Italian POWs Coach Los Angeles School Kids
A followup to a previous post “The Day I Met A German POW”
Frank recently told his friend Louie the story, that we posted several weeks ago, about his visiting a Prisoner Of War Camp and meeting a German POW at the end of World War (Click Here To Read The original POW Post). Louie responded by telling him an interesting story about his own experiences with POWs during that period and the little known freedoms that Italian POWs enjoyed in the latter parts of WW II.
In the less than two years that America was at war with Italy in the early forties, over 50,000 Italian soldiers surrendered to U.S. troops in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The vast majority of these Prisoners Of War were transported to the U.S. and interned in POW Camps throughout this country. Many of these POW Camps were located in California with several being in close proximity to Los Angeles.
Frank’s friend was the son of first generation Italian immigrants who lived in an Italian neighborhood in South Los Angeles. As a boy, he and other second generation Italian boys from his neighborhood attended a nearby, private, parochial school administered and staffed by Italian nuns and priests. During the later part of World War II, Louie remembers that Italian POWs from a nearby POW Camp regularly visited his school and among other things taught the schoolboys how to play soccer and bocce ball. He also remembers that late in the war, his parents (as well as their neighbors) regularly hosting groups of Italian POWs in their homes every Sunday for big, home cooked Italian dinners. Louie described the POWs as being very friendly, cheerful, fun-loving young guys who seemed almost like older brothers or uncles to the neighborhood kids.
These recollections by Frank’s friend about being coached by and hosting Italian POWs in his home raised our curiosities and caused us to investigate how these prisoners could enjoy such freedoms. We surprisingly found out that in the early 1940s, a large number of the our Italian POWs were interned in camps in San Pedro and at Fort McArthur not far from Louie’s boyhood Los Angeles home.
When Italy surrendered in 1943 and became an ally rather than an enemy of the U.S., the Italian prisoners in these and other camps could no longer be legally considered Prisoners Of War. For them the war, that most of them very reluctantly fought, was over. All they wanted to do was go home. But, this was impossible. Since much of Italy was still a battle zone and Northern Italy was occupied by the Nazis, the former prisoners could not be immediately repatriated and sent home. They were like “displaced persons”. Forced to wait out the war in the U.S., many of the former POWs when given the opportunity joined the war effort on our side working in what were called “Italian Service Units” while they continued to live in the former camps. The former POWs who joined these service units evidently enjoyed a high degree of freedom which allowed them to visit neighborhood schools like Louie’s and to mix with and visit with Italian American families in nearby neighborhoods on weekends and holidays.
What had happened was that after the America’s armistice with Italy was signed, the warm, Americans of Italian descent who lived near the former camps opened their doors to welcome, adopt and befriend the former POWs treating them as paesanos or friends, brothers and countrymen. Many of these former POWs stayed in the U.S. after the war or returned later to become American citizens and in many cases to marry the daughters of the Italian Americans who had befriended them in those years when legally they were neither friends nor foes.