Jack Hamann, Rewriting History in 'American Soil'
In August 1944 an Italian prisoner of war was found hanged on the beach of a U.S. Army base on Puget Sound, near Seattle. Hours earlier his unit's barracks had been assaulted by black American enlisted men quartered nearby.
The trial that followed was the Army's longest during World War II. The lead prosecutor was Leon Jaworski, who later led the Watergate investigation.
A new book by Jack Hamann -- TV correspondent and documentary producer -- asserts that much of what was reported about the incident at the time was inaccurate, and the court-martial ended in a miscarriage of justice. He tells Sheilah Kast about his new book On American Soil, which uses recently declassified evidence to tell a fuller story of a bleak moment in U.S. history.
Read the first chapter:
The town of Florence is just out of Tucson, past the Superstition Mountains and Picacho Peak, beyond the east riverbank of the Santa Cruz. The road to town drifts northwest across the flat bottom of an ancient inland sea, searing in summer and uncomfortably cold most winter nights. Green fields line both sides of the highway, thanks to a mix of soil, sun, and miles of manmade canals. Cotton farmers here grow some of the finest long fiber this side of Egypt.
Just beyond Florence is the Gila River and, past that, a spur for the Southern Pacific Railroad, its tracks dead-ending at what used to be the gates of Camp Florence. Back in 1944, twin fences topped with barbed wire protected the rest of the world from the restless men locked inside what was once the largest prisoner-of-war compound ever built on American soil.
On May 17, 1944, Guglielmo Olivotto and his best pals, Imo Nolgi and Bruno Patteri, sweltered in the stuffy heat of a two-story wood-frame barrack. The three Italian prisoners stayed busy at their bunks, fighting the anxiety of the uncertainty ahead. In less than twenty-four hours, they were to be loaded onto a troop train and shipped to an undisclosed U.S. army installation in yet another unfamiliar part of America. Although Camp Florence had its drawbacks, it had proved safe and familiar and much less daunting than the prospect of switching to another strange venue in this never-ending war.
Heaped atop each man's canvas cot was a mound of clothing and equipment, all newly issued for their one-way journey out of Arizona. Leather service shoes with new laces and refurbished soles, clean but needing a shine. One garrison cap and two cotton field hats, both a bit frayed. Socks and handkerchiefs, GI drawers and undershirts. Two pairs of pants, one web belt. A toothbrush, shaving brush, safety razor, and five blades. A meat can, canteen, canteen cup, fork, knife, and spoon. Dog tags stamped with name, rank, and prisoner-of-war serial number. Miscellaneous bivouac equipment.
Of all the gear spread across each cot, none looked more out of place than a matching pair of worn but clean khaki shirts. Olivotto had been in Arizona for nine months, and the only outer clothing he'd ever been issued was dark blue: surplus U.S. army suntans and olive drabs soaked in vats of indigo dye to distinguish Italian prisoners from their American captors. Until now, all his outer shirts, pants, and jackets had come stamped with the six-inch yellow letters pw on front and back. But this morning, he'd been handed the very same uniforms worn by the U.S. army; only the buttons were different, plain rather than metal. Each pile of clothing included a handful of oval cloth patches, with instructions to sew them on the left sleeves of all outer garments. The patches, green and white, were inscribed in bold letters: italy.
Guglielmo, Imo, and Bruno shared mixed feelings about their decision to accept a new assignment. There had been whispers from fellow Italians that it was all a trick and that the Americans intended to stick them back into battle, fighting Japanese and mosquitoes in some godforsaken jungle in the Pacific. There were other rumors too, enough to persuade some prisoners to take their chances in the withering oven of the upcoming Arizona summer rather than travel to an unknown new location, even if it meant missing out on the liberties and privileges promised to those who would be leaving with Olivotto and his buddies the next day.
But Guglielmo wasn't about to stay behind while his two closest friends went away. Eight days earlier, they had made the decision together, agreeing to be among the very first enlisted men to volunteer for a quartermaster company called the Twenty-eighth Italian Service Unit. Stuffing his canvas barracks bags with his newly issued gear, there was just enough room for rosaries, playing cards, cigarettes, hard candy, a small statue of the Virgin Mother, and a creased card bearing her image. The world was still at war; he would simply have to take his chances.
Throughout history, being a prisoner of war was a fate often barely better than being killed in battle. Capture usually meant humiliation, torture, or starvation; it sometimes meant being worked to death or being used as a human shield on the battlefield. In the uncertain aftermath of the First World War, diplomats from forty-seven nations gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, determined to inject a measure of humanity into the ugly business of caring for captured soldiers. A long list of requirements and restrictions were drafted, all meant to preserve prisoners' dignity and to minimize the inevitable resentment that had so often launched new wars of retribution. The Geneva Convention for the Treatment of Prisoners of War was a major diplomatic breakthrough, although some countries, including Japan and the Soviet Union, refused to go along.
