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'What's to tell?': Main Line veteran recalls fighting, being taken prisoner by Germans at Anzio

Mari A. Schaefer, Staff Writer

Updated: Friday, November 11, 2016, 1:08 AM

Thomas A. Flannery at his Narberth apartment October 3, 2016. He was 21 years old when he was captured by the Nazis. He spent 451 days as a POW before coming home, getting married and raising five children.

It's been 72 years since Pvt. Thomas A. Flannery became Prisoner of War Flannery.

Thomas Flannery holds the Miraculous Medal that he had with him when he was captured by the Germans in World War Two and has worn every day since.
Thomas A. Flannery (front) training while at Lasalle College in 1945 after he returned home after the war. He ran the mile and two mile. Photo courtesy of Flannery family
Thomas A. Flannery at his Narberth apartment October 3, 2016. He was 21 years old when he was captured by the Nazis. He spent 451 days as a POW before coming home, getting married and raising five children. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Wedding photo on the shelf in living room of the Narberth apartment of Thomas A. Flannery. He and Joan were married on Oct. 8, 1949. Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer
Thomas A. Flannery (center, in glasses, holding pole) during his time on a farm as a POW. Photo courtesy of Flannery family
Thomas A. Flannery was 21 years old when he was captured by the Nazis. He spent 451 days as a POW before coming home, getting married and raising five children. Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer
Thomas A. Flannery (second from left) in Naples, Italy in 1943, before he was captured by the Nazis. He spent 451 days as a POW before coming home, getting married and raising five children and retiring in Narberth. Photo courtesy of Flannery family
Thomas A. Flannery (right) when he coached the St. Theresa's CYO basketball team in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Flannery family
Family photos on the shelf in living room of the Narberth apartment of Thomas A. Flannery October 3, 2016. He was 21 years old when he was captured by the Nazis. He spent 451 days as a POW before coming home, getting married and raising five children. Tom Gralish/Staff Photographer
Montage of photos shows Thomas A. Flannery at the "Square Bar" Flannery's Tavern he owned at Wayne & Roberts Avenues in North Philadelphia. It was opened by his dad in 1933, and Flannery closed it in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Flannery family
Photo Gallery: Thomas A. Flannery, W.W. II vet and POW

The 21-year-old kid from Philadelphia found himself lying in a foxhole in Anzio, Italy, on April 26, 1944, bleeding from shrapnel wounds to his head, leg, and backside. He looked up to see a German soldier standing over him with a gun.

"Am I going to get shot?" Flannery wondered. "Killed?"

He began to pray.

"It happened so fast," Flannery said of the spring day when he and 17 other soldiers were captured.

He's 92 now, and living in Narberth with daughter Susie. The former infantryman's life revolves around family, friends, and deep faith made even stronger by war.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 619,000 World War II veterans are alive today, most in their late 80s and 90s. About 465 die each day.

Like many of the 16 million Americans who served during that war, Flannery didn't talk much with his family about his combat experience.

"I think [the veterans] wanted to forget about it and move on," said his oldest child, Karen.

His seven children grew up knowing their father had been captured at Anzio and had received a Purple Heart, but little else about how he had fought in one of the war's most pivotal battles - or the time he spent as a prisoner.

"You won't understand it," Thomas Flannery said, seeking to explain why he never told war stories. "A guy comes over the hill, and you shoot him or get killed by a mortar shell."

He waves his hand.

"What's to tell?"

It's not as though memories have dimmed. When they swoop in too close, Flannery pulls back to talk about the war in more general terms, or redirects the subject.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Flannery was a freshman at La Salle College. He grew up in Germantown, the second son of Anthony "Andy" and Ellen "Nellie" Flannery. His parents were born in Ireland and met in Philadelphia, where his father owned Flannery's Square Bar in Nicetown.

After St. Francis of Assisi grammar school came La Salle College High School, where his brother John Francis, known as "Tex," would become a beloved football coach.

Pearl Harbor lit a fire in his circle of friends. "A whole gang of us went down to the armory at 33rd and Lancaster," he said. He wasn't called to Army duty until March 10, 1943.

With a gift of $5 from his father, Flannery spent the next five months moving from one post to another for infantry training until he boarded a troop ship in North Jersey, bound for Africa - first stop, Casablanca.

"But Humphrey Bogart wasn't there," Flannery said with a smile and a characteristic twinkle in his blue eyes.

Flannery was part of the Third Infantry Division, Company B, under Gen. Lucian King Truscott Jr. when he later landed in Sicily. Malaria took him out of action and sent him back to Africa to recover.

Once he returned to Italy, the devout Catholic was sent to Naples to get new glasses - where he came across a marble statute of St. Michael the Guardian Angel.

"I said a Hail Mary that I'll be all right," he said.

Flannery would need the blessing. The Third Infantry sustained heavy losses during the four-month battle at Anzio. It was one of many times during the war that he would call on his faith, his daughter Susie said.

"He told me that he made a promise to God that, if he got back, he'd go to Mass every day," his daughter said. He kept that promise.

