Italian POWs worked on RIA during World War II

By Mark StruveApril 14, 2022

Italian POWs at RIA
1 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – This clipping from a local newspaper shows Italian POWs soon after they disembarked from a train and arrived at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, in 1944. (Photo courtesy of ASC History Office) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL
Italian POWs at RIA
2 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – An Italian POW operates a saw in the lumber reclamation yard at Rock Island Arsenal during World War II. One report noted that the salvage of lumber by the Italians saved more than $14,000 worth of taxpayer money. (Photo courtesy of ASC History Office) (Photo Credit: Paul Levesque) VIEW ORIGINAL
Italian POWs at RIA
3 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – An Italian POW is trained in procedures for securing and towing a tank at Rock Island Arsenal during World War II. The Italians performed manual labor like this on the arsenal during the war, which helped compensate for a shortage of workers available to do these jobs. (Photo courtesy of ASC History Office) (Photo Credit: Paul Levesque) VIEW ORIGINAL
Italian POWs at RIA
4 / 4 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Italian POWs working on Rock Island Arsenal during World War II were able to spend their leisure time on diversions such as playing pool, and were also allowed off the installation under escort on Sundays to attend Mass. Some local organizations objected to the liberties afforded the POWs, though local opinion about them was largely positive due to their overall exemplary behavior. (Photo courtesy of ASC History Office) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – Many people at Rock Island Arsenal are familiar with the Confederate Prison Barracks that existed here during the Civil War. But far fewer know about the role of Italian prisoners of war who lived and worked on RIA during World War II.

By June 1943, over 14,500 Italian POWs resided in camps throughout the United States. When Italy agreed to join the Allied Powers in October 1943, the U.S. developed a program that would allow captured Italians to assist with the American war effort. Under this program, Italian POWs would perform a variety of manual labor jobs in order to help ease labor shortages.

On July 16, 1944, the 38th and 40th Italian Quartermaster Services Companies arrived at Rock Island Arsenal by train from Pine Camp, New York. Their mission was to assist with the many labor-related projects on the installation.

The Italians were permitted to volunteer for non-combat duty in special service units of the U.S. Army. Each volunteer signed a pledge to perform any assigned duty except combat on behalf of the U.S. against the common enemy, Nazi Germany. These former POWs were often referred to as “signees,” having signed the pledge, though they were still detained in the custody of the U.S. military.

Upon their arrival, the Italian Service Units were assigned to the stone barracks, Building 90, and two other quarters. After they worked on the arsenal for a few months, and after demonstrating good behavior, Col. Norman Ramsey, commander of the arsenal, relaxed some of the limitations placed on the Italian Quartermaster Service Companies.

In September 1944, Ramsey established a limited pass policy for Italian signees. The Italians had to stay in groups of five and remain under the escort of an American Soldier while off the installation. Two groups of five each were granted passes each Sunday to visit local communities and attend Mass at Roman Catholic churches.

Throughout their stay on Rock Island Arsenal, the Italians assisted with a wide variety of projects. They packed and shipped tank and motorized gun carriage parts; crated tank motors; salvaged mechanized parts; painted vehicles; and loaded and unloaded the large volume of freight railcars that came onto the arsenal daily.

A report from Col. C.A. Waldmann, commandant of the RIA Ordnance Center on the arsenal, noted that 25 of the Italian workers at the center accounted for over 30,000 hours of labor and saved more than $14,000 of taxpayer money in the salvage of used lumber. Many other officers and leaders at RIA also noted the important contributions of the Italian Quartermaster Service Companies.

Of the 426 Italian signees assigned to Rock Island Arsenal, only 15 were returned to prisoner of war status for disciplinary reasons. Still, several local veterans organizations protested against the Italians being assigned to the arsenal. They expressed concern for the safety of the community and what they saw as the excessive liberties permitted to the Italians.

This opinion would persist throughout the duration of the Italians’ stay at RIA; however, with few negative incidents involving the workers, public opinion in the area remained largely positive.

On Sept. 22, 1945, the Italian signees departed Rock Island on a special troop train to begin their journey back to Italy, ending another unique period of history at Rock Island Arsenal.

Mark Struve is assistant historian at the U.S. Army Sustainment Command at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois.