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The story of Italian POWs in the U.S. during WW II is one that has remained
hidden in the margins of history. Their unique journey speaks to issues
of nationalism, immigration, human relations and the impact of war.
The documentary “Prisoners in Paradise” traces the journey of six young Italians: from their entry into the war; to internment as prisoners in a country with a level of abundance and wealth they had never imagined possible; through a decision that would change not only their experience as prisoners in the United States, but in many cases, lead them to a second decision that would change the course of their adult lives.
The first period of critical decision making for Italian POWs began on September 8, 1943, with the announcement of the signing of the armistice by the Badoglio government in Italy. Now that Italy was officially an ally of the United States, Italian POWs were faced with the dilemma of whether to “ collaborate” (i.e., perform war related work) with the nation that had, until that moment, been their enemy captor. To understand how confusing this concept was at that time, it needs to be noted that during this same period Northern Italy was still occupied by Germans who managed to free Mussolini on September 12th, and place him at the head of a newly declared fascist republic. If these simultaneous contradictory scenarios are confusing for us to follow with fifty years of hindsight, one can only imagine how shocking the shifting alliances must have been for young Italians who had only recently been pulled from combat.
Looking at the data, it seems clear that Italians POWs in America were, overall, sympathetic to the Allied cause. Almost 90% of the Italian POWs agreed to support the U.S. war effort by joining what would be called Italian Service Units. This summary view unfairly disguises, however, the difficulty, and in some cases trauma, of being asked to make this kind of decision. If these men had gone to war with the understanding that they didn’t have to believe in the war--they only had to believe in the greatness of Italy--then what did it mean now to change loyalties? Did this constitute further loyalty, in obeying the government of their homeland? Or, did it constitute a pathetic move to avoid being associated with the losing side? For young enlisted men there were all these questions as well as: the fear of being sent back into combat--possibly this time in Japan; fear of helping supply munitions that would be used in Italy where their families might be in harm’s way; and fear of some kind of retribution against their families if it became known that their sons were helping the Allies. For Italian officers, who tended to be more indoctrinated in the ideology of fascism, changing sides was incomprehensible because it meant that there was no such thing as the courage of one’s convictions. Finally, for some individual enlisted men and officers who had fought side by side with Germans for two and a half years, there was also the simple question of loyalty to fellow soldiers.
Italian POWs were right to view the decision to support the U.S. war effort as a serious one. It would dramatically affect the quality of their experience as prisoners in the U.S. And, in turn, for those who would become immersed in relationships and the abundance of life in America, it would lead them to the question after the war of whether they should live in Italy or seize the opportunity to build a new life under the flag of another nation.
The almost 45,000 Italian POWs who eventually agreed to join Italian Service Units were relocated, almost immediately, to coastal and industrial sites across the United States. They worked with American civilians and military personnel in combat related work for the remainder of the war. By contrast, non-collaborating Italian POWs were kept in highly isolated camps in places like Texas, Arizona, Wyoming and Hawaii.
In addition to having jobs and earning money, men involved in the Italian Service Units were given increased freedom of movement and as a result, incre ased interaction with American civilians. Across the country, there was an outpouring of interest on the part of Italian Americans who were looking in the Italian POW camps for relatives, family friends or simply people from their hometowns. As a result a number of Catholic parishes in many states arranged to host dinners where Italian Americans could meet and visit with Italian POWs. These courtesies were extended almost exclusively to POWs who had agreed to support the war effort and even the freedoms granted these Italian Service Unit members varied greatly depending on where they were situated in the U.S.
Comparing and contrasting the experiences of Italian POWs on the East Coast with POW experiences in the mid-West and on the West Coast reveals that, while their lives inside camp walls were quite similar, surrounding communities had a strong influence on how much freedom POWs had to move outside camp boundaries. It seems that community responses varied by region according to immigration patterns prior to the war, local politics, regional economic realties and involvement and/or perspectives on the war. For example, one might assume that the East Coast, because of its old world, European connection and large Italian American communities, would have been the place where Italian POWs were received most sympathetically but this was not necessarily the case. While there were many Italian Americans who wanted to retain contact with the prisoners (by travelling to visit them on Sundays) it was generally accepted that this should be a relatively reserved activity. The fact that these Italian POWs were contributing to the war effort did not erase the knowledge that Italy had contributed to escalating the war in the early years.
