Part 4 in a series
By M.E. Jones
DEVENS -- Camp Myles Standish in Taunton was one of several facilities in Massachusetts that housed prisoners of war during World War II, as was Fort Devens, according to Anne Marie Reardon whose talk on WWII Italian POWs in the state was on the agenda of the annual Fort Devens Museum meeting.
Camp Myles Standish, with a capacity of 25,000, functioned primarily as a deployment center for American soldiers, said Reardon, a Rhode Island native and Williams College graduate whose subject matter came from research she did as part of her graduate studies at Brandeis.
After Italy switched sides, the Italian POWs - no longer, technically, enemy captives -- became known as Italian Service Units and formed the maintenance crew at camps like Myles Standish and other jobs that were off limits to German prisoners.
No longer POWs, per se, a few of them worked at Fort Independence, on Castle Island in Boston harbor, she said, loading boats that shipped out shoes to U.S. troops overseas. They also loaded tanks and reclaimed lumber. "Security was minimal, maybe non-existent in the latter part of the war," she said. And the Italians were also treated differently in other ways. For example, ISU's wore simplified versions of American military uniforms, with identifying patches and, with military labor in short supply, they became a key part of the war effort. ISUs even did munitions work they were officially not supposed to do, Reardon said.
Despite objections, rules for the ISUs continued to relax. Given Sundays off, Italian soldiers built a religious shrine at Camp Myles Standish in their time off, she said, noting similar projects at camps across the country. Catholic services were held at an ISU-built chapel on Paddocks Island, where the Italian soldiers formed a choir that gained some local fame. "They were quite good," Reardon said. And when the choir sang at a church in Boston's North End on Christmas, 1944, the performance was described as "glorious."
The Boston-based ISUs wanted access to area beaches, theaters and other amusements in their time off and they lobbied for weekend passes that were denied, in part due to security concerns raised by the Port Authority.
"The Army was worried about bad publicity," Reardon said. But the Italians were disgruntled. Hoping to ease tensions, the military reached out to the Italian community and found families to host the soldiers for dinner in their homes.
It was a balancing act for a while, with a "Long Live Il Duce" movement among Italian immigrants. With Mussolini now "the enemy," there were Italians evacuated as "enemy aliens" as were Japanese and some Germans living in coastal areas, she said.
Such draconian tactics upset too many voters, however, and the effort petered out, Reardon said. Still, some Italian immigrants' political views got them in trouble and they were jailed at Ellis Island, while restrictions were placed on Italian fishermen.
But things got better. In 1944, the mission to "help out with ISUs" was touted as a "patriotic gesture." Italian soldiers visiting family and friends became common practice. Resentment still festered, but two days before D-Day, a big city newspaper took sides. "Allies Siege Rome," blared a Boston Herald headline.
There were parades; Celebrities came to attend an ISU Mass. After D-Day, however, the ISU situation was decried as "coddling" and it led to riots. "Police Injured in Row with Italian Prisoners," one newspaper headline declared in mid-July, 1944.
Even before the riot, there was a "small upheaval" at Carson's Beach in Boston, Reardon said. Some ISU's jumped the fence separating the POW camp from the public beach after American soldiers threw rocks at them.
The unrest spelled the end for Camp McKay's free-ranging ISUs, who were moved to Paddocks and Myles Standish. Those involved in riots were sent to POW camps in the Midwest.
End of Part 4.