- Italian Prisoners of War in Pennsylvania: Allies on the Home Front, 1944–1945 by Flavio G. Conti and Alan R. Perry
Drawing on a rich body of memoirs, letters, diaries, and oral histories in the United States and Italy, Flavio G. Conti and Alan R. Perry tell the story of a group of Italian prisoners of war at the Letterkenny Army Depot near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania during World War II. The book not only uncovers the little-known history behind the relocation of prisoners of war to the United States during the conflict, but it also focuses on an even more neglected aspect of this history. The 1,200 Italian POWs at the center of the book pledged allegiance to the United States after Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in September 1943 and collaborated with U.S. authorities. While the post-fascist Italian government only offered the POWs ambiguous directives, which left them on their own to decide whether to collaborate, the U.S. government gladly accepted the POWs’ collaboration as it helped alleviate the chronic manpower shortage the country faced during the war.
The book opens with a detailed overview of how U.S. troops captured many of the Italian POWs during the Tunisian Campaign in the spring of 1943 and why they decided to send around fifty thousand of them to the United States. Weaved throughout this first section of the book are the personal stories of some of the POWs who would eventually end up at Letterkenny. Built, ironically, by two Italian American construction firms, Letterkenny came to host the largest number of Italian POWs in the United States. Once there, they ordered, stocked, repaired, and shipped military goods, munitions, and equipment to U.S. troops on the warfront. Despite the meager salary they received and the psychological struggles many of them faced, Italian collaborators at Letterkenny enjoyed a fairly comfortable life. Indeed, according to the authors, they experienced living conditions that were far better than in the Italian army and “more generally than in Italian society itself” (99). Italian POWs at Letterkenny received visits from Italian American relatives, acquaintances, or members of the community who wanted to [End Page 73] show support, regularly saw Catholic clergymen who took care of their spiritual needs, and had several opportunities to leave the camp to visit places nearby or go to the movies. Their life at the camp took a turn for the worse only when locals found out about their presence, which the War Department had intentionally hid from the public, and complained that authorities treated them too well for being prisoners of war. Luckily for them, many of the resulting changes arrived shortly before they returned to Italy. The last section of the book focuses on the challenges Italian collaborators faced when that occured. In addition to the shock of adjusting to a country devastated by the war, many of them struggled to deal with the animosity they received from other Italians who considered them traitors. These challenges amplified their positive memories of their experience in the United States and motivated many of them to try to return to the United States.
While Conti and Perry offer an important contribution to our understanding of a critical facet of the American experience during World War II, the authors could have engaged more systematically with the broader historiography on POWs and the home front during the war. It would have been helpful, for example, to place the story of Italian POWs turned collaborators within the broader experience of POWs to discuss what factors accounted for the similarities and differences. For example, what role did race or assumptions about Italians play into how they were treated? On the eve of lifting restrictions on Italian Americans in the United States as enemy aliens, for example, President Roosevelt famously said that Italian Americans were harmless because “they were a bunch of opera singers.” Moreover, Italian Americans, marked as undesirable in the 1924 Immigration Act, were...