In contrast in the middle of the country, in states like Utah, Michigan, and Ohio, Italians serving in Italian Service Units had some modified privileges and an unofficially sanctioned freedom of movement. POWs could be escorted out of the camp by U.S. soldiers (which usually required a bribe) or POWs could sneak out of the camp and sneak back in, under an unofficial agreement by which American soldiers would turn a blind eye. In Ogden, Utah a local church held chaperoned dances each weekend for the POWs and Italian American families could visit POWs on Sundays.
Finally in California, where the war was palpable through to the end of 1945 because of the intensity of fighting in the Pacific, Italian POWs working in support of the war effort were actually received most enthusiastically. While local West Coast Italian Americans had felt some tension in their neighborhoods early in the war (i.e., that they should not too openly be supportive or concerned about Italy) once Italy switched sides community animosity turned more consistently to the Asians. As a result, Italian POWs had a rather significant amount of freedom in the camps in California. The most amazing story being that of the Italian POWs stationed on Angel Island who held regular dances in a hall in San Francisco that they rented with their own money. In addition, Italian American families in California could, with official permission, take Italian Service Unit members out of POW camps for picnics and outings. It is important to note that immigration patterns during the 20’s- 30’s in California set the stage for a sympathetic reception of Italian POWs. Italians in the preceding decades had immigrated in large numbers and established themselves as fisherman, farmers and winemakers. In this state, heavily populated with immigrants from all over the world, by the 1940’s Italians were seen as relatively established --especially in contrast with Asian laborers who were seen as a threat to the local “white” labor movement. Racism towards another group took the edge off racism or fear of the Italians. A point which actually refers to a larger transition that was occurring for America during this period: the change in the perceived definition of who was a true American.
During WWII white ethnic Americans (e.g., Italian Americans, Jews, Irish Americans) were drawn into a more integrated, accepted status as they were asked to go to war for their country and as they had the experience of forming bonds, while in the army, across ethnicities and class. Early in the war Italian American communities were fiercely divided as it became clear that some were embarrassed by Mussolini’s actions and others were still sympathetic to the fascist regime. In families where perhaps only the father had become a citizen when they first immigrated, wives and children quickly moved to establish their American citizenship. With this as the backdrop, we see how Italian POWs and Americans were each facing their own questions of personal identity, loyalty and nationality during the period when they were called upon to work together for the larger Allied cause.
In addition to the stories of Italian POWs interacting with Italian Americans, there were numerous situations in which Italian POWs developed relations with Americans of diverse heritages (e.g., Italian POWs in Colorado and Nebraska were sent to do farm work for German American farming families; in California and in New York POWs were guarded by Irish American guards). In a remarkable number of instances, the human impulses towards connection and camaraderie allowed the labels of “enemy,” “prisoner” and “foreigner” to fade away and be replaced by life long bonds of friendship and love. This was credit to both the Italians whose vitality and good will flowed freely and to the Americans whose curiosity and humanity led them into vibrant, warm relations with the Italian prisoners.
By the end of the war in December 1945, Italian POWs had contributed millions of hours to the war effort. When they were repatriated in January 1946, a number were leaving significant relationships behind—hoping, but not sure, that they would find a way to stay connected. Their joyous return to the homeland was, of course, tempered by the devastation evident throughout Italy and the realization that opportunities for young men returning from war were few. For Italian POWs who had not collaborated with the U.S., the return to Italy also meant coming to terms with the fact that in many cases friends and relatives had in the end decided to support the Allied war effort, and the non-collaborating position was no longer a popular one either officially or unofficially.
