By Steve Long, firstname.lastname@example.org
When the U.S. entered World War Two, Italy was one of our opponents. But by the end, many Italian soldiers were working to help America win. That's the subject of this edition of "Rock Island Arsenal: Inside the Gates".
When Italy surrendered to the Allies, captured Italian troops being held in America, still couldn't go home until the war was over. They had a choice, stay in camps, or go to work helping with the American war effort. And, some of those men ended up at the Rock Island Arsenal.
Italy had surrendered, but World War II raged on, and the Rock Island Arsenal was intensely busy. So the arrival of captured Italians, willing to work, was welcome news.
"They were here from July of 1944 until September of 1945. They filled the gap that was needed because we didn't have the workers in the local community any longer," says Kris Leinicke, Director of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. The more than 400 Italian men sent here were supervised by U.S. military officers.
"They were issued US Army uniforms. They had plain buttons and they had a tag on their left arm that said Italy and they had a tag on their hat that said Italy," Leinicke says. They had volunteered to work, but could only be used for non combat duties.
Leinicke says, "There were some individuals actually that were trained and talented and had chemistry backgrounds or had PhD's in chemistry and they actually worked in the laboratories here at the Rock Island Arsenal, but most of the other individuals did labor jobs." While the Italians were paid for their work, it was not a lot. "It was really a nominal fee of 24 dollars a month. They only got 8 dollars in hard cash. The rest were in coupons to the Post Exchange and to the canteen," Leinicke says.
This is one of three buildings where the Italians were housed. It was a barracks building at the time, but it's now been converted into offices. Since Italy surrendered, the men were no longer technically POW's ,but they also were not free.
Leinicke tells us, "Initially when they came to the island they were limited to going to work, being in the barracks buildings, and being in a field nearby, because they set up a soccer field and they had a soccer league." While their jobs and their barracks were here on the island, over a period of time they gained a measure of freedom, in fact under certain conditions they were even allowed to go into town.
"After they were here several months it was determined that they could be trusted in the community and so the Commanding Officer allowed groups of Italians escorted by military to go into the community on Sundays, "says the Museum Director. They were also allowed on Sunday's to be escorted in groups to mass in rock island and Moline, where they were very visible to the community.