Little Known History of Italian POW’s

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Courtesy of Camilla Calamandrei

Prisoners in Paradise, a documentary film by Camilla Calamandrei, is about Italian POW’s in America during World War II.  I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t know this very poignant and important part of my Italian heritage.  I was not aware that so many Italian soldiers (51,000!)  were interned here in the USA during the war. Because my parents immigrated so many years after the end of the war, this subject was never discussed in my family and I didn’t know any of these stories on a personal level.  But after watching this film, I learned so much and actually found out that my mom knew all about this from her neighbor whose sister used to date some of these POW’s!

The film shows some great footage of Italians in North Africa during the War and also footage of their times in the internment camps strewn all over the United States.

It follows the stories of six POW’s and their personal experiences.  One of the most memorable lines in the movie is from a POW who said that while he was fighting in North Africa he was hungry and living in horrible conditions. But after his capture by the Americans and shipment to an American POW camp, he felt like he was in Paradise  – he was fed abundantly, given a pack of cigarettes a day, and slept in warm barracks!  Even though he was a prisoner of war, the Americans treated him with kindness and respect.  The hardest part for him was not having any notice of his family back home.  His letters home went unanswered, and he had no news for the remainder of the war.

The story continues to explore the change when Italy surrendered and switched alliances. These Italian POW’s were given the choice to join forces with the USA to provide assistance to the war effort.  Many decided to cooperate and were given considerable freedoms.  They were allowed to socialize with the Italian-American families already settled here, and many met and fell in love with their future brides.

Several of these war brides were interviewed in the film and just hearing about their experiences brought tears to my eyes.

When the war ended, these Italian POW’s were freed and sent back to Italy.  Their excitement at being allowed to go back home quickly became horror as they entered the port of Naples to find it completely destroyed.  Their homeland was in shambles and they were devastated and scared to find what their homes would be like.  They knew that they would have to work hard to rebuild Italy once again.

Meanwhile, those young American women who had fallen in love with their Italian POW’s were also at a loss.  Their loves were sent back to Italy and could not return unless they were married.  Many of these girls hopped on ships and sailed to Italy to claim their husbands.  They married in Italy and came back with their Italian husbands.  But, I can just imagine how many never saw their loves again….

The end of the movie touches upon the tender memories of the POW’s who have made America their home for many years now.  They tearfully mention that America has given them everything, but that a big part of their hearts still belong to Italy.

I can highly recommend this movie – it is available for purchase at www.prisonersinparadise.com.

Below is a very informative essay written by Camilla Calamandrei and she has given her permission to post it to my post – thank you, Camilla, for all the hard work you put in on your research into this very important part of our Italian heritage.

Italian POWs held in America during WW II:
Historical Narrative and Scholarly
Analysis

by Camilla Calamandrei

From
June 1940 through May 1943, hundreds of thousands of Italians were sent into a
war for which they were ill equipped and about which they understood little. By
the end of 1943, over six hundred thousand Italian soldiers were taken prisoner
and, of those, 51,000 were brought to America as enemy prisoners 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

16 responses »

  1. Un mio parente fu catturato dagli alleati durante la II° Guerra e portato in un campo, ma le notizie familiari in merito sono un po’ vaghe, anche se ritengo si trattasse del fronte in Africa; so che in questo campo venne curato per la malaria e lo spedirono a casa con una ricetta per del chinino.
    Ovviamente il medico italiano che lo visitò all’epoca non conosceva l’inglese, neppure il mio parente del resto capiva l’inglese, e così dopo poco tempo morì di malaria perché non venne capita la ricetta scritta dal medico alleato.
    Il film sembra molto interessante e se posso lo guardo molto volentieri 🙂

  2. Gabriele – molto interessante! Sono sempre cosi sorpresa a sentire che tanti hanno una storia da raccontare riguardo questo – come non ho mai fatto a sapere niente, non lo so 😦 Se trovi piu informazione su il tuo parente, lasciamelo sapere.

  3. This is a very interesting article! My grandfather was an Italian lieutenant captured at El Alamein in 1943 and brought as a POW to Texas (Lordsburg and Fort Bliss, 1943-1945), where he wrote a wonderful series of war memoirs in the form of letters to his young wife (whom he had no idea had been killed in a bombardment in Rome in1943… he only found out in 1945, shortly before returning to Italy). He too describes captivity as “paradise”… although little did he know of the sorrow that would come. I would love to see the film… Thanks for sharing this precious information.

