THE STRANGE BUT TRUE TALE
ONE ITALIAN POW CAMP IN THE U.S.A.
Near the citrus groves and vineyards of Rancho Cucamonga, along Arrow Highway in Southern California, stands a 15-acre complex of scruffy buildings known as the San Gabriel Valley Labor Association. It’s a migrant labor camp that is mostly abandoned except when the oranges and other citrus fruits are ready to be picked. The camp today is just the shabby remains of the past.
On January 28, 1944, 499 Italian prisoners of war were shipped to the camp from the battlefields of Europe and Africa. Before the war ended, and even afterwards, the Italians were to have a marked effect on the area, to change its character and, ultimately, to become a part of it.
Emilio Pascolati of Huntington Beach has been married to his wife Penny for 34 years. They have two children and four grandchildren. Pascolati works as an engineer for McDonnell Douglas, and is a member of the American Legion. But in January of 1944, he was one of those 499 Italian POWs.
A native of northern Italy, Pascolati was born in a small town called Bassano del Grappa. "They filmed part of the movie 'A Farewell to Arms,' by Hemingway, right in that town," Pascolati boasts. As a young man he worked as an electrician for the railroad. When war broke out, he enlisted and was assigned as an Italian army artillery observer along the French border in the Alps. The he was retrained as a tank mechanic and sent to North Africa. There he fought British troops in places like Tobruk and El Alemain. When the Germans decided to move into Alexandria, Egypt, the Italian troops led the advance.
Things quickly went bad, and the troops retreated all the way to Tunis. Exhausted, hungry, and low on supplies, they gathered on a hilltop and waited for the British. The prisoners were held for few days days in a detention camp in Tunisia and then transferred to the custody of the American army. They were loaded on boxcars to make the long trip across the desert to Casablanca, where they boarded a large ocean liner commissioned by the Red Cross.
The trip across the Atlantic took six days. "The Americans treated us very well and the ship was a nice one," Pascolati said, "but during the voyage I was terrified by the thought of German U-boats."
Arriving in Norfolk, Va., on May 28, 1943, the prisoners were sent by train, but this time in passenger cars, across country to Camp Florence in Arizona. During the trip Pascolati was amazed at the sights. "When I saw the big factories, one taking up several city blocks, I knew the war was over and we had lost."
Whatever apprehensions he may have had about the treatment he would receive in the POW camp in Arizona disappeared when he saw the well-fed inmates. Pascolati stayed in Arizona for three months, where he was sent out to pick cotton with the other prisoners. But problems at the camp, which held 27,000 prisoners, were mounting. The problem was the political leanings of the different groups of men. Some were Fascists, devoted to Mussolini, others were partisans, and still others were Communists. All these groups saw the war from a different point of view and they argued bitterly.
When Pascolati, along with a number of other prisoners, volunteered to cooperate with the American government, the Army decided to relocate them. Although the ultimate destination of the men was Camp Ono in San Bernardino, 499 of them were taken to Cucamonga as part of a deal between the Southern California Farmers' Association and the U. S. Army.
The war had caused a shortage of manpower in the farming areas of Southern California. The Farmers' Association agreed to house the prisoners, provide them with food, put them to work and compensate them for their labors. The Army agreed to provide the security. In order to minimize problems, the Army had chosen men who had proved themselves to be low-escape risks - among them was Emilio Pascolati.
On the morning of January 28, 1944, the prisoners arrived at a railroad siding in Guasti - a largely Italian community just south of Cucamonga. Many of the local residents of Guasti, some of whom had immigrated to the United States just a few years earlier, turned out to greet them. Handshakes and kisses were exchanged and inquiries made about relatives back in Italy. By the time the last of the prisoners was off the train and onto the buses the entire group had begun singing Italian folk songs.
Lilla Lucas, 86, is the widow of Henry Lucas, who was president of the Southern California Farmers' Association during that period. She was office manager at the camp, and remembers the prisoners singing as they arrived at the camp.
Several days of rain kept them from working in the fields, and so they spent the days exploring. At one point an alarmed police officer from nearby Upland came to the Army captain in charge, and voiced his concern about the wandering prisoners. Pascolati remembers the captain assuring the police officer there was nothing to worry about and they would all be back at the camp by dinner time.