Those nations that did sign the treaty promised to treat prisoners humanely and protect them from acts of violence, insults, or public curiosity. Prisoners of war had a right to clean, safe quarters and to food rations equal in quality and quantity to whatever was served to the detaining power's own troops at its base camps. They were to have access to books, games, and recreation and to be allowed to buy personal items, including tobacco, at military canteens. Captured enlisted men, but not their officers, could be put to work as long as there were adequate protections for health and safety. Prison jobs could never, however, have any direct relation to combat and could not involve the manufacture or movement of weapons or explosives. To ensure the rules were being followed, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross and from neutral nations like Switzerland were to be offered regular access to all prison camps.
Americans, however, were hardly experts in the care and feeding of war prisoners in their own backyards. Most battles since the end of the Civil War had been fought on foreign soil, where captured soldiers were usually corralled in large stockades not far from the front lines. During the First World War, only 1,346 enemy troops spent any time in captivity in the United States.
In World War II, the military got into the prisoner-of-war business right away when, in the chaotic aftermath of Pearl Harbor, a Japanese sailor accidentally beached his miniature submarine. A few more POWs trickled in during 1942, mostly Germans captured in North Africa by British forces, then redirected to the United States to relieve overcrowding in English prison camps. These first few enemy soldiers were an afterthought, treated as little more than a drain on military money and manpower.
The army was made responsible for the care of all foreign prisoners, no matter which branch of the military actually captured them, under the jurisdiction of a newly created post called the provost marshal general. Prison compounds, it was hoped, would be built where surplus barracks or obsolete Civilian Conservation Corps buildings were already available. All camps were to be located in rural areas, far from city dwellers who might be fearful of fugitives and particularly distant from military installations and factories, where the possibility of espionage was a relentless concern. Initial proposals penciled most prisons south of the fortieth parallel, where warmer weather meant lower costs for heating, insulation, and wintertime clothing.
Where surplus barracks were not available, Provost Marshal General Allen Gullion was authorized to order construction of entire compounds from the ground up. Early on, eyes turned to Florence, Arizona, a remote town in a sunny climate where a sizable state penitentiary was already part of the community. In January 1942, the army paid four million dollars for five hundred acres of pancake-flat land north of the Gila River. Blueprints were drafted for a sprawling complex, including barracks, a bakery, a 486-bed hospital, a swimming pool, twenty theaters, courts for volleyball and basketball, and guard towers all around. If the United States was to stay true its Geneva Convention commitments, Camp Florence would be the War Department's shining model.
The thought of Nazis and Fascists lurking not far from schools and playgrounds did not sit well with town fathers in rural Arizona. On February 17, 1942, the men of the Rotary Club of nearby Superior, Arizona, gave U.S. senator Carl Hayden a piece of their collective minds. "The members of this club, who you know are the heads of businesses, unanimously protest the establishment of an internment camp at Florence, Arizona. We realize that such camps are essential and that selfishness might be [in] back of protests as to where they are located, but we assure you that it is not selfishness in this case." Arizona's unselfish Rotarians felt they were doing their country a huge service by warning Congress that the region's four large copper mines would be threatened by the presence of a POW camp. In a separate letter, E. D. Dentzer, general manager of the Magma Copper Company, explained that relatives and friends of Germans and Italians were certain to move near the prison compound in order to be close to loved ones. "I feel sure a lot of those people would be potential saboteurs and, therefore, a menace to any and all defense industries in this locality."
Small-town paranoia, however, was no match for a nationwide military machine demanding sacrifice from citizens and communities everywhere. By April, construction at Camp Florence was well under way, and by fall military police escort companies were living in the barracks, training for the day when Nazi, Fascist, and Japanese prisoners would find their way to the Arizona desert. Events in North Africa, however, soon accelerated their timetable.
At 3:40 p.m. on May 7, 1943, British tanks rolled into Tunis. Forty-five minutes later, Americans entered Bizerte, forty miles northwest. Exhausted Allied soldiers had finally conquered both major ports on Tunisia's northern coast, a hard-fought reward after six bloody months battling entrenched German and Italian forces in the mud-caked hills of northern Africa. During the last week of April and the first week of May, a quarter-million Axis soldiers trudged out with their hands up, roughly a hundred thousand Germans and the rest Italians. It would be the largest mass surrender of the war.
Almost overnight, Allied commanders around the world were forced to secure shelter for the unexpected swarm of new enemy prisoners. Tens of thousands were shipped to Britain and her colonies in India and South Africa, or as far away as Australia. Thousands more were placed in the ballast holds of vessels bound for the United States, where Pentagon officials scrambled to find somewhere to stow them on American soil. The new camp in Florence was soon filled to capacity.
The mass capitulation in Tunisia had been both poignant and surreal. German soldiers, still wearing the uniforms of proud, battle-hardened warriors, had been shocked by their defeat and remained defiant toward their captors. Most Italians, on the other hand, were fairly giddy with relief. Some had labored in Africa for as long as five years, pawns in Benito Mussolini's dream of a new Roman Empire. Ferruccio Umek, captured May 7, 1943, later told the Chicago Tribune that he had been conscripted into Italy's Africa campaign "without training, without uniforms, without weapons. Our shoes were full of holes; we were full of lice." The heat had been fierce; the sand blown by searing winds had sometimes swallowed them whole. Rations had been meager: a typical meal might have been little more than carrots, salted sardines, and moldy black bread.
