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Teacher: 1,200 Italian POWs held in county during WWII

January 10, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

GREENCASTLE, Pa. - John Wine and his buddies in Battery B, 939th Field Artillery, an area National Guard outfit, fought Italian troops on their way across North Africa and Italy in World War II.

At the same time, letters were coming from home telling of the Italian prisoners of war being held at the Letterkenny Army Depot.

The letters said the Italians had it easy and were even being entertained by local girls bussed to the depot for dances with the POWs. They were being paid about $25 a month, the same as a GI who was doing the fighting, Ambrosio said.

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"It really ticked us off to hear that," said Wine, 80, of Greencastle.

By that time, said John Ambrosio, a Chambersburg (Pa.) Area Senior High School history teacher, the 1,200 Italian soldiers at Letterkenny were no longer considered enemies of the United States.

Letterkenny was one of two facilities in Franklin County that held enemy POWs. Pine Grove Furnace, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Michaux State Forest, was turned into a secret interrogation camp for captured German and Japanese naval officers, Ambrosio said.

Ambrosio spoke to about 30 members of the Allison-Antrim Museum at their monthly meeting in the fellowship room of Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Italy surrendered to the Allies in October 1943, leaving the war to Germany and Japan.

About 35,000 of the 50,000 Italian POWs held in U.S. camps signed loyalty oaths to become co-belligerents to help out the U.S. war effort, Ambrosio said. The 1,200 Italians at Letterkenny were among them, he said,

"They helped to build the infrastructure and some of the buildings at Letterkenny," Ambrosio said. "They made munitions for the Pacific Theater to fight the Japanese."

The German and Japanese prisoners at Pine Grove Furnace were only held there for two weeks at a time, he said. American interrogators plied them with liquor to get them to talk and wired their barracks to eavesdrop on their conversations, he said. "Then they were shipped to regular POW camps," he said.

Pine Grove furnace became a church camp after the war and was used until 1971. Vestiges of the camp remain, he said.

All of the POWs were sent home after the war, he said. About 10 percent of the Italians wanted to stay in America. Many returned later.

Tony Cerri, an Italian who had been held at Letterkenny, ended up marrying a Chambersburg woman and returned to live out his life in Franklin County, Ambrosio said. He worked as a baker and died about five years ago.

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