Actually, the Army could not have picked a better place than Cucamonga to send the Italians. The area was very much like the Italy they had left behind. Around the turn of the century a large number of Italian immigrants had settle in the area. The climate and surrounding land are similar to some parts of Italy, and the soil is fertile. Vineyards were planted and wineries soon followed.
This environment, combined with the warm reception of local farmers and other residents, made the prisoners quickly feel at home. When the rainy period ended the men were organized into work groups and taken out into the fields every morning.
A military guard was sent with each group, but there was little need for one. Out in the fields the prisoners worked side by side with the farmers and their families, many of them Italian. At noon the women would serve lunch, and more often than not a bottle of wine would be passed around.
Pascolati was often invited to the house of a man he met who had come from his own province in Italy. "The man had a niece," Pascolati said. "That is how I met Penny."
Penny Bianco's father had come to the United States in 1912. After several trips back to Italy he finally settled in Cucamonga. Emilio and Penny began going together, since Italian-American mothers and fathers had no objection to their girls fraternizing with the POWs. To them the prisoners were just what they wanted - nice Italian husbands for their daughters.
The prisoners could pretty much come and go as they pleased, but most of the time, especially during the work week, they would stay in and play cards. Almost every night the men would hold marathon poker games. They were paid 80 cents a day for their labors and many of them, including Pascolati, parlayed their earnings into sizeable amounts.
And there was never a shortage of food. Many of the grateful farmers, feeling 80 cents a day was not enough, donated chickens, eggs, vegetables, cheese and the like to the POW’s.
At the end of the pruning season the prisoners were taken from Cucamonga to the larger Camp Ono in the San Bernardino foothills. It was an official prisoner - of - war camp and activities at Camp Ono were organized at a much higher level than they had been in Cucamonga. There was an official soccer team, and several local Mexican teams were often invited to play.
There was also a talent search by members of a San Bernardino music group to recruit singers. James Guthrie went out to the camp, and after auditioning about 350 baritones and tenors selected 75 who were featured in performances put on by the San Bernardino Concert Association and the Redlands Bowl.
At Camp Ono there were restrictions, but they were kept to a minimum. Pascolati took advantage of the situation and visited Penny and her family as often as he could.
Many of the other men also found romance. The war was almost forgotten. On weekends the men would slip away from the camp and go into town. Some even went as far as Hollywood. Reality came crashing back when the war ended in April of 1945. Under the rules of the Geneva Convention the men had to be returned to Italy.
"I had mixed feelings about returning," says Pascolati "I would have to leave Penny and the people I had come to know. I was happy to go back to Italy but apprehensive about what I would find waiting for me there." Nine months later, in February of 1946, the men were bused to San Pedro and boarded a ship bound for home.
At home the worst of Pascolati's fears were confirmed. Italy was economically depressed to the point where it offered him nothing. But Penny followed, arriving 17 months later and they were married in August of 1947.
Now that Pascolati was married to an American citizen he was given preferential status to immigrate back into the country. The newlyweds returned here in March of 1948.
As Pascolati sits in his kitchen with his wife and finishes his story, he brings out a list. It is a copy of the official roster at Camp Ono, as well as a list of the inmates at the Cucamonga camp. Some of the names have local addresses beside them. "There are 25 to 30 ex-POW’s living between Santa Barbara and Orange County," he said, “all healthy and happy.”
For those of you who live in California, here’s Pascolati’s list. Who knows, one of them, or members of their families, may just be the people living next door to you.
Luciano Giudice ... worked for Santa Fe Railroad and later owned Auto Fast Freight Company in San Bernardino.
Perry Pugno ... worked for Santa Fe and eventually owned Perry's Electric in Rialto.
Emilio Pascolati ... became a radio announcer in Cucamonga and later worked for Aerojet.
Paul Lucifora ... became a shoe maker in Cucamonga.
Luigi Traverso ... retired with Santa Fe Railroad.
POW photos by Perry Pugno
Copyright © 2016 Phyllis Macchioni