- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - When Italian soldiers wanted to be caught by American forces during World War II, they would play cards. The loser of the card game had to crawl out of the bunker and surrender - in case they were fired upon. His fellow soldiers would often willingly follow.

“They didn’t want to be soldiers. They were farmers, craftsmen and artists,” said Master Sgt. Brad Staggs, public affairs officer at Camp Atterbury.

The prisoners were sent to one of 700 prisoner of war camps in the United States, including Atterbury in Johnson County, Ind.

On April 30, 1943, 767 Italian soldiers arrived at the camp. An additional 400 Italian POWs arrived the next day; by September, there were 3,000.

The prisoners were Roman Catholic. An American priest who studied in Rome was the camp chaplain and held services in an open field. The prisoners requested a special place to worship, which camp commander Lt. Col. John Gammel permitted, with one caveat - it had to be made with existing building scraps and paint. “Chapel in the Meadow” was built and consecrated during the summer of 1943. It was their piece of Italy in Indiana.

The Italian prisoners began leaving Atterbury soon after Italy’s surrender in September 1943. The camp was empty by May 1944 but quickly replaced by German prisoners, who stayed until almost a year after the end of the war.

The camp buildings were dismantled and reused elsewhere. Concrete stanchions from the guard towers are still visible. The chapel remained, weather-worn and vandalized. It was restored and rededicated in 1989, and a fence line was erected to protect it. The frescos were restored, and a Plexiglas front was put in place to protect it from vandals and the elements.

Some of the Italian prisoners remained in Indiana after the war, married, started families and found work. When former prisoners returned to the camp for reunions, “they were thrilled that this was still here and kept history alive. They were happy to be here,” said Staggs, “They didn’t want to be soldiers in the first place.”

The Indiana Historical Society’s newest exhibit “You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury” debuts March 4 and runs through Aug. 11, 2018, at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center in Indianapolis. The exhibit allows guests to walk through a re-creation of the chapel, interact with actors portraying Italian POWs and American soldiers and officers, and learn about the POW camp experience.

During the war, the War Manpower Commission sent prisoners to non-war production factories, canneries and farms throughout Indiana. They also did maintenance work at the camp, such as painting, mowing and unloading supply trains, and worked the 50-acre vegetable farm. They were allowed 10 cents a day for incidentals and 80 cents if employed outside the detention camps.

“Indiana really was kept working by the POWs,” Staggs said.

Gammell allowed the prisoners a certain degree of freedom. The prisoners had a soccer field and amphitheater for recreation.

When Indianapolis Star reporter Mary Bostwick visited the camp two months after the Italians’ arrival, she reported that the men were well-fed, clean, content and probably wouldn’t try to escape if they got the chance.

“It’s obvious they consider themselves fortunate,” she wrote.

Internment, in this case, was not the housing of Italian-Americans, but Italian soldiers who were prisoners of war.

Prisoners were buried in the camp, but were moved after the war to Camp Butler National Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.

The prisoners did not use blood to tint the paint red in the chapel. Berries and available food coloring were used. Any blood used would have been symbolic.

__

Source: Indianapolis Star, https://indy.st/2lsFoPC

___

Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide