During World War II, nearly half a million Axis prisoners of war were held in the United States. The vast majority of these POWs were German, and a small number (less than 1%) were from Japan, but the remainder were Italian, and they fell into a special category. 34,000 Italian soldiers were allowed to work and live relatively freely at military installations across the country, including at the New York Port of Embarkation, and they provided vital labor and skills to the American war effort. So why were these Italians treated differently than their German and Japanese counterparts?
September 1943 was a turning point in the war in Europe. After successful campaigns through North Africa and Sicily – where American forces had swept up large numbers of Italian prisoners – the Allies were preparing for the invasion of mainland Italy. Mussolini had been deposed on July 25, and the Italian government wanted to avoid plunging their country into full-scale war, so they signed an armistice with the Allies on September 3. Instead of forestalling invasion, the armistice triggered two; Nazi Germany invaded the north to disarm the Italian Army and reinstall Mussolini, while the Allies landed at Salerno, Taranto, and Calabria in the south to continue the campaign against Germany’s southern flank. Italy was caught in the middle.
After the armistice, Italian POWs were no longer enemies, but neither were they allies (the technical term was “co-belligerents”), and the Allies needed to figure out what to do with them. The British and Americans had been using Italian captives as laborers throughout the Mediterranean campaigns, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, and thousands been been shipped to Britain and the US to be held in camps. The armistice fundamentally changed the relationship between the captors and captives, yet the Geneva Convention did not say anything about what to do if a country changes sides in the middle of a war.
Keeping them imprisoned under the same conditions as the Germans and Japanese did not seem right, but the British, Americans, and Italians struggled to reach a consensus on their status. Neither side had the resources to repatriate the soldiers to their still war-torn homeland, and the Allies valued the labor that the Italian prisoners provided, as it freed up more manpower for fighting. After nearly eight months of negotiations, and 500,000 Italian soldiers stuck in limbo, no formal agreement was reached – but there was an understanding that Italians in Allied custody could be used for non-combat war work, and they would be accorded more freedoms than the Axis prisoners. Thus the creation of the Italian Service Units.
While units were first organized in October 1943 in the Mediterranean theater, it was not until May 1944 that they were set up inside the US. The Italians were given US Army-issued uniforms, but with “ITALY” emblazoned on the shoulder. To join such a unit, soldiers had to volunteer, go through a screening process by military intelligence, pass a physical and metal examination, and denounce fascism. They could then undergo training for specific jobs, take English language classes, and enjoy more liberties; though still confined to a camp, they could get passes to leave, and they were allowed to “fraternize” with American servicemen, usually forbidden in POW camps. Of the 50,136 Italians captives in the US in May 1944, roughly 34,000, or two-thirds, joined the units.
Italian Service Units were organized into 195 separate units, with the largest number (72) being at ports of embarkation and transportation depots. The New York Port of Embarkation was one of the largest employers of the ISUs, with large detachments living at Port Johnston (Bayonne, NJ), Camp Kilmer (NJ), Camp Shanks (NY), and Fort Hamilton (Brooklyn). These units were also employed at the Bush Terminal, Staten Island Terminal, and Brooklyn Army Terminal. Italians worked as stevedores, warehouse workers, mechanics, and repairmen. On June 9, 1944, shortly after the first units arrived, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described their responsibilities: “They supply mechanics for plant maintenance, and laborers for a variety of jobs. They repair clothing, shoes, typewriters and other equipment; they repair, wash and paint cars. Some serve as truck drivers.”
These soldiers were not confined to stockades and became visible parts of the communities in which they lived, but they were not the same as American soldiers. They were paid, but a lot less – just $24 per month, and $16 of this was paid in scrip that could only be used at military commissaries. They organized soccer teams, bocce leagues, and musical troupes. In June 1944, soldiers in the New York Port of Embarkation were taken on field trips to see the sights of New York City, including the Empire State Building, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Bronx Zoo. While there was some public concern that the Italians were being “coddled,” the Army was quick to point out that these liberties had a purpose: “[A]dditional freedom … takes the form of sight-seeing for educational tours and recreational visits to nearby communities, under American military supervision. This relaxation of the restrictions has resulted in a noticeable improvement in their efficiency and productiveness in the war effort.”
Despite being erstwhile enemies, the arrival of the Italians highlighted the deep connections of culture and family between the US and Italy, especially in New York and New Jersey. Italian-Americans organized events and hosted soldiers in their homes. Soldiers assigned to port terminals spoke a common language with the Italian-American dockworkers. And many of the soldiers were born in or had lived in the US. Two held in the New York area, Vincenzo Burrello and Domenico Ciccone, had brothers serving in the US Army, according to a report in the Daily News. Another, Grazio Iacobelli, had a wife living in Newark; married in Italy in 1939, Grazio was drafted before they could reunite in the US, and his wife gave birth to a daughter, Maria, whom he had never met until his capture on the battlefield brought them all together in New Jersey.
Some were unhappy with their confinement. 17,000 refused to volunteer or failed physical or mental examinations for the ISUs, which put them in the same position as the Germans, with far less freedom and sent to camps in more rural areas (more than 4,500 “non-cooperative” Italians were shipped all the way to Hawaii). Some even contested their imprisonment, on various grounds; some wanted to be given combat roles to fight the Nazis, some just wanted to go home, and some wanted the right to remain in the US. Gaetano Territo brought his case all the way to the US Supreme Court, claiming that because he was born in West Virginia, his American citizenship gave him the right of habeas corpus to contest his confinement. The court ruled that taking up arms against the US overrode his American citizenship, and his case became the legal foundation for indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” in the Global War on Terror.
The most important privilege Italian Service Unit soldiers received was the right to go home first. These soldiers were given first priority for repatriation, which began in September 1945, many months before German and Japanese POWs. Some had not been home in more than five years. In November 1945, the aircraft carrier USS Wasp underwent conversion to a troopship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Annex in Bayonne, NJ. Designed to bring 6,000 American soldiers home, it first carried 1,247 Italians home on its outward journey to Naples. While POWs could only carry 55 pounds of personal belongings on their return journey, ISU soldiers got another special privilege: they were allowed 100 pounds, to fit all the souvenirs they acquired while in the US.
The Italian Service Units were an anomaly, the product of Italy’s shifting geopolitical position in World War II. These men caught in the middle found themselves marooned thousands of miles from home, unsure of who their friends and enemies were. Americans were also not sure what to make of them, some wary of a defeated army in their midst, others welcoming to their fellow countrymen. Ultimately, these men made in invaluable contribution to the American war effort, keeping farms, factories, and ports running.