Chased by British general Bernard Montgomery from the south and east, and by British general Kenneth Anderson and American general Omar Bradley from the west, the Italians had struggled for weeks without adequate food, water, sleep, or ammunition. The only thing Italian soldiers hated more than their German allies were their own Fascist officers, many of whom had earned rank through political favor rather than military skill. The favored greeting was "Speriamo," short for "Speriamo che finisce questa guerra" ("We hope that this war ends"). The prospect of laying down guns had been, for most Italians, a welcome and long-overdue deliverance.
Guglielmo Olivotto had been a speck in the teeming crowd of surrendering soldiers that week. Olivotto was no kid: he was thirty-one years old, born in Nervesa, a village sixty miles north of Venice. The town, on the south bank of the Piave River, squatted at the base of Montello Mountain, above a broad plain dotted with small vineyards and modest farms. Shops and cottages surrounded the central piazza, built of stone and old timber, washed with pastel paint every forty years or so, then left to peel until a patchwork of stone peeked through again. Guglielmo was barely six years old when Nervesa was reduced to rubble during one of World War I's bloodiest battles, as Austrian forces pushed south of the Piave, only to be driven back again a few days later. The town, when eventually rebuilt, was renamed Nervesa della Battaglia, in honor of its heroic defense of Italy.
Guglielmo grew up at a time when young men regularly fled rural Italy to chase dreams of decent wages and brighter futures, mostly in western Europe and America.
By 1922, unemployment was so rampant-and inflation so out of control-that Benito Mussolini and his nationalist Fascists had little trouble bullying their way to power. Olivotto, still a teenager, packed his bags and headed west, spending the next seventeen years as a laborer in France. His expatriate life came to an abrupt end in 1940, however, when Hitler's panzers quickly overran French resistance. The Germans forced most Italian émigrés to return home, where they were immediately conscripted into the military.
Olivotto was a quiet man, well read and devoutly religious. He was lean, five feet ten inches and just 150 pounds. His eyes were dark; his hair was black and thick, except for a bald spot on the crown of his head; he wore a dark mustache. A thin scar slid down the right side of his scalp at hairline. He was never married and had no children. He didn't drink or gamble. He had no interest in being a soldier.
By 1942, Private Olivotto was an army truck driver, stuck in the miserable heat of the Libyan desert. Libya had been ceded by the Turks in 1912 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and a brutal program of Italianization followed. By 1940, one hundred thousand Italians had been sent to Libya as settlers, hastening the death or dislocation of half the native Libyan population. In the meantime, the North African beachhead provided Mussolini a base to invade Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia.
But Il Duce's ambitions were cut short. On a moonless night in November 1942, U.S. and British troops stormed the shoreline in Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. Just three days later, the Allies controlled Morocco and Algeria, the entire western third of North Africa. Within weeks, the British Eighth army, surging from Egypt in the east, rolled into Tripoli, capital of Italian Libya. Olivotto and thousands of his fellow soldiers were forced to retreat west into Tunisia, where they were caught in a vice between advancing Americans, British, and French on one side and General Montgomery on the other.
War correspondent Ernie Pyle, who slept, ate, and marched with troops in Tunisia, was one of the few American reporters to write unabashedly about what he admiringly called the "God-damned infantry":
I was sitting among clumps of sword grass on a steep and rocky hillside that we had just taken, looking out over a vast rolling country to the rear. A narrow path wound like a ribbon over another hill. All along the length of that ribbon there was a thin line of men. For four days and nights they had fought hard, eaten little, washed none, and slept hardly at all. Their nights had been violent with attack, fright, butchery, and their days sleepless and miserable with the crash of artillery... Their walk was slow, for they were dead weary, as a person could tell even when looking at them from behind. Every line and sag of their bodies spoke their inhuman exhaustion... Their faces were black and unshaved. They were young men, but the grime and whiskers and exhaustion made them look middle-aged. In their eyes as they passed was no hatred, no excitement, no despair, no tonic of their victory -- there was just the simple expression of being there as if they had been there doing that forever, and nothing else.
One of those retreating from the American advance was John Apice, an Italian tank driver. "Our battles were tough. The heat in the tanks, and the lack of food and drinks, made it so hard to be able to drive those damn tanks for hours at a time. We moved around to fight. We usually never went more than a couple of days before another battle broke out. Our battles lasted a couple of hours, or several months. There was never any way to tell which one it would be... For every man we killed, there were another two behind him. For every tank we destroyed, there were two more on each side. We were outnumbered and tired and sick."
Little wonder that soldiers on both sides were glad when they ran out of land at the tip of Tunisia.
