The Italian Service Units of World War II in Boston

Today’s post comes from Joseph P. Keefe, an archives specialist at the National Archives at Boston.

In November 1942, following the Allies successful invasion of North Africa, over 51,000 Italian prisoners of war were sent to the United States to POW camps. On September 3, 1943, Allied forces made amphibious landings on the mainland of Italy, and by September 8, 1943, General Pietro Badoglio, who had taken over the Italian government when Dictator Benito Mussolini was arrested and imprisoned, surrendered to the Allies.

Italian Service Unit Receiving Supplies, Boston Port of Embarkation, South Boston, Massachusetts. (National Archives Identifier 6524095)

When the Badoglio government declared war on Germany on October 13, 1943, Americans began to see the Italian POWs as potential allies. Beginning in February of 1944, the United States Army Service Corps offered the Italian POWs in the United States the opportunity to join what came to be known as Italian Service Units. The men who volunteered were given jobs, monetary compensation, and some freedom of movement. Prisoners signed forms of allegiance to the new Badoglio government in Italy and were “screened” for Fascist tendencies in order to join the Italian Service Unit program.

Of the 51,000 Italian POWS being held in the United States at the time, over 45,000 joined the Service Units and were sent to places with a shortage of labor manpower across the United States. The remaining 5,000 who did not volunteer or who were deemed to be pro-Fascist were moved to isolated camps in Texas and Arizona.

Each unit had 40 to 250 men, with an Italian officer as their commander. Italian Service Units worked with both military and civilian personnel. The units supported agriculture, hospitals, Army depots, seaports and Army training centers. The units were given American uniforms with Italian Service Unit insignia and badges.[1]

Italian Service Unit receiving supply of beer via railroad car, Boston Port of Embarkation, South Boston, Massachusetts. (National Archives Identifier 6524096)

Around 3,000 Italian prisoners were held in camps in and around Boston, Massachusetts, and many decided to join the service units. Even though they were officially still classified as POWs, they nevertheless donned uniforms that were differentiated only by a patch that read “Italy” that was worn on the left sleeve and stitched onto the standard garrison cap.

They also received a monthly stipend of $24, of which only one-third was paid in cash; the rest was issued as script to be used on the base where they were being held to pay for various supplies and personal items.[2]

A May 15, 1944, article in the Boston Globe stated that an Italian Service Unit working at Franklin Park in Boston was the first such to be employed in the country. “The men wear American Army uniforms carrying the insignia of ‘Italy’ and are supervised by Italian officers, and we believe is the first unit employed in such work” wrote the Globe.

Thousands of Italian Americans living in the Boston area began to look into the low-security Italian camps and work sites to find relatives, family friends, or get news from their hometowns. The Boston police reported that so many Italians living in the Boston area began to visit work sites that most had to have a military police detail assigned simply to keep the hordes of information seekers at a distance.[3] 

The Italian prisoners were mostly responsible for loading combat materials to be shipped from the Port of Embarkation at the South Boston Army Base into the European theater, but the units also did a variety of jobs in the Boston, area such as park cleaning and road construction.

Italian Service Unit palletizing a supply of beer being unloaded from a railroad car at the Boston Port of Embarkation. South Boston, Massachusetts, Marine guard stand watch. (National Archives Identifier 6524098)

The Italian Service Units also helped maintain Boston’s Victory Garden on the Boston Common. In the various camps around Boston, the men had movies every night, a canteen with Italian specialties, and most of all, freedom from the war. They did their own guard duty and were occasionally checked by the post guards.

On weekends, they rotated on a two-day pass to Boston, and many Roman Catholic churches in the Boston area hosted dinners on Sundays with local Italian families who cooked and prepared Italian foods. The Catholic Church became an important outlet for Italian Service Unit members. Most attended Mass and interacted with priests who could speak Italian, and the gatherings held in parish halls made the men feel welcome.[4]

In Boston, a committee of Italian Americans formed to operate with the American command that oversaw the prisoners. Headed by Frank W. Tomasello, a Boston lawyer, the committee worked with Army staff to facilitate prisoner leaves and passes for recreational purposes. Brig. General Calvin Dewitt, commanding officer of the Boston Quartermaster Depot, said the actual performance of service units was “more than satisfactory.”

