Although California was mercifully far from the battles waged during World War II, the war did make its way to Highland through a variety of activities from the draft, to rationing, to scrap drives and the presence of prisoners of war brought to San Bernardino from overseas.
From February 1944 to the end of the war, 499 Italian POWs were kept at U.S. Army Camp Ono in San Bernardino. Determined to be “low-escape risk” and because Italy had already surrendered, the Italians were treated with a relaxed and accommodating nature during their time in San Bernardino. They were paid to work at non-combatant tasks at the Army base and permitted to leave the camp for work and leisure, when under the guidance of an American resident. It’s likely several made it to the Highland area as the POWs were hired to fill the labor void left by Americans being drafted into the military.
From Tunis to San Bernardino
According to “From Italian POWs to citizens of the United States” by T.A. Sunderland, the Italians were captured by British troops in Tunis, Tunisia, during the North African Campaign in 1943.
After Benito Mussolini’s arrest and Italy’s capitulation with the Allies in September 1943, the Italian POWs were turned over to the United States under a unique arrangement between Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Marshall Pietro Badoglio, new prime minister of Italy.
As written by Sunderland, the prisoners were permitted to voluntarily swear allegiance to the United States. While now technically free but under U.S. custody they could work for the United States for pay.
These Italians along with German POWs, also captured in North Africa, were taken to the United States by way of Casablanca landing Norfolk, Va. on May 28, 1943. From there, they were taken to a POW camp at Camp Florence, Ariz.
According to Sunderland’s article, this larger camp, more than 27,000 prison, became the home of a mix of Italians, Germans, fascists, communists and other partisans that did not blend well in close quarters.
To help alleviate these inter-camp tensions, 499 Italians that have demonstrated themselves to be “low-risk” were moved to California where they could benefit the war effort by providing the important region a much needed labor force.
First they were taken to Guasti, near Ontario, a largely Italian-America community, to work in the vineyards. They were paid 80 cents a day.
Later they were taken to Camp Ono in San Bernardino where they worked at the U.S. Army base and at orange orchards throughout the area, filling a labor force need created when local residents made their way to all corners of the globe in military service.
Camp Ono was established in 1942 and primarily served as an engineering depot and a desert training center for the U.S. Army. It was on 300 acres where Kendall Drive and Palm Avenue now meet Interstate 215.
According to “Origin of names of Army and Air Corps posts: Camps and stations in World War II in California” by Mary Moore Allen, Ono was originally named “Uno,” Spanish for “one,” as it was the first station out of the area. When train dispatchers and telegraphers were having difficulty with the Morse code for Uno the name was changed.
When the Italians arrived the north half was used for their camp. There were no fences or landscaping.
By most accounts the POWs enjoyed their stay in Southern California.
At the Guasti camp, the POWs were largely free and were warmly welcomed by the area’s Italian-American community. Many of the Americans were recent immigrants and questioned the POWs on family back in Italy.
Many Italian families permitted their daughters to fraternize with the POWs figuring it was a good way for them to meet a “good Italian husband.”
This ultimately led to many POWs seeking U.S. citizenship and settling in California once the war was over.
They worked for local farmers, were permitted to visit town, and the farmers often provided them with fresh food in addition to their government pay.
Unlike POWs held elsewhere in the war, the food was good. Perhaps, it was too good. According to an interview of former POW Perry Pungo recorded in Susan Ann Meier’s “Limited freedom: The Italian Services Units in Southern California’s Inland Empire during World War II,” the Italians were not accustomed to large American breakfasts with meat and eggs. They actually held a strike to request lighter breakfasts, which they were granted.
When the POWs moved to San Bernardino life became more structured as Camp Ono was an Army base. Still, the POWs were free to leave the camp, now with the requirement that they be under supervision of a local resident.
In San Bernardino, their leisure was also more structured. According to Sunderland’s article, the POWs played soccer with local Mexican teams and singers and musicians were invited to audition for San Bernardino Concert Association. Seventy-five participated in the association’s concerts held at Redlands Bowl.
Pugno called it “a beautiful life.”
While the Italians were at Camp Ono the camp received several visits from Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, a critical contributor to the Manhattan Project, the United States’ atomic bomb program that would ultimately end the war with Japan.
According to Earl Buie’s “They tell me” column of Dec. 7, 1967, the Nobel Prize winner known as “the father of atomic energy” was working with American scientists in Los Alamos, N.M. when he learned that a former colleague at the University of Milano, Celestino Zinasi, was among the POWs in San Bernardino.
Fermi made several visits, making the trips by military plane, and the two often spent hours talking in the shade of camp trees. It has been speculated but unconfirmed that they may have discussed Fermi’s atomic discoveries.
After the war
Life in California was so enjoyable for the POWs that when the war ended and the United States was required by the Geneva Convention to repatriate them to Italy some of the POWs regretted it. Not only had many of them made friends and met girlfriends in America but also they had come to love the American life.
As Sunderland wrote, the Italians returned home to find Italy war torn and in economic ruin.
Many longed to return as U.S. citizens and the fact that they had American girlfriends willing to marry them expedited the process. Their Italian-American girlfriends would reunite with them in Italy for an Italian wedding. Then the POWs filed for citizenship and newlyweds would return to settle in California.