Camp Florence welcomed its first Italian prisoners of war on May 4, 1943. Within days, most were given a single printed sheet of stationery, with space for name, rank, and POW number and a rectangular box in the middle to compose a letter to a loved one in Italy.
I am now altogether out of danger, in fact, one might almost say that I am on a pleasant vacation-believe me, I am really very comfortable, I am eating plenty of good food & because of this comfortable life I am putting on weight. - Rino
We are being treated very well here-we sleep on cots with two quilts-whenever we want to we can bathe, even any time of the night. There are three meals a day and they are very good and plentiful. We are treated courteously, and we are really leading a life of fine gentlemen. The canteen has everything we need and there are plenty of cigarettes. We also have a movie theater. We are really well off! - Your brother, Ianici
Certainly I have no reason for complaining as I am situated now. You too will be astonished when you learn how I live here. I am in a flourishing village of wooden cottages especially built for our use-our sleeping quarters are very clean and I enjoy all manner of comforts. - Your son, Ettore
Letters from POWs were not private; they were gathered each day and piled on desks of army censors. Any references deemed inappropriate or seditious or just plain too negative were either deleted or pulled from the mailbag. At Camp Florence, though, censors found little to edit.
I am very comfortable & well, Tere, so do not worry, just have faith... The voyage here was delightful and I find myself with many friends in Arizona, land of dreams and illusions! We are enjoying the utmost cleanliness and comfort. In addition, the food is really marvelous, just to give you an idea of what we eat, here is the menu for today’s breakfast: chocolate, toast, butter & honey; dinner: spaghetti, potato salad, salami, cheese and dessert, or stewed fruit, and in the evening we eat at a table set with real dishes. We are given three dollars per month for "pin money" -- there are plenty of cigarettes. Tere, you can write to me as often as you want to. - Your fiancé, Achille
On May 9, a new shipment of prisoners arrived in Arizona, most of them transferred from overcrowded British internment camps in South Africa. Some had watched comrades die of thirst on forced marches through the desert. Others had wasted on diets of stale bread and weak broth. Within hours, the new arrivals realized Camp Florence was miraculously different.
I want you to know that I am no longer in South Africa -- now I am in America, and I am so comfortable that it's like being in Paradise -- they treat us so well. This time, Mother, I am telling you the truth -- here, nothing is lacking. - Armando
I have had the pleasant surprise of finally being treated like a human being, that is, sleeping in a comfortable, well-aired cottage furnished with a comfortable cot. The climate is very warm, seemingly well-chosen. But after all, I am in America, the nation of dollars. - Grancesco
Many prisoners had not heard from family members for years and agonized whenever they heard occasional news of the war's progress in Europe. Patton and Montgomery were now barreling through Sicily, and Mussolini was on the run. Throughout Italy, war-weary citizens suffered from an endless drain of money, manpower, and hope. Some of the letters written at Camp Florence may have made their recipients’ suffering seem even worse.
The treatment we get in this camp is excellent. As to the food served us, I can almost say that it is even better and more plentiful than our meals at home were. Therefore, Primula, dear, cheer up, and think how lucky your husband is to be in America and how he wishes you could have the things to eat that he is enjoying. - Armando
Week after week, POWs poured in. New arrivals wore uniforms tattered by war, skin blistered by African sun, and hair infested with lice. Each was given a physical exam, a dental checkup, and an inoculation against smallpox. Personal items -- watches, crucifixes, good-luck charms, photographs, even carpet slippers -- were inventoried, then handed back. Foreign currency was confiscated and stored for safekeeping until the end of the war. Every POW was photographed, fingerprinted, and asked to fill out a form giving name, rank, and home address. Each was issued a prisoner of war serial number.
Although Mussolini had been running Italy, King Vittorio Emanuelle III remained nominally in power. Most foot soldiers were apolitical and would have preferred to sit out the war, but of those who did profess a loyalty, it was usually to king and not to the Fascists. The War Department viewed Fascist sympathizers as troublemakers or even worse, so almost every arriving prisoner was interviewed in private by an officer from army Intelligence. To probe a prisoner's allegiance, questions on the standard interrogation forms included "Do you think Italy, Germany and Japan can still win the war?" "Are German troops popular in Italy?" "Have you complete faith in the Fascist leaders?" Those who openly sympathized with Mussolini's Fascists were quickly segregated from soldiers who said they were members of the king's army. Sympathizers were kept in separate barracks under close guard. Where answers were ambiguous, a "watch list" was prepared to keep an eye on possible problem prisoners down the road.
The U.S. army's Psychological Operations branch also mined new arrivals for possible propaganda to use during the invasion of Italy. Their standard list of questions included "What are the latest political jokes?" "Have you heard any scandal about Mussolini?" "Have you seen any chain letters recently?" German prisoners, on the other hand, were specifically asked whether they’d heard any good jokes about the incompetence of Italian soldiers.
