WWII prisoners in Black Hills


Black Hills Ordnance Depot Italian Prisoners of War

compiled by Jim Anderson, Rapid City, SD

There were several hundred Italian Prisoners of War at Black Hills Ordnance Depot during World War II. They were housed in what the Army called the mobilization area which consisted of several rows of two story barracks. Initially they were incarcerated in the northern most row which consisted of 5 barracks and two recreation buildings. The barracks and the upper recreation building were surrounded by a fence and guarded by MPs. (Military Police) The barracks were later numbered 142 to 146 and were converted to 6 apartment units and the recreation building was numbered 148 and for several years used as the Boy Scout building.
    They were feed in the north wing of the mess hall, building number 1300. After the war this wing was converted to a Vet's Club and remained that until the depot was closed in 1967. The north wing was the military mess hall and the south wing was the civilian mess hall. The Italian POWs also had the northern most ward in the hospital set aside for them. Although there are blueprints that show a fence around both the mess hall wing and hospital ward, there is no evidence that they were ever built.
    The fence around the barracks area was taken down when Italy surrendered and the POWs were reorganized into two Service Companies of two hundred men each.

Igloo: A History of the Black Hills Ordnance Depot
pages 35 and 36

The shortage of manpower continually plagued officials at the depot, and they advertised jobs and recruited available personnel whenever possible. The lack of people to handle the workload was alleviated somewhat by the presence of about four hundred Italian prisoners of war. The Italians arrived at the depot late in 1943. Their activities were restricted until the following summer, when the United States, Russia, and Great Britain accepted Italy as an ally in the fight against Germany. Consequently, Italian prisoners volunteered for jobs in the war program and became "Italian Service Units." Across the nation, 184 such units worked at sixty locations. They received monthly wages as well as freedom in the form of supervised recreation, tours, and activities not available to regular POWs. Those Italians who showed pro-Nazi or pro-Fascist leanings were not included in the service units, but returned to regular POW camps.
    The Italians helped ease the labor shortage at the depot, and the Commanding Officer characterized them as cheerful, friendly, and hard-working. Many employees later recalled them fondly as courteous, optimistic men who helped relieve the work load. However, their presence did create some controversy. Because of their status as Allied soldiers, they were not guarded; they had full privileges on the depot, including the right to attend church services and the theatre. The Fall River County Red Cross donated $250 to assist in developing a recreation center for them, and the Commanding Officer arranged bus tours through the Black Hills. These outings, particularly, raised complaints by some local residents and a number of men in the Armed Forces who believed the Italians were receiving too many benefits.
     Consequently, the tours were stopped. Another problem arose as a result of the federal government's policy of issuing U.S. uniforms to prisoners. The uniforms were changed slightly to reflect their special status. However, one Hot Springs soldier, recently returned from battle, was moved to tears at the sights of his former enemies in the uniforms of his peers, many of whom had died in battle. As a result of this incident, Francis Case formally requested that the former POWs be issued uniforms easily distinguishable from those worn by regular servicemen. Although these problems complicated relations between the Italians and the area residents, their contributions as workers cannot be discounted.

Scouting, Cavorting and other World War II Memories
by Robert G. Raymond
pages 103 to 105

