First 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.
The topic, presented at a meeting of the Devens Museum Board of Trustees, ties into her studies as a graduate student at Brandies University, where she is pursuing a doctorate in American History.
The aspect of history that interested her most in college was "identity politics," she said. Specifically, "what people choose to keep of their own cultures" in a melting pot such as the United States of America, and "how they present themselves to the world."
This essential query, more subtle than substantial at first, began to firm up as she explored the peculiar plight of Italian prisoners of war in light of public perception. Perhaps not coincidentally, Reardon began her talk with a question, "How many knew about the Italian POWs?"
Few, if any, did. Although they all apparently knew there was a POW camp at Fort Devens during WWII and some offered anecdotes about their camp-related experiences, most seemed to share the predominant local perception that it housed only German prisoners.
One man said that as a teenager he worked at a local apple orchard that used camp labor. He drove a truck ferrying German POWs to and from work.
Kathryn Nastasiler, of Chelmsford, worked in the camp office. "Everything was secret, we didn't know anything," she said.
Reardon said that in addition to the "anti Nazi/anti-Fascist German soldiers who made up most of the population, there were Italian soldiers at the Fort Devens POW camp, too.
Two Italian prisoners died during their time there, she said, one of them from a sudden illness and the other from a long-term disease. He'd been hospitalized and died just days before he would have been shipped home after the war.
The two men, and 20 German POWs, are buried at Malvern Hill Cemetery, where representatives from the German and Italian consulates come to lay wreaths on their graves each year.
Odd men out
When Italy switched sides midway through the war, Italian soldiers captured while their nation was a German ally became a problem. Neither friend nor foe, they couldn't simply be sent home, but they were no longer enemy soldiers, either. In the end, they continued to be kept in POW camps but were given unique status that some Americans at the time considered special treatment, Reardon said, and it generated resentment, even trouble.
Reardon, who traced her own awareness of the issue to a tour of Boston's Harbor Islands, said she was surprised to find out that the islands housed POW camps during WWII and that some of the prisoners were Italians. The visit led to her research project.
She learned that the situation caused controversy, protests, some of them violent; that the Italian soldiers wore different uniforms than their German counterparts, worked in areas that were off limits to other prisoners and had access to a fenced-off area of the local public beach, where they sometimes flirted with young women on the other side.
They eventually lobbied for off-camp leave to visit family or friends in Boston's traditionally Italian North End. They built chapels for themselves, even formed a choir that gained local fame.
"I was curious" about how the Italian-American community reacted, she said
Her project had taken shape. A key question she posed when researching the subject was "How did the Italian POWs get to the United States?"
Even before WWII, 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.
To be continued.