The glow of POW gratitude at Camp Florence was evident throughout the summer of 1943. Independent inspectors began touring the compound, filing reports with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the YMCA. From the very first visit, the inspectors' tone was as complimentary as the prisoners' letters home: "Camp is spotlessly clean and sanitary." "Prisoner morale is good." Florence "is the nearest to a model camp which we have seen in POW camps." The examiners snapped small black-and-white photos of rows of two-story wood barracks, each with broad eaves extending from both the upper and lower levels to provide shade from the broiling Arizona sun. Inside, they captured images of smiling Italians standing next to well-spaced cots beneath high ceilings supported by dozens of tall, square posts. Not visible were the pinup girls, torn from the pages of Esquire and Life, with fanciful names of Italian girls scribbled at the bottom. A snapshot taken at the camp entrance showed two men standing in the shade of an enormous cactus, a stately saguaro soaring at least twenty feet above them, extending more than a dozen fat, fleshy arms into the desert sky. Visible in the background were some of the twenty-six guard towers ringing the camp perimeter.
Newspapermen were equally enthusiastic. Chester Hanson of the Los Angeles Times was impressed that the Italians "have their own theater group and an 18-piece orchestra... The maestro is a bearded gentleman of ability. They have a stage in the recreation hall. This group worked diligently and has put together a variety show that even one who cannot understand Italian can enjoy... Costumes-remember these men came over here in prisoners' clothes-made themselves, even to the filmy long bloomers of the 'lady' oriental dancer, with a tied-on bust effect and the veil from the eyes down. And was 'she' some dancer!"
Hanson marveled at the resourcefulness of clever men filling idle time in prison. He wrote about a trio of opera singers wearing white jackets sewn from bed sheets and bow ties cut from cardboard. Hanson saw "suitcases made out of thin scrap lumber, and one, a remarkable piece of work, made out of tin cut from five-gallon cans. Beautiful cigarette cases made out of aluminum cut from canteens and polished with sand and dust rubbed on the metal with a piece of bacon rind." Inmates painted a fresco in the camp chapel and built an outdoor shell of adobe as an acoustic backdrop for evening concerts. A series of elaborate vegetable gardens sprung up between dusty barracks.
Long before the first prisoners arrived, a well-meaning official made sure the camp was equipped with sporting gear. The Camp Florence warehouse had been stuffed with enough bats, balls, gloves, rackets, helmets, and goals to outfit four full baseball teams, two football teams, four basketball teams, and enough tennis and badminton equipment to keep several courts hopping. Unfortunately, much of the gear gathered dust, as the Americans belatedly learned that Italians preferred soccer, volleyball, and bocce. Eventually, the best soccer players were permitted to play matches against local teams made up of Mexican migrant workers.
To Italian enlisted men, the Camp Florence amenities were all the sweeter because commissioned Italian officers were nowhere in sight. The Geneva Convention required roomier quarters and additional liberties for higher-ranking officers; Arizona was built for enlisted men only. Italian officers had their own camps in Utah, California, and Texas. As far as the men in Florence were concerned, the separation couldn't be wide enough.
By the time a train carrying Guglielmo Olivotto, Imo Nolgi, and Bruno Patteri pulled into Camp Florence in early September 1943, the prison had been transformed into a barbed-wire oasis. After Olivotto, Nolgi, and Patteri were each prodded by army Intelligence and probed by army doctors, they were given a pile of new clothing and directed toward the showers. Camp guards had grown accustomed to seeing men caked with months of grime return time and again the very same day to enjoy another round of soap and hot water. In a few cases, men had stretched out on the floor to let water pour over their grateful naked bodies for hours at a time.
When Olivotto first reached his bunk, he was greeted with another treat. Resting on the mattress was a one-page letter, translated into Italian, written by Colonel William A. Holden, the American camp commander:
To the Italian Prisoners of War, Florence Internment Camp, Florence, Arizona:
Permit me to welcome you to this camp. Due to the fortunes of war, you find yourselves detained by the Army of the United States of America. Your detention will be managed strictly in accordance with agreements made between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Italy.
You have my full assurance that you will at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults and public curiosity.
Colonel Holden was a soldier's soldier, a thin-faced, droopy-eyed man from Sparta, Wisconsin, who had earned a silver star and purple heart while an infantryman in France during World War I. His empathy for the grunts who shouldered the real burdens of war led him to view his current assignment as more like a headmaster at a boarding school for wayward boys than a warden at a wartime prison:
As a soldier and as a camp commander, I advise and urge you to preserve your morale. You can best do this by taking advantage of the opportunities afforded you to correspond with your family; by participating in athletics and other recreational programs; by keeping your person and your quarters scrupulously clean; by carefully obeying all orders and instructions of the American Army personnel on duty with you; by attending religious services, and, very important, by preserving a serene disposition at all times.
The colonel's words must have seemed either an unlikely deliverance or a cruel hoax. Soldiers like Olivotto had just emerged from an unforgiving world of kill-or-be-killed; suddenly they were being told they would be cradled in the bosom of a benevolent captor:
You are still soldiers of the Kingdom of Italy and your civil status is protected. You are not confined or detained as punishment. It is my duty to detain each of you until properly released. Outside of the detention features of your stay here, you will be cared for on a basis comparable to the care given to soldiers of the United States of America.
