this ship during this event were listed: In addition to Howard Camp causalities include Irving Aldridge, John Carlton Fortune, Holland Clayton, Clyde McBryde and Mason Brewer.Anzio, Howard Camp, ship sinking, Union Countians, World War II