At Anzio, Allied commanders hoped to break a stalemate that developed after the September 1943 invasion at Salerno. The goal: drawing enemy forces south, leading to the eventual capture of Rome.

At 2 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1944, Flannery and 200 other troops jumped from their amphibious assault ship into the waters off Anzio.

He carried a full pack with a shelter-half (or pup tent), a blanket, C rations, a bandolier full of ammunition, a rifle, a rosary, and the Miraculous Medal depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary.

At six feet tall, Flannery said, he was able to keep his head above water by bobbing up and down off the ocean bottom.

Their mission, he recalled, was to take the highway between Rome and Cassino to the south.

"Instead," Flannery recalled, "they told us to dig in at daylight." The Germans fought them back to the sea.

For three months, troops battled to a stalemate in the swampy Pontine Marshes. They subsisted on C rations of meat and vegetables or chopped ham and eggs while living with constant shelling and tank fire, he said.

On the day he was captured, Flannery wasn't supposed to be in the foxhole that was hit by a German mortar shell. He went to check on a phone operator who wasn't paying attention and ended up staying put.

"That night they shelled us," he said. Once the bombing stopped, enemy troops came in the morning. The Allies fought them off for a while.

"They were on top of us so fast, we didn't realize it," he said. Flannery and about 10 others were wounded when artillery rounds landed nearby.

"That was it," Flannery said. The Germans took him to an aid station to remove the shrapnel, and transferred him to occupied Rome, where he got his first - and only - glimpse of the Colosseum.

Flannery was eventually sent to Stalag 7B near Memmingen, Germany, where 864 other American prisoners were held before being transferred to a work farm.

His family knew only that he was missing. By chance, one of his Philadelphia buddies wrote home mentioning Flannery's capture the same day an article appeared in the Bulletin listing him as MIA.

"They told my mother I was a POW with the Germans, which relieved a lot of people," he said.

For a year and a day, he was held captive, first repairing roofs, then cutting grass, barley, and oats.

"They worked the hell out of us," he said.

At night, the farmers took the prisoners' clothes so they wouldn't escape. He ate warm black bread and milk with ersatz coffee made from chicory and acorns. Occasionally, he said, a parcel from home would arrive.

"He never worked so hard in his life as he did on that farm," said Susie. "And that is saying a lot for a man who owned his own business."

His rescue was announced by the sound of artillery booming in the distance.

"They started to move us from one town to another," he said. The prisoners were terrified of falling into the hands of Nazi SS troops, who they feared would kill them.

When their guards fled, he was among four or five Allied prisoners hidden by villagers in a cellar. That day, with shells falling around them and German troops on the move, Flannery and the other prisoners sat stone silent in the basement of a house.

He began to pray to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, clutching his two possessions - the rosary and the Miraculous Medal.

When it was safe, townspeople brought them up from the basement and reunited them with their troops.

While one American officer wanted to hand them rifles to fight, another said to "get them the hell out of here," Flannery recalled. They were fed, questioned to make sure they were not Germans, and then shipped out.

When he made it to Boston, Flannery placed a call.

VIctor 4-0316.

"Hey, Mom, I'm home," Flannery said.

"Thank God," she replied.

After the war, Flannery married the girl he met on the boardwalk of Ocean City, N.J., where his father had a summer home. He and Joan Donnelly were married for 62 years. She died four years ago.

At first, Flannery returned to La Salle College, but found that what he had seen and gone through took away his heart for studying. He worked at his father's bar at Wayne and Roberts Avenues, eventually taking it over.

The couple had seven children - Karen, Butch, Joan, Nancy, Eileen, Susie, and Kate (an actress who starred on the TV series The Office). He put them all through Catholic school.

He doesn't take Veterans Day for granted.

"It's a big thing," said Flannery, sitting forward on his lounge chair and poking the air with his finger. "A lot [of soldiers] didn't come home."

When Flannery counts his combat time, he says he only served for "three to four months." He doesn't include his time as a prisoner, Susie Flannery said.

"He is very humble about the whole thing," she said. "He won't even take advantage of the free food for veterans specials because he doesn't believe it applies to him."

To him, "the guys that didn't make it home were the heroes," she said.

Seventy-two years after the fact, Flannery considers himself lucky.

Lucky it was the German infantry and not the SS that took him prisoner.

Lucky he ended up working on a farm and not in the camp.

Lucky he survived the liberation.

Throughout the war, he kept with him the rosary and the Miraculous Medal he'd brought from home.

The Germans never took them.

The rosary he eventually lost. The medal he still keeps close by.

Flannery reached over the knot of his green tie and pulled out the Miraculous Medal from under his dress shirt.

Time has dulled the fine details of the Blessed Virgin's figure. The jump loop was replaced by a local jeweler who refused payment when he found out what Flannery had done in the war. A mitzvah, the shopkeeper told Karen Flannery.

"Every day" he wears it, Flannery said. "Every day."

mschaefer@phillynews.com

215-854-4908

@MariSchaefer

Mari A. Schaefer, Staff Writer

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