Within days, bookish Olivotto discovered he had access to a library with four hundred Italian titles. He could spend part of an evening watching subtitled Hollywood movies, films like Tarzan Finds a Son, Ziegfeld Girl, and Out West with the Hardys or cartoons like Mickey Mouse or Popeye. He could read Italian American newspapers, like Il Progresso Italo-Americano, La Voce del Popolo, and Il Corriere del Popolo, all bearing scraps of news about the war and the homeland. And he could even marvel at camp-sponsored newsletters written by fellow inmates, chock-full of stories and gossip and puzzles and drawings and excerpts from juicy novellas with names like Notte di Nebbia (Foggy Night) or L'amante (The Lover).
Perhaps most comforting to Olivotto were the three priests who took turns conducting mass and hearing confessions. Father Barbato was a U.S. Army chaplain, Father Daniele Dal Sasso a fellow prisoner of war. Father Jacques was a local Arizona priest who spoke Italian and went out of his way to spend time in the hospital or stockade or with men who were naturally shy or lonely, like Olivotto. Prayers became as much a part of Olivotto's camp routine as saluting.
At night, inmates lined up for a turn with the company barber, grateful for a posttrim dollop of scented hair oil; lilac was the favorite. Small tables crafted in the camp woodshop were crowded with soldiers playing checkers or chess or poker or morra, an Italian finger-guessing game. Some stayed on their cots, composing one of the two letters they were permitted to send each month. Sometimes, after taps sounded and lights were dimmed, guards could hear one or two Italians softly sobbing. Compared with Africa, Florence, Arizona, was a huge relief, but it still wasn’t Florence, Italy.
Twenty months after Pearl Harbor, American soldiers, sailors, and airmen were spread from the South Pacific to the Aleutian Islands to the Mediterranean. At the Pentagon, generals and admirals secretly geared for the eventual invasion of France at Normandy. The U.S. Army was now six million strong and growing, swollen from its paltry prewar level of barely a hundred thousand. Young men enlisted or were drafted or worked in big-city factories churning out tanks, ships, fighter planes, and supplies. The exodus of able-bodied workers away from rural communities triggered a farm labor crisis throughout much of middle America. The nation still needed food, but no longer had enough hands to help gather the harvest.
Around Florence, the labor-intensive cotton crop was most often picked by Mexican braceros, migrant workers who traveled from Florida to Texas to California as crops and local labor pools dictated. But even braceros could not fill the growing labor vacuum, and farmers couldn't round up enough local women and children willing and able to toil in the sun. Soon enough, cotton growers' attention turned to Camp Florence.
The Geneva Convention clearly endorsed the use of POW labor for noncombat activities, particularly for cultivating and harvesting crops. Throughout America, tens of thousands of POWs-including German prisoners living in their own separate camps-were relocated near small towns in order to harvest crops of corn, wheat, and soybeans. By July, army officials in Florence began establishing prison side camps in arid towns between Phoenix and Tucson. In Eloy, tents and frame bunkhouses were erected under cottonwoods near the Santa Cruz River. At Mesa, the army took over a compound originally built to teach the manly skills of western ranch life to the sons of East Coast aristocrats, including Teddy Roosevelt’s boys. A Red Cross inspector reported that morale in prison side camps was unexpectedly high: Italians enjoyed living in quarters not surrounded by barbed wire in places where military police guards rarely treated them like inmates.
Chopping cotton was hard work. Lower-grade snapping cotton was picked by plucking the entire boll, then slipping handfuls into a long bag strapped over one shoulder, trailing behind like a canvas bridal veil. Higher-grade long-staple and short-staple cotton had to be separated with the fingers, exhausting labor that left hands raw, backs sore, and shoulders aching as canvas bags grew heavier and hotter as the day wore on. For the month of November 1943, an average of 1,549 POWs per day picked roughly fifty-four pounds of cotton each, a grand total of just under two million pounds for the month.
When all the cotton was chopped, prisoners cleaned irrigation ditches, dug potatoes, picked fruit and vegetables, harvested alfalfa, and maintained roads. And while POW labor helped farmers save their crops, it didn't necessarily save them money. Labor leaders chafed at the prospect of underpaid workers diluting American wages, so the army agreed to charge farmers the competitive local hourly rate of forty cents an hour, minus expenses. Those wages were paid directly to the military, with the bulk of the money deposited in the U.S. Treasury. In 1944, the government earned twenty-two million dollars from the sweat and toil of its enemy soldiers, helping offset the considerable expense of housing and feeding more than fifty thousand Italians and two hundred thousand Germans.
