By M.E. Jones
DEVENS -- Brandeis graduate student Anne Marie Reardon, the guest speaker at the annual Fort Devens Museum board meeting in June, wrapped her talk about Italian POWs in Massachusetts during World War II with a story about Italian Service Units (ISUs) held on Paddocks Island.
Showing a picture of Paddocks Island, then and now, Reardon said the island, with its high cliffs, now has trees it did not have then. Viewed from the ocean, it presented a formidable landscape. But the island was beautiful, with a community of seasonal residents. One of them was Claire Hill, who went there every summer, growing up.
Hill's family was Italian, Reardon said, and she recalled how the ISUs would leave the camp to visit them and other families. "They got visitors' passes," she said.
The ISUs worked hard, though, rising early each day to catch a ferry that took them to Castle Island.
As time went on, the ISU visits expanded around Boston and beyond. One of Reardon's vintage photos showed a church event in Swampscott attended by Italian soldiers from Paddocks Island.
At the end of the war, Hill said ISUs were invited to her home in Somerville for dinner. She recalled eating popcorn with one of them and that guards came, too. "The neighbors were not pleased," Hill said.
All of the remaining ISUs went home after the war, including Gregory Cioffi, who was 18 when he met his future wife, Josephine.
It was not the only wartime love story tied to Massachusetts POW camps. "I know of 10 or 12" local women who married Boston-based ISUs, Reardon said, adding that she'd heard stories of women who went to Italy to marry their lovers, since they couldn't do so in the States. At least 300 went back on the same boat as the soldiers, she said, and some of the women were pregnant.
By 1945, all of Boston's ISUs were gone, "repatriated" to their home country.
Apparently, they couldn't be allowed to stay, any more than they could be allowed to go home earlier, when their enemy status had changed. After WWII, there was concern that, due to the wartime work they did as ISUs, the Italian soldiers might step into jobs that should rightfully go to returning U.S. soldiers, Reardon said.
Two of the Italian soldiers imprisoned at Fort Devens died and were buried there; one was killed in a boat accident in Boston Harbor and the other died of a long-term illness.
The talk ended with a question and answer period.
Asked about artifacts left behind after the ISUs went home to Italy, Reardon said there were memories and a few edifices, such as the shrine at Camp Myles Standish, a stone grotto with a statue and a cross below it.
At Paddocks Island, most of the buildings are gone, but the church is still there. It's closed now, Reardon said, but peering through the windows, she could see the choir loft where the ISU choir once sang.
Q: Did the ISUs have any known Mafia connections?
A: It's hard to separate fact from rumor, but some ISU officers were accused of being "quite Fascist." The Army, however, might debunk that notion as a "Communist elaboration." No Mafia stories, though, that she's heard of.
Q: Did any of the ISUs stay in the United States?
A: While it's possible that some might have been missing and unaccounted for after the war, it's not likely there were many. Officially they were all sent home and any left behind would be considered "escapees."
Speaking of which, one POW who escaped from Fort Devens was caught in New York. He was painting a picture in Central Park.
There were not many such stories. Although tunnels were dug, most were caught.
Q: Where was the Fort Devens POW camp?
A: Reardon didn't know, but someone in the audience had an idea. Most of the buildings were down by Robbins Pond, where some are still standing, he said. Possibly, there are a few on Jackson Road, too.
Reardon said there were both Nazi and anti-Nazi groups in the Fort Devens POW camp during WWII and most of the prisoners were sent to "satellite locations" to work.
According to camp lore, there was a German POW at Fort Devens who was Rommel's driver, she said, as well as a U-boat captain who took his own life.
In the Fort Devens Cemetery, a signboard lists the names of those buried in its most famed graves. It is a hallowed and haunted place, quiet and peaceful now, with simple white crosses marking the graves of German and Italian POWs resting beside American soldiers and with a dramatic duel and at least one ghost story in its history.
Fort Devens Museum President C. David Gordon said that representatives from the Italian and German consulates visit the cemetery each year to lay wreaths.