At the outset of World War II, there were very few Italians who were trying to come to the United States. Mussolini was the fascist dictator of Italy and an ally of the Nazis and the Japanese in the war against the Allies. Americans were not eager to take in Italians who were not enemies of the Axis powers. Francesco Benassi was a draft-aged male from the town of Ferrara, near Bologna in Northern Italy.
“I was 20 years old in 1941 and on January the 3rd I had a letter from the King saying to show up at the military district,” wrote Benassi in his memoir, “The Last Survivor,” which was published this year, “And I was a soldier.”
That was the beginning of a series of adventures that brought him to America as a prisoner of war.
“I was there when there was combat but I never participated in it,” said Benassi in an interview on Tuesday. “There were three boats taking us to Africa. We were hit and the ship went down.”
An Italian destroyer picked up Benassi and several other soldiers and he eventually got to North Africa, where he worked as a mechanic. But the Axis campaign in Africa was not going well. For the first of many instances, Benassi lost everything. Once, he was out swimming when another soldier who was smoking a cigar visited a fellow soldier who had soaked a blanket in gasoline to kill fleas. The tent blew up, along with Benassi’s clothes and other personal effects.
“All together I had four times that something happened where I was left naked,” he wrote, “and a few times when we were left without a tent…We had a wind storm so strong it blew our tent away. The whole tent blew away; and it was a big tent. We lost everything. I did not have good luck with tents.”
In May of 1943, the Italians surrendered to the British in Egypt and Benassi became a prisoner of war. By better luck, all of the survivors from Benassi’s ship stayed together all the way to America and ended up in Hereford, Texas.
The part of Italy that was not under German control signed an armistice in September of 1943. The Italian prisoners were asked to either join the Allied effort in a non-military support role or remain prisoners of war. Benassi signed.
“The guys who didn’t sign were put on half-rations and it wasn’t pleasant for them after that,” said Benassi.
The creator of a film about Italian prisoners in America, Camilla Calamandrei, has posted a historic and analytical essay on the subject at www.prisonersinparadise.com.
She said 51,000 Italian military men were brought to America as prisoners of war. Her documentary, “Prisoners in Paradise,” traces the journey of six young Italians through the war.
Now that Italy was officially an ally of the United States, Italian POWs were faced with the dilemma of whether to work for their captors.
“To understand how confusing this concept was at that time, it needs to be noted that during this same period Northern Italy was still occupied by Germans who managed to free Mussolini on September 12th, and place him at the head of a newly declared fascist republic,” wrote Calamandrei. “Almost 90 percent of the Italian POWs agreed to support the U.S. war effort by joining what would be called Italian Service Units.”
The men who refused were faced with conflicts of loyalty and the real possibility that a successful return of Mussolini would put their families and property in jeopardy. These men were also veterans of Fascism and knew the families of people who collaborated with the Allies while living under the Axis yoke.
“The fear of being sent back into combat – possibly this time in Japan; fear of helping supply munitions that would be used in Italy where their families might be in harm’s way; and fear of some kind of retribution against their families if it became known that their sons were helping the Allies.”
It was a serious decision to make and the men who chose not to join the Allied cause were treated badly because of it. Instead of the generous rations they enjoyed before, they found themselves getting the bare minimum allowed under the Geneva Conventions. In “Prisoners in Paradise,” a sympathetic American guard describes how he used to drop those who refused to cooperate off at a local church to paint murals while he went out and shot jack rabbits for the prisoners to smuggle into camp in their pants to supplement their diets.
“Those guys were really hungry,” the guard explained.
Non-collaborators were kept isolated in camps in places like Texas, Arizona and Wyoming and Hawaii. Collaborators were given increased freedom of movement and, as a result, increased interaction with American civilians.
The Italian Service Units were located at coastal and industrial sites across the United States. The prisoners often worked outside of the camps and made their own money and even, as they did in San Francisco, rented dance halls with their own money.
“POWs could sneak out of the camp and sneak back in, under an unofficial agreement by which American soldiers would turn a blind eye,” according to Calamandrei. “In Ogden, Utah a local church held chaperoned dances each weekend for the POWs and Italian American families could visit POWs on Sundays.”
That’s what happened to Benassi. He was sent to Camp Myles Standish in Taunton. Camp Myles Standish was a U.S. Army camp. It functioned as a prisoner-of-war camp, a departure area for about a million U.S. and Allied soldiers. It closed shortly after the war; and a candidate site for the United Nations Headquarters, soon after the military camp closed.
“One day these limousines pulled up at the camp,” said Benassi, who still seems astonished by the thought. “They were the Sons of Italy from Providence and they came to take us out, for a tour of Providence and some dinner.”
Calamandrei wrote of labels like “enemy,” “prisoner” and “foreigner” being replaced by bonds of friendship and love and Benassi’s experience reflects that.
“They used to come to visit us on Sundays and they would take us out. The Sons of Italy in Fall River brought us to their hall for dinner and that’s where I met my wife. We exchanged phone numbers and when I went back to Italy in 1946, she wrote to me every day.”
The Italy Benassi went back to was not the one he left. The war had devastated much of it, work was rare and life was hard.
“‘One day, she said, If we get married, I could try to get you here,’” said Benassi. “They had a quota for Italians for immigration in those days, but if we got married; I could come here sooner.”
Benassi said his wife went to Italy in 1947, married him and he eventually came back to America.
“When I first came here I got a job as a janitor in Woonsocket. After that I got a job as a carpenter’s helper and I worked as a carpenter most of my life.”
When asked about his prolonged courtship and a reference to the Courtship of Myles Standish, and the poem of Longfellow seeming to be much more romantic, Benassi said, “I’m not sure of what you are talking about, but I can tell you we were married 52 years.”
The 92-year-old Cranston resident said he has been back to Italy many times in his life but now considers Rhode Island his real home. He says his sister would like him to come back to Italy but he won’t.
“I’m going to stay here,” he closed his book with. “I have my tombstone already made here. I have my name on it, everything but the date. I told the guy, ‘Don’t put the date on it yet; don’t do anything until I telephone.’ It’s been an experience, the whole thing. How lucky can you get?”