At the camp itself, Italians were the primary workforce in the bakery, laundry, warehouse, and mess halls. All prisoners, whether they worked or not, earned ten cents a day, payable in coupons redeemable at camp canteens for cigarettes, beer, candy, postage stamps, and sundries. Those who held jobs were paid an additional seventy cents a day, a significant incentive in an environment where tobacco and other small luxuries went a long way to ease the heartache of homesickness. A stash of camp coupons brought a measure of control, even dignity, to men who had spent so much of their young lives having someone with a gun telling them what they could and could not do. Performers in the orchestra and theater ensemble so impressed Colonel Holden that he paid them for their practice time and performances, in violation of army regulations.
Guglielmo Olivotto spent most of his first four months at Camp Florence picking cotton. Each morning at dawn, his crew piled into the back of a farmer's pickup, tossing wolf whistles at young women who happened along the dusty roads (although Guglielmo was much too shy to join in). In the fields, a broad straw hat provided meager relief from the midday sun; temperatures were often unbearable until the calendar crept toward Thanksgiving.
As Christmas approached in 1943, life at Camp Florence began to lose a little of its luster. The Italian government had officially surrendered in September, but German soldiers still occupied most of northern Italy, and Guglielmo had to assume that his parents and younger brother were in constant danger. Now that Italy was no longer at war with America, many Italian prisoners openly longed to return home, either to help the Allies push Hitler out of their country or to simply feel their loved ones' embrace. Army censors found it harder to keep up with letters deemed too negative to be mailed abroad.
They have the nerve to take us into the open to work under the broiling sun. - Giovanni
I'm in a desert that is worse than Sirte. They make us work in the sun and even the ground is hot. If I were free I would never again be captured alive. - Simone
There are some people who, to curry favors and benevolence from the Americans, covertly do the harassing act. We have, however, organized a strong-arm squad; anyone caught doing any harassing gets beaten up good and hard. One of our petty officers who forgot that he was an Italian was taken to the hospital yesterday with a broken shoulder. - Umberto
Prisoners who had once been grateful to sleep on cots now complained to the Red Cross inspector about the lack of pillows. They grew restless about the slow pace of mail and suspicious that American soldiers had pilfered personal items or cheated them out of camp coupons. The army required daily drilling-marching back and forth in formation-an activity that grew more unpopular as POWs put in longer work days. No one was firing guns at them, but most had never really wanted to be soldiers in the first place.
If Italians were no longer enemies, they were not yet allies. Officially, President Franklin Roosevelt classified Italy as a "co-belligerent." That cold-shoulder description caught the emerging post-Mussolini government by surprise, but with Germans still in Italy it was in no position to complain, since U.S. soldiers were still risking their lives to help liberate their homeland.
On December 14, 1943, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, Italy's provisional leader, issued a statement, to be read to all Italian prisoners of war in America. "In the new political-military situation," he wrote, "it is our intention to proffer the Allies all possible, active collaboration in order to achieve the common objective of ridding our country of the residue of German troops still occupying a large section of our nation. It is therefore our duty to help the Allies in every possible way, excepting in actual combat." Badoglio's declaration seemed simple, but it would profoundly affect U.S.-Italian relations throughout 1944 and change the lives of many of the men imprisoned in Arizona, including Private Olivotto.
Three weeks later, on January 6, 1944, the chief of staff of the War Department's Army Special Forces drafted a secret plan to take advantage of Badoglio's offer to "help the Allies in every possible way." The plan called for the formation of what would come to be called Italian Service Units, or ISUs. Qualified prisoners could volunteer to be included in military companies comprising 175-200 enlisted men and a handful of officers each, organized almost exactly the same as equivalent American units. Members of ISUs would be issued American army uniforms and wear appropriate Italian army rank insignias on their clothing. They would be quartered on or near American army forts, posts, and bases, and employed just as a noncombatant U.S. Army company might be. The pay would be about twenty-four dollars per month, the same as American GIs. Most important, Italians in the service units could expect increased privileges and freedom. "It will be the policy of the War Department," the chief of staff wrote, "to encourage unit pride among members of Italian Service Companies. As the loyalty and work efficiency of a company becomes apparent, reductions in guard personnel will be accomplished and additional privileges may be granted to the company personnel."
It was a risky proposition. On the one hand, the army was just as desperate for manpower as farmers were. The idea was to assign Italians to relatively menial but important tasks on domestic army installations, freeing American soldiers for duty overseas. But it also meant that some Italians would be living near sensitive military operations and interacting with residents of bigger cities and towns. The success of the plan depended on a fairly high level of loyalty and cooperation from men who had been captured at gunpoint and locked behind fences for much of the previous year.
Although the army had tried to segregate Fascist/Nazi sympathizers when they first arrived at Camp Florence, the intelligence safety net was full of holes. Almost every week, reports surfaced of prisoners being bullied by unrepentant Fascists. A cardboard sign in the Post Exchange, lettered in crayon, pleaded do not bring your political arguments in here. The War Department decided that all POWs would have to be screened once again, and that those with "Fascist tendencies" would be banned from joining ISUs. With more than seven thousand Italians now assigned to Florence and its dozen side camps, that task would prove difficult.
