Latest Faculty of Information News

Captured: An RCAF Sergeant’s WWII journey from captivity to daring escape

Submitted on Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Museum Studies students dig up rare ‘diary’ detailing daily life in German POW camps. It’s on display in a new exhibit at the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton 

Vincent Mancini enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 1940 at age 28, training as a navigator. Two years later, his aircraft was shot down over German-controlled territory and Sgt. Mancini, the sole survivor, was captured. He would spend the next three years in German POW camps, known as “stalags”, in what is present-day Lithuania.  

Sgt. Mancini was one of more than 9,000 Canadians held in German POW camps, where conditions were harsh and food was scarce. He documented his World War II experiences in a wartime log, a booklet issued by the YMCA to American and Canadian POWs as a “remembrance from home.” Soldiers filled them with family photographs, diary entries and sketches. It was common to pass them around, allowing friends to add their own drawings, poems or messages. 

Until recently, Sgt. Mancini’s log was stored in a box in his son Vince’s basement, but during Covid, Vince Mancini and his sister Donna Wall took steps to ensure their father’s legacy would be preserved. “We were afraid of what would happen after we pass,” said Donna. After scanning copies to keep for themselves, they decided to donate their father’s papers to the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton, which Vince and his wife Roxanne knew well and where one of the Ad Astra stones lining the pathways is dedicated to Vince’s father. 

The family, however, did not initially include the log book, which is featured prominently in the museum’s new permanent exhibit entitled Captured: Airmen in German Prisoner of War Camps, which is set to open on April 15. The log book’s existence only came to light late last year when students from the Faculty of Information’s Master of Museum Studies program, who were assisting with the exhibit as part of their final-year capstone project, decided to try to speak to the living descendants of Canada’s WWII airmen.  

MMSt students Anna Benko, Joseph Freedberg, Katherine Parker and Clemency Robinson were hoping to document the knowledge passed down by the POWs to their families, while it was still available. 

“This is something we’re all very passionate about,” said Parker, adding that their work “ended up leading to all these developments that go beyond this one project.”

MMSt students Clemency Robinson, Anna Benko, Joseph Freedberg and Katherine ParkerMaster of Museum Studies students Clemency Robinson, Anna Benko, Joseph Freedberg and Katherine Parker were mentored by NAFMC curator Laura Imrie, an alumna of the Museum Studies program.

When the students spoke with the Mancini family, Vince revealed that he had a book of his father’s containing poems and illustrations from his time in the camp. “I’d always kept that a little bit separate for some reason.” said Vince. “I was cognizant of all the unique paintings and poems that folks have written [in the log] and there was a little part of me that was reluctant to hand it over. But then I thought, no, I’m being selfish.” 

While Sgt. Mancini’s book is the eighth wartime log in the museum’s collection, it stands out due to its vivid illustrations depicting daily life in the camp and the arduous forced marches toward the end of the war. 

In 1944, Adolf Hitler issued instructions to move prisoner of war camps to the rear of German-controlled territory, away from the advancing Soviet Army. POWs were forced on daily marches in extreme winter weather. There was so little food that at one point, Sgt. Mancini traded his watch to a German soldier in exchange for a potato, which he never received.  

After marching some 700 km over the course of several months, on April 15, 1945, Sgt. Mancini and 12 others escaped from their forced march in Barnestedt, Germany and hid in the nearby woods. They were found by the French underground who directed them to a village liberated by the British.  

When Sgt. Mancini was transferred to the UK three days later, he was reunited with his younger brother, Frank, also serving in the RCAF. Summoned to the Commanding Officer’s office, Frank did not immediately recognize his brother who, at 5’10” weighed a mere 98 lbs after enduring years in POW camps. It was only when he smiled that Frank recognized his brother. Sgt. Mancini was eventually repatriated to Canada in June, where he was reunited with the rest of his family.  

After the war, Sgt. Mancini worked at his father’s bottling company and later became a social worker for the province of Nova Scotia. He married in 1949 and had seven children, five boys and two girls. Sgt. Mancini died in 1985 after a long battle with cancer. 

Vince and Donna’s accounts of their father’s escape during the forced marches struck a chord with the students. They knew that the previous year, the museum had acquired a ledger book which included a page titled, “The Lucky Thirteen,” and had the signatures of 13 men who had escaped prisoner of war camps. Together with the Mancini family, the students confirmed that a V.S. Mancini from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, was one of the signatures in the log book and that Sgt. Mancini was one of the Lucky 13, an astonishing revelation for the family. 

“Without the ability to participate in this project, we would never have known about the Lucky Thirteen or Dad’s involvement in it  and many other aspects of his trials and tribulations from 1942 to 1945,” said Vince. 

“The wartime logs brought people together and created a community while they were struggling, having no connections to home or the outside world,” says Parker. “You can tell how important the logbooks were to them by the fact that they survived at all.” 

Visitors will be able to view Sgt. Mancini’s wartime log, along with those of his fellow captives, through a digital kiosk. The exhibit also showcases artifacts, including a hand-sewn backpack crafted from repurposed uniforms, which was used during the forced marches as well as videotaped interviews with Vince, Donna, and other family members of Canadian POWs who have contributed items to the museum’s collection. 

Captured: Airmen in German Prisoner of War Camps is now on display at the National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton, Ontario. The MMSt students developed the exhibition as part of their Museum Studies Capstone Projects course under the mentorship of NAFMC curator Laura Imrie, an alumna of the Museum Studies program, and Assistant Professor Maggie Hutcheson.