    • Hi Simona,
      That is such a beautiful, although very sad, story about your grandfather. Thank you so much for sharing it – I love to hear stories such as these that bring so much to out Italian heritage. Please visit again and thank you for taking the time to leave your interesting comment. Barbara

      • Hi Barbara, thank you for your kind reply. I must correct my comment – he was actually captured on the Mareth Line. Yes it is a sad story, although it is nothing but a tiny drop in that ocean of senseless destruction and despair. At least he remarried and had a daughter – my mother – only to die shortly after her birth. It is at once disconcerting and amazing to think that I and so many others owe our existence to the consequences of war.

      • Hi Simona,
        You are so right! I was thinking about your grandfather’s letters – have you ever thought about publishing them? If you would like to share them, I would love to read some of them! You are so lucky to have such a treasure.

  4. I have not considered publishing them, but have considered making them available to scholars because of their historic value. I started transcribing and translating them two years ago, then sadly stopped for lack of time, but I am hoping to finish this year. I would be delighted to share excerpts with you when I’ve finished the project. All the best!

  5. bellissime storie anche se tristi. I ricordi del passato stanno scomparendo e spesso si perde con essi una parte di noi stessi. Mio padre e molti conoscenti hanno fatto le guerre ma non avevo mai sentito di storie relativi ai deportati in USA. Erano sicuramente ritenuti molto fortunati e per questo nessuno ne parlava. Interessante la storia di Simona, Dove vive Simona? ha sempre contatti con i parenti italiani?
    Io solitamente non guardo i film, non ho tempo ma le storie di guerra e le vicende delle persone mi interessano moltissimo. Spesso sono tristi e tragiche ma dicono come le persone affrontano i sacrifici e la forza ed il coraggio di resistere anche sena mezzi adeguati.

    • Grazie, Umberto, per il tuo commento. E proprio vero che ci sono tantissime storie di guerra che non abbiamo mai sentito. La storia dei prigionieri di guerra Italiani che sono stati portati qui era una storia nuova per me – ma dopo aver condiviso questo film con mia mamma, mi ha raccontato diverse storie di gente che aveva conosciuto dopo la sua immigrazione a San Francisco che avevano visuto questa storia. Per noi vicino a San Francisco conosciamo bene la storia dei prigionieri giapponese che erano stati sequestrati durante la guerra, specialmente perche un isola nella baia, Angel Island, era un posto dove portavano i prigionieri dal giappone. Mi piace sempre sentire le storie da quelli che hanno visuto la guerra – sono storie umane, storie di nascita, morte, amore, gioventu – tutte le cose che dipingano i passi della nostra vita – e non solamente quello che leggiamo nei libri di storia o che ci insegnano a scuola. Ritorna presto, Umberto, a lasciarmi piu commenti!

    • Caro Umberto,
      Le rispondo dopo anni! Di recente qualcuno ha aggiunto un commento e tramite una notifica via e-mail ho potuto riprendere il ”filo” della conversazione. Adesso vivo in Svizzera ma sono italianissima 🙂 Anch’io sono affascinata dalle storie ”vere” della guerra e avrei tanto voluto sentirle direttamente da mio nonno, il quale, purtroppo, morì qualche anno dopo la fine della guerra. Un caro saluto.

      • Bello a sentirti ancora, Simona! Io sono Barbara, la scrittrice di questo blog. E si, sarebbe proprio bello d’aver sentito queste storie dalle persone che hanno visuto questi momenti indescribili. Volevo sapere se hai avuto l’opportunita di tradurre qualche lettera del tuo nonno. Sarebbe proprio bello a fare un libro con queste care lettere. Un grande salute…Barbara

      • Hi Barbara!! Life moves in mysterious ways e ho dovuto sospendere la traduzione per motivi personali… una questione di priorità. Ho ripreso qualche giorno fa grazie ad un tuo commento che mi è arrivato tramite e-mail e che mi ha ricordato che c’era qualcosa da finire! WIll definitely share with you as soon as I manage to finish it – the most time-consuming part is figuring out his handwriting 🙂 … all the best, and thank you for keeping this precious info / thread alive!

      • I understand how fast life moves. It’s scary@ Hopefully things have calmed down for you, though. My offer still stands to help if you’d like. I would be honored. Take care. A presto!

  6. Thank you for writing this wonderful article. I was wondering about this line “(especially officers from the “fascist” camp in Hereford, Texas). I recently visited the chapel there for the first time and an intrigued about the history. I noticed that you described the camp in Hereford as “fascist” — in what way do you mean that? For example, do you mean that the camp conditions were fascist-like, or that there were more indoctrinated hard-line fascist prisoners there …or something else? I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Thanks for your comment. It is a fascinating time in history. I wrote my summary of Prisoners in Paradise, and also attached an article written by Camilla Calamandrei..I’m afraid she is the one to direct your question to. Sorry I couldn’t be more help, but I’m happy for your interest. Try to watch the documentary film if you can get a hold of it – it’s really poignant.

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