Colonel Holden got right to work. Of several thousand inmates interviewed for ISU suitability, 415 were deemed ineligible and the rest were cleared. Each qualified prisoner was handed an application form. "I promise," read the form, "that I will work on behalf of the United States of America at any place, on any duty, excepting in actual combat, and that I will assist the United States to the best of my ability in the prosecution of its cause against the common enemy, Germany." The form included an acknowledgment that unspecified special privileges would be granted those who signed, and it required applicants to promise they’d respect the implicit trust behind those privileges. The application would be valid once the POW signed, dated, and submitted the form to the camp commander.
Army brass expected a flood of forms; they were surprised when they received barely a trickle. It turned out that scores of Fascists had managed to evade detection, determined to undermine the ISUs. Fascist infiltrators bullied their compatriots, boasting that Germans were winning the war in northern Italy and threatening reprisals against soldiers and their families back home if they cooperated with Americans. A rumor circulated that the phrase "any place, on any duty" in the loyalty oaths meant ISUs would be sent overseas, probably to the Pacific. The phrase "excepting in actual combat" was viewed with suspicion: a noncombat assignment not far from the front lines could quickly turn deadly if an enemy lobbed artillery or dropped bombs or pushed through Allied lines.
Even those not intimidated by infiltrators were reluctant to sign. Many were content with life at Camp Florence, where friends, food, and entertainment were plentiful and where a comfortable daily rhythm provided considerable peace of mind. The prospect, however remote, of being forced to serve once again under the command of their own much-despised Italian officers was more than many could stand. Life was good, uncertainty was bad, and earning a few more dollars hardly seemed worth it.
The Pentagon grew alarmed by the paucity of ISU recruits out of Camp Florence. Officials in Washington ordered Colonel Holden to turn up the heat. The 415 Italians who had failed the recent screening examinations-including Daniele Dal Sasso, the POW chaplain-were loaded on a train and shipped to a high-security POW compound in Hereford, Texas. A few days later, the most adamant among the nonsigners were told they'd be banished to a distant side camp and deprived of privileges unless they cooperated. At the moment of departure, several gave in and agreed to sign. Everyone else was told that, despite the characterization of ISUs as voluntary, "the only conceivable excuse for not signing would be disloyalty to the Italian Government and pro-Nazi sentiments."
Still they resisted. Colonel Holden, running out of ideas, traveled to a side camp to personally address a thousand men who still had not signed up. He later reported that he "again offered every authorized inducement and intimated the authorized dire consequences for the nonsigners. Guard protection, security, and immediate transportation were offered those who would sign. This was announced as a final opportunity. The results were negative." Three weeks later, "the most eloquent and highest-ranking Italian Officer" made a pitch "and most particularly stressed the desires of the Italian Government and Marshal Badoglio's proclamation. The results were wholly negative." Undaunted, the same Italian officer sat down with 350 nonsigners, each one at a time, and offered to provide immediate transportation to a secret location and protection from those who might still be bullying. Only one Italian agreed.
Camp Florence had become a victim of its own success. Every inspector who toured the camp considered it among the very best examples of how POWs anywhere in the world should be housed, fed, employed, and treated. Yet even Italians who had grown attached to Florence could see the handwriting on the wall. Word spread that Camp Hereford in Texas was a hellhole, and that those who refused to "volunteer" for ISUs might end up locked up there with the worst soldiers the Italian army had to offer.
There were also rumors-true, as it turned out-that Camp Florence would soon be converted to a compound exclusively for German POWs. By late April, several companies of ISUs began forming, as reluctant prisoners finally turned in their applications. On May 1, 1944, U.S. Army captain Francis Beckman of Seattle arrived to take charge of what would soon be known as the Twenty-eighth Italian Service Unit. Beckman was told that the unit would be based at Seattle’s Fort Lawton, although the Italians would not learn their destination until they actually arrived.
In the original plan, companies were to be assembled by carefully combining soldiers with a mix of useful skills, like cooks, carpenters, plumbers, and mechanics. But with pressure mounting, the ISUs were thrown together with whichever men agreed to join. On May 9, Ernesto Cellentani, a captain, was transferred from Utah and assigned to be the ranking Italian officer of the Twenty-eighth ISU, assisted by Lieutenant Giovanni Lobianco. The next day, Wednesday, Guglielmo Olivotto, Imo Nolgi, and Bruno Patteri were among twenty-one who signed on. On Friday, another twenty-nine turned in their forms, the following Tuesday, one hundred forty more, and on Thursday, May 18, the final ten were added.
More than two hundred men, still thousands of miles from home, sick with worry about the fate of their families, drained after years of fruitless battle, somewhat rested after months of extraordinary treatment by their captors and clearly anxious about a future in an unknown location for an uncertain amount of time were leaving Florence. As the train pulled out along the Southern Pacific spur at 4:38 p.m. on May 18, they felt the warmth of the Arizona sun for the very last time. In three days, they would see the sun rise in Seattle.
From ON AMERICAN SOIL by Jack Hamann. © 2005 by Jack Hamann. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.