I don't remember when the Italian prisoners of war arrived at or left Igloo. They may have still been there when I left in December 1945. I do know that we kids heard of the prisoners coming and we really got excited. We watched with great interest while construction crews built guard towers and barbed-wire fences around several of the barracks. This was to be the prisoners' compound. The fence was identical to the high barbed wire fence that surrounded the Black Hills Army Ordnance Depot.
    The prisoners arrived by train and were marched to the compound. They didn't appear to be as large as American men, and most were dark, with black curly hair and mustaches. The prisoner-of-war uniform was blue denim pants, jacket and hat similar to Army fatigues, but with a large "PW" painted on the back.
    We boys really enjoyed the prisoners. We would talk to them through the barbed wire and trade small trinkets with them. It seemed as if every other one was called "Johnny" or "Tony", and quite a few could speak a little English. Many claimed to have relatives "in Chicago". They weren't guarded very closely because I think Italy had surrendered by the time they arrived in Igloo. They were allowed to work on various crews. I think Velma worked with several on her job. They were paid for their work, but only a few pennies per hour.
    Since Italy had surrendered on Sept. 8, 1943, declared war on German on Oct. 13, 1943, and actually had some troops fighting for the Allies in Italy, it was decided that the POWs at Igloo were no longer prisoners. Down came the guardhouses and fences, off came the uniforms. Now they wore khaki uniforms with a little green "Italy" patch on the shoulder.
    When the prisoners were released, several things changed. The attitude of my group changed and they became people that we disliked. Now we called them "spick", "wop" and "guinea". We didn't know where the words came from or what they meant, but we did know that they were insults to the Italians. I even used the unlikely possibility that my brother might have had to fight against these same prisoners in North Africa, to fuel my dislike. The former prisoners had the same free run of Igloo that I had, and even more since they were allowed to work in the restricted area where ammunition was stored. Perhaps the main reason we didn't like them was because they now had access to our female friends, sisters, cousins, even, in some cases, our mothers.
    The girls who became their girl friends were also looked down upon by us boys. I guess we thought it was unpatriotic for our female acquaintances to associate with these, our former enemies. I suppose my group of young males felt that the girls should be waiting for American servicemen to come home.
    I recall one particular attractive high-school girl, who became pregnant while going with one of the Italians. She was the sister of a classmate of mine. Another time, Mr. Stienecker, the Scoutmaster, was teaching the troop how to conduct a search for lost articles or persons. Earlier in the day he had hidden a scouting patch of some type in the sagebrush west of Scout building. Our job was to find the patch. We were lined up with about five yards between us.
    We marched out into the hot afternoon sun, over hill and dale. After going so far, were turned and back we came, No luck. Off again into the sage brush. As we came over a hill, we were surprised to see one of the Italians and his high-school girl-friend sitting in the gully on a large piece of cardboard, away from all prying eyes except for the 20 or so scouts.
    Was there any kind of irony involved when the Army stationed me in Italy during the Korean War and I figuratively looked for my own piece of cardboard?

Edgemont Tribune
Wednesday, Dec. 8, 1943
Italian Prisoners Arrive at Depot

A caravan of government transportation buses, loaded with Italian prisoners of war, passed through Edgemont, Monday on their way to the Black Hills Ordnance Depot near here. The prisoners, numbering about 250, were brought from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and will be put to work at the depot. The prisoners appeared to all be young men, and judging from grins on their countenances, they did not appear down-heartened, and probably would rather be prisoners of war in the United States than "free men" in Italy.

Wednesday, July, 5, 1944

Last Saturday evening we witnessed the departure of half of the Italian troops that have been here for several months. Their leaving was quite a contrast to their arrival last winter, but they were happy as was evidenced by their singing as they marched.

Italian Prisoners of War in America
Captives or Allies?

by Louis E. Keefer
page 75

Italian Service Units (ISUs) were established on 13 March 1944 by order of Maj. General J. A. Ulio, U.S. Army Adjutant General, acting for Lt. General Brehon Somervell, Commanding General of Army Service Forces (ASF), within which the ISUs would serve:

In order to utilize to the maximum the services of Italian prisoners of war who are loyal to the cause of the United Nations, they will be organized under United States Army Tables of Organization and Equipment into service units without arms. These service units will be organized, trained, and utilized in the continental United States and in such overseas areas as may be directed. Italian officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men will fill all authorized T/O positions. Italian personnel assigned to the units will remain prisoners of war but will be released from stockades and placed in the custody of American officers attached to the units.

page 160

When the war in Europe ended, the Italian government urged the United States to return all Italian prisoners promptly. The reply was that the POWs were still needed as laborers, and could not be returned until 1 November 1945:

Many of the prisoners are at present performing indispensable labor on agricultural projects. Many others are performing essential work on military installations. A substantial number are engaged in critical industrial employment under a certification of the War Manpower Commission that free labor is not available. The prisoners in these various employments cannot be replaced at this time by other laborers or soldiers. Prisoners of war will be taken off the various jobs as soon as American labor becomes available.