In the years following the war, some of the couples who had met in America did decide to marry. In order to do that the American women had to go to Italy and marry there (because of quotas restricting immigration into the U.S.). Most often, due to financial difficulties in Italy, these couples would return to raise families in the United States in the areas where the women had lived and where they still had jobs. We don’t know, officially, how many ex POWs chose to come back and live in America—but a number of them do now live as American citizens in the towns where they were first enemy prisoners of war. Others (especially officers from the “fascist” camp in Hereford, Texas) have written books and created art about their experiences in America, and have returned to visit periodically. Clearly the experience of being a POW had a big impact on the 51,000 men who were brought here. And, they--in turn--had a big impact on all the lives they became part of, whether it was for the war years only or for the fifty years to follow.
copyright 2000, Camilla Calamandrei
Janet E. Worrall Professor of History University of Northern Colorado. Specialization: Immigration history and Latin America. Author: “Reflections on Italian Prisoners of War: Fort Wadsworth: 1943-46;” “Italian Prisoners of War in the United States: 1943-1945;” “Prisoners on the Home Front: Community Reactions to German and Italian POWs in Northern Colorado.” One of the few historians in America to have published articles concerning Italian Prisoners of War in America, Prof. Worrall has been involved in research on Italian and German prisoners of War for ten years. She provides expertise concerning hostility towards prisoners of War, existing textual material from the period (newspaper articles etc.), and issues specific to Prisoners in the Western part of the US as differentiated from those in the East.
Allan Kent Powell Historian, Utah State Historical Society. Specialization: World War II. Author: “Splinters of a Nation: German Prisoners of War in Utah” University of Utah Press; “A German Odyssey: The POW Journal of Helmut Horner” Fulcrum Press; “Utah Remembers W.W.II” Utah State University Press. Dr. Powell is a specialist of W.W.II history in Utah and the West, with specific emphasis on prisoners of war.
Stephen Fox Professor of American History, Humboldt State Univ., California. Specialization in World War II (since 1983); Author: “The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans during World War II” Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1990. Work in Progress: “The Internment of German Americans in America during World War II.” Prof. Fox has been in correspondence concerning this project since 1996. He provides expertise on Italian-American communities during W.W.II and on relations between Italian-Americans and the American Government preceding and during W.W.II.
Charles Wollenberg Professor of History at Vista College, Berkeley, California. Specialization: Social History of California during W.W.II. Prof. Wollenberg provides expertise in the history of Italian-American communities on the West Coast, historic patterns of tolerance and/or hostility towards immigrants, and detailed knowledge of homefront experience of World War II.
Louis E. Keefer Author: “Italian Prisoners of War in America 1942-1946” Praeger, 1992 and numerous articles about Italian Prisoners of War. Mr. Keefer is extensively knowledgeable about the experience of the Italian POWs and of U.S. Army policy and practice during this period.
Robert Abzug Professor of History and American Studies, Director of the Liberal Arts Honors Programs at the University of Texas in Austin. Ph.D. University of California at Berkeley, B.A. Harvard University. Author: “ America Views the Holocaust, 1933-1945: A Brief Documentary History” (1998); “Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps” (1985). Dr. Abzug specializes in World War II and American Social History.
Mauro Calamandrei (Father of the filmmaker) Cultural Correspondent “Il Sole 24 Ore,” Milan, Italy; Ph.D. Committee on Social Thought, Univ. of Chicago, Chicago; Ph.D. Philosophy, Univ. of Florence, Italy. Dr. Calamandrei has been both a Professor of American History at the University of Florence and a Visiting Professor of Italian History at the summer program at Middlebury College. He has been the American correspondent for prestigious Italian magazines and newspapers for 40 years. During W.W.II, Calamandrei was a student and then an active member of the anti-fascist underground in Italy. He has invaluable first hand knowledge of the cultural, psychological and economic conditions in the two countries. Calamandrei provides expertise in the areas dealing with historic patterns of Italian immigration to America and economic conditions in Italy preceding, during and after W.W.II.