When some Boston residents raised concerns that the Service Units were working with limited supervision, General Dewitt stated, “in order that essential work be carried out, the War Department has made available prisoner of war units . . . and their labor is essential. These men are contributing a great deal to the American war effort!” Dewitt assured area residents that the Italians had “friendly relations with American civilian workers at the Port and our soldiers were as friendly to them as the workmen.”[5]

In August 1944, General DeWitt allowed members of the local media to visit the Italian Service Units working in the harbor and report on conditions. A reporter for the Christian Science Monitor wrote that Italians were found to be working “industriously, willingly and intelligently at freight handling, maintenance of equipment, and lumber salvage.” General DeWitt explained to the press, “A short period back this port would have had difficulty in operating without them, and at the present moment their labor is badly needed.”[6]

When the war officially ended in August of 1945, the Boston-area Italian Service Unit soldiers began repatriating back to Italy in stages after August 8, 1945, with the vast majority of Italian POWs in Massachusetts repatriated by December 1945.

Italian Prisoner of War (POW) lumber salvage workers, 1944. (National Archives Identifier 7269117)

The Italian Service Units accounted for over 90 million-man days of labor in the United States from 1943 to 1945. In financial costs, the programs saved the United States Government an estimated $230 million. The volunteers in the Italian Service Units also freed up American soldiers, who would have performed supporting roles, to serve in combat.

Due to the assistance of the Italian Service Units, fewer American men had to be drafted. The security issues involved with the Italian Service Units were minuscule in comparison to the productivity these programs produced. As an acknowledgment of their service, Italian Service Unit members were offered the chance to become U.S. citizens and stay in the country. Thousands took the government up on their offer.

For those who repatriated in January 1946, a number left significant relationships behind hoping, but not sure, that they would find a way to stay connected with their new friends in Boston. Their joyous return to their homeland was tempered by the devastation evident throughout Italy upon their return.[7]


Footnotes

[1]  Calamandrei Camilla, Prisoners in Paradise: Italian POWs Held in America During WW II: A Historical Narrative and Analysis, 2012, https://www.prisonersinparadise.com/.

[2] Conti Giovanni Flavio, “Italian Prisoners of War in the Boston Area During World War II, The Italian American Review, Vol. 9, no. 2 (Summer 2019), University of Illinois Press, p. 179.

[3] “Former Italian War Prisoners at Work Here,” Daily Boston Globe (1928–1960); 15 May 1944, p. 1.

[4] Conti, “Italian Prisones of War,” p. 184.

[5]  “War Prisoners Work on Docks Due to Labor Pinch, Army Says,” Daily Boston Globe (1928–1960); 2 August 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872–1982), p. 7.

[6]  “Italian Prisoners and the Port of Embarkation.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor World Service, August 3, 1945, pg. 6.

[7] Elizabeth Vallone, “Italian Prisoners of War in the United States,” L’Idea Magazine, March 10, 2015, http://lideamagazine.com/italian-prisoners-of-war-in-the-united-states

Sources

Calamandrei Camilla, Prisoners in Paradise: Italian POWs held in America During WW II: A Historical Narrative and Analysis, 2012, https://www.prisonersinparadise.com/

Conti Giovanni Flavio, “Italian Prisoners of War in the Boston Area during World War II,” The Italian American Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Summer 2019), University of Illinois Press, pp. 179207

John Hammond Moore, “Italian POWs in America: war is not always hell,” Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives [Fall 1976]: 144–45

Vallone, Elizabeth. “Italian Prisoners of War in the United States,” L’Idea Magazine, March 10, 2015, http://lideamagazine.com/italian-prisoners-of-war-in-the-united-states

“Former Italian War Prisoners at Work Here,” Daily Boston Globe (19281960); 15 May 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (18721982), p. 1

“War Prisoners Work on Docks Due to Labor Pinch, Army Says,” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960); 2 August 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (18721982), p. 7.

“Italian Prisoners and the Port of Embarkation.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor World Service, August 3, 1945, pg. 6.

2 thoughts on “The Italian Service Units of World War II in Boston

  1. Many of my relatives were included in this service. Many of them fell in love with America and stayed for the rest of their lives. They had many stories to tell and all of them were proud to become American citizens. Although many did return to Italy, they always kept in touch with the relatives and friends they made while in this great country.

    On a side note, one of my cousins that was born in Italy and became an American Citizen joined the US Army and ironically lost his life during the battle of Anzio Beach. He has a Gold Star sign on a pole in East Boston proudly displaying his name and recognizing his sacrifice.

  2. Good to see this subject being discussed! I wrote a 2014 dissertation on the subject of the Boston ISU experience and the men’s complex relationships with the local population (Italian American and otherwise). One question for you – what is your source for the claim that the US offered citizenship in return for ISU service? My research found that that was not the case – in fact, many ISU men were sent home to Italy, despite wanting to stay, due to the restrictions of the Geneva Convention rules on POWs. Many did return, but only after a year or two and often with the aid of the American women (now wives) they first met while in the ISUs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.