Part 2 in a series
By M.E. Jones
DEVENS -- Rhode Island native and Williams College alumnus Anne Marie Reardon has been researching Italian POWS in Massachusetts, and Devens, during World War II.
She discussed the topic at a recent meeting of the Devens Museum Board of Trustees.
Even before World War II, Britain fought Italian and German forces in North Africa and took prisoners, many of whom were Italian soldiers who surrendered "en masse," she said. Those who turned themselves in had no food, no clothes and were sick of the fight. Others were captured, including a man whose family Reardon interviewed.
"He parachuted into captivity," she said.
Europe couldn't support all the prisoners, she continued, even after sending many of them to British colonies. Finally, the U.S. agreed to take some of them.
At first, the majority of them had never fought against the United States, Reardon said, having been captured before the U.S. entered the war.
In all, 51,156 Italian POWs came to the U.S. and another 80,000 went to Africa. Those numbers are relatively small compared to the hundreds of thousands of German prisoners who came here, Reardon said. Basically, she said, soldiers captured from European and North African battles came to Norfolk, VA, New York and Boston, 428,000 in all.
Her accompanying slide show, consisting mostly of vintage photos and newspaper articles, included a picture of a stockade ship carrying POWs, with living quarters stacked in cubes, "like a big chicken crate."
On arrival, they gave up all their valuables and their bodies were disinfected. Clothes were fumigated, she said.
The "overcrowded pens" housing POWS in North Africa had been deemed inadequate by Geneva Convention standards, Reardon explained, which is why the British wasted no time getting them out.
Other photos showed the prisoners separated into groups: officers and enlisted men. They were issued POW uniforms and loaded onto trains. But conditions were much better than they were used to, traveling in comfortable Pullman cars.
"The U.S. was adamant that they were well cared for," Reardon said.
Called "Italian Service Units" rather than POWs during the latter part of the war, after Italy ended its allegiance with Germany and switched sides, Reardon said she focused on the public's perception of the Italian soldiers and how they interacted. Narrowing her lens, she zoomed in on Italian POWs in Massachusetts, where there were camps in the Boston area and at Fort Devens.
At some point after their arrival in the United States, between 1942 and 1943, the status of Italian prisoners of war changed, Reardon said.
In July of 1945, Mussolini resigned and the new regime signed an armistice in September of that year. By October, Italy had declared war on Germany.
Italy was now on the same side as the Allies, but what was the status of Italian POWs .