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Becoming Italian American: POWs and National Identity

Becoming Italian American: POWs and National Identity

Laura E. Ruberto (June 1, 2008)
Benicia Historical Society
Italian Service Unit, Benicia, California (circa 1944)

Two national holidays, la Festa della Repubblica and Memorial Day, bring up the question of what it means to belong.


June 2, la Festa della Repubblica, marks the day in 1946 when a referendum passed to rid Italy of a monarchy; it comes a week after Memorial Day in the U.S., first celebrated to commemorate fallen soldiers of the Civil War.

The two national holidays remind me of some of the ways ethnic identities get formed in relation to larger national ones, that “imagined community” we are all part of to one extent or another.

Consider the experience of Italian prisoners of war in the U.S. during the Second World War. Over 50,000 Italian soldiers, sailors, and airmen were brought to the U.S. as POWs—most had been captured by the French or British in North Africa or Sicily and turned over to the U.S., whose resources were stronger.
For the majority of them, prison time in the U.S. became a liminal period during which they created and participated in a particular kind of Italian American experience. These men built what we might consider as micro-Italian American neighborhoods within the camps—keeping up traditions and customs as they did back home, speaking regional dialects while learning English, building religious altars and presepi, playing bocce and soccer, cooking Italian meals, and interacting with local Italian American communities outside of the camps.
An unknown number of POWs, after being repatriated at war’s end, returned to the U.S. as immigrants, putting an interesting spin on the concept of “return migration.” Social historians often distinguish between pre- and post-war Italian emigration, but the experience of Italian POWs asks us to develop a more fluid understanding of the history of emigration.
Benicia, Italian Service "POWs"
After the armistice was signed in 1943, the position of POWs was unclear, but eventually POWs had the option to sign a statement of allegiance to the U.S. Close to 45,000 men swore allegiance to the allied war effort and were placed into the newly formed Italian Service Units. ISU is a vague term for an equally vague position: members of the ISUs were no longer POWs in the same way as the Fascist Italians, Germans, or Japanese were, but neither were they free men nor regular U.S. military service men. (The Italian “non-collaborators” were placed in isolated, high-security prison camps. Check out Armando Gnisci’s Fame in America and Donald Mace Williams’ Interlude in Umbarger.)
The high number of conscripted soldiers in Mussolini’s army, most of whom were not hardcore ideologues, explains in great part why signing allegiance to the US might not have been difficult. The promise of fewer restrictions, coupled with a long-standing image most Italians would have shared of America as the land of opportunity, surely did much to persuade men to sign. But the choice to sign was not necessarily easy either.
One former POW (now a U.S. citizen) I interviewed some time ago explained his decision to sign the allegiance:
            at the POW camp in Florence, Arizona, an Italian American officer who spoke some Italian
            told us, “Now you cannot be gray any longer.” I remember his words so well: “No longer
            gray—either white or black; if you stay black, you  remain a prisoner, if you become white,
            you’ll be free, like American soldiers.”
(It is telling that the choice between black and white, with its Fascist “black shirt” resonances, here becomes practically a rhetorical comment about Italian Americans’ transformation into ethnic whites.)
When the war ended, the men were repatriated, but an unknown number of them left their hometowns once again, this time as emigrants. Some prisoners returned immediately to the US to marry (often Italian American) women whom they’d met while in the US, as Camilla Calamandrei’s documentary Prisoners in Paradise so skillfully details. Calamandrei’s film calls attention to, among other things, the crazy way national and cultural identity disregards the insidious divisions of war.
The photos posted here all come from the Italian Service Unit in Benicia, California, where my paternal grandfather was housed in what I like to think about as his first experience as an immigrant. (In his case, a few years after being repatriated to Italy, he immigrated to the U.S. by way of Venezuela.)
POWs playing bocce
 POW chapel, Benicia
Notice how the men adapted themselves to their space, developing a daily life that linked them to Italy, informed by preconceived notions of America, and altered by their situation as prisoners. Created with the resources offered to them, many of these photos and the stories behind them are reminiscent of much of post-war Italian-Americana: POW and immigrant identity meeting in the space of the ISU camp.
Of course German and Japanese POWs in the U.S. did not have it so good. Watch this anti-Nazi propaganda film from 1944, Greater Victory, produced by United Specialists and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It imparts the lesson of “goodwill, mutual respect, and teamwork” in the face of “hatred and intolerance” (as the prologue tells us).
In this case a German American turned Nazi meets up with an antifascist Italian American. (Keep in mind that in the first part of the 1940s the lives of thousands of Italian Americans were altered by restrictions of different degrees placed on them as “enemy aliens,” making the patriotic Italian American shown here all the more relevant.)
In the film German POWs incarcerated in the U.S. escape and meet a number of American do-gooders, including one Luigi “Louis” Gusto (played by Tito Vuolo), who is running for county sheriff. Talking to the German escapees, who he assumes to be honest “fellow citizens” like himself, he explains: “America is the first-class land of opportunity. I come here thirty years ago. Then there’s nobody like the Italian fellow, only good for diggin’ ditch.” 
He then goes on to promise that as sheriff he will “put all the bums, crooks, Fascisti, lazzaroni, gamblers, and Nazis in a great big jail.” That he parallels “lazzaroni” with twentieth century dictatorships adds a not-so-subtle complexity to his comment (especially in retrospect and in light of the June 2nd celebration of the Italian Republic).
The word “lazzaroni” generally refers to the Neapolitan working class; although for Marx they are the “lumpen proletariat,” and for an 1873 New York Times editorial they are an example of “superfluous humanity”. More specifically still, the lazzaroni are the class of ruffians/working poor who (perhaps against their better judgment) were pro-royalists and opposed the fledgling Neapolitan Republic formed in 1799.
So in honoring two nations’ histories, we might just take a moment to consider how male ethnic identity gets forged through the fires of war.
Select Bibliography
Cowell, Josephine W. History of Benicia Arsenal: Benicia,  California: January 1851-1962. Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1963.
Fiedler, David Winston. The Enemy Among Us: POWs in Missouri During World War II. Missouri Historical Society Press, 2003
Keefer, Louis E. Italian Prisoners of War in America: 1942-1946 Captives or Allies? New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992.
Williams, Donald Mace. Interlude in Umbarger: Italian POWs and a Texas Church. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech UP, 1991.
---. Italian POWs and a Texas Church: The Murals of St. Mary’s. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech UP, 1992.


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Your current blog!

Ah!! Nice work, glad to read this side of you, I also like the blogspot one, this one is much more organized,hihi.. I love the images, they r powerful! Keep on writing! I wann keep reading you after I leave this country, which is in less than a month!!!