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]


[1]  Calamandrei Camilla, Prisoners in Paradise: Italian POWs Held in America During WW II: A Historical Narrative and Analysis, 2012,

[2] Conti Giovanni Flavio and Alan R. Perry, “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,


Calamandrei Camilla, Prisoners in Paradise: Italian POWs held in America During WW II: A Historical Narrative and Analysis, 2012,

Conti Giovanni Flavio and Alan R. Perry, “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,

“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.

13 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.

  3. The Italian POW role is often overlooked so it is good to see the experience in Boston examined. I looked at the switch from Italian POW labor in Greeley, Colorado to German POWs once the ISU were formed. I also did a study of Italian POWs at Fort Wadsworth which was published in Italian Americana. I would agree with Anne that I found no evidence of citizenship being offered for ISU service. In fact I note the case of POW Angelo Panni who met and fell in love with Antoinette Vece while at Ft. Wadsworth. After the war, to keep things legal, she went to Italy to marry Angelo in 1947. They then returned to New York where Angelo eventually got a job with the U.S. Post Office. As far as I could determine great lengths were taken to be sure all POWs returned to Europe. In fact I found a letter in the National Archives in which a mother of a daughter, who had fallen in love with a POW, had written to Eleanor Roosevelt begging to let the young man stay, but there were no exceptions. There were of course a handful of POWs who escaped and hid, but most were found and sent back. As far as I know they were all Germans.

    1. According to official records in the National Archive I found, no Italian POWs or ISUs escaped for very long in the US and all were accounted for eventually and sent back to Italy (even when Catholic parents of young pregnant girlfriends begged that the men be able to stay and marry their girlfriends). I think a few Germans were more successful long-term escapees (one was found happily selling sidewalk paintings on the streets of NYC!) but even they were eventually found (except maybe one who was found or turned himself in a few years later, I think? I’d have to go back and check my records…).

  4. I grew up hearing about the Italian POWs in Franklin Park and one in South Boston where the gas tanks are presently

    1. Dear Dominic,
      The South Boston Italian POW (ISU actually) camp was part of Camp McKay. It was located just south of Carson Beach on the peninsula where the JFK museum and UMASS Boston is now. The POW enclosure actually abutted the southern end of the beach, which caused some tension and at least one major riot as local GIs were not happy when local girls in bathing suits flirted with the ISUs through the fence. Due to this riot and the rising tension, the McKay ISUs were only there March 1944 to midsummer of that year, then they were divided up and shipped to Fort Andrews on Peddocks Island and Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, both of which were a little more removed from the public eye.

  5. i lived in Jamaica Plain as a child near Franklin Park and remember visitng the Victory Garden there that was maintained by POWS. I just read that Italian prisoners did this but i seems to me we talked with German soldiers. i might be wrong but cant find that Germans were there.
    can anyone shed light on this for me.
    rudi schiffer

    1. Rudi, there were German POWs at Fort Devens in Ayer around that same time, and they were lent out to local farms/orchards, etc. on occasion for day labor (though generally with more guards than the ISU men), so I suppose it is possible you met them in the victory gardens, though I have seen no specific record of them being there.

  6. I am looking for more information about the time my father spent as Italian POW in USA. Is there a register of the prisoners? Thank you for any information you may have.

    1. I made an inquiry some years ago for that list of prisoners, since my father’s first cousin was one of them, and I was told that any list would have been given to the Italian government, and the names were not available. This cousin was retrieved by his father, my great uncle, and taken to Argentina. If you are able to acquire this list, I would love to know. The prisoner’s last name was Mauro. Thank you.

      1. Dear Frank,
        There is a list that has been compiled by a genealogist in Utah of at least the Italians held in the US (I can’t remember at the moment if the list includes Italian POWs held by the US in Europe or Africa). In turn, I found a code key in the National Archives that allowed me to determine which Italians were held in New England (Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Peddocks Island, Camp McKay in Boston). Do you have any sense where your relative was held? And what was his name? I could check at least the list I have for New England.

    2. Dear Renata,
      See my note to Frank below. There is a list compiled which offers some cryptic information regarding Italians held in the US (it includes codes relating to where they were stationed). I cracked the code via some National Archive sources to determine those ISUs held in New England. If you would like me to see if your father was on the list, just let me know.

  7. I was told that Italian POW,s were housed at Wood Island Park in East Boston during WW2.
    Is this true?

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