The Little-Known Story of the Landmarks Left by World War II Italian Prisoners of War
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
During World War II, some 3,000 Okinawan soldiers, conscripts and civilians were imprisoned in Hawai‘i as prisoners of war. Twelve of them died while in captivity here in Hawai‘i and were buried in the cemetery at Schofield Barracks 73 years ago.
Schofield Barracks Casualty Affairs Office spokeswoman Stefanie Gutierrez said the remains of 12 Okinawan prisoners of war were disinterred and returned to Japan in 1946. That was the Army’s conclusion after searching their records and contacting local mortuaries and cemeteries. The Army does not, however, have records listing the specific locations where the POWs’ remains were reinterred after being returned to Japan.
By Dec. 13, 1946, the last of the remaining 1,733 Japanese POWs imprisoned in Hawai‘i had been returned to Japan, according to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin report.
Besides the Okinawan and Japanese POWs, about 5,000 Italians were also held in Hawai‘i as prisoners of war. Their story was not as well known, however. But three years ago, the Army began trying to document the story of the POW compound at Schofield Barracks.
There were a total of 13 prisoner of war camps in Hawai‘i. On O‘ahu, the most notable ones were at Sand Island, Honouliuli, Schofield Barracks and Fort Hase in Käne‘ohe, and, on the Big Island, in Hilo and Kïlauea Military Camp. Some 8,489 Japanese and Italian soldiers, Okinawan conscripts and civilians were housed in these camps from 1943 to 1946. None of the structures that once held these prisoners remains.
In 1993, Armando Beccaria, then-local president of the Friends of Italy Society, and Louis Finamore, then-honorary vice counsel for Italy in Hawai‘i, coordinated the visit of eight former Italian prisoners of war who had been imprisoned at Schofield Barracks, Sand Island and Honouliuli. The men recalled that they were allowed to spend their days working on construction projects, in agriculture, landscaping and doing reforestation work.
They remembered building two fountains and erecting several statues, which still stand today.
The Italian delegation visited in May 1993 to mark the 50th anniversary of their years in captivity in Hawai‘i, Arizona and Texas, where they were taken after being captured in North Africa in 1943.
“We wanted to take a sentimental journey to relive old memories,” said Mario Benelli, the group’s then-73-year-old leader in a 1993 Star-Bulletin interview. He recalled the familiar World War II song that was released at the end of the war in Europe — it became the unofficial homecoming theme.
In a recent interview, Becarria, now 84, said he managed to keep in touch with some of the former POWs for a few years after they left.
“But, sadly, they are all gone,” he told The Hawai‘i Herald. “They were happy to have made the trip. It was a very happy visit and they enjoyed visiting places they remembered and the people they met.”
Beccaria, an Italian import-export dealer who retired here in 1988 with his wife from Hawai‘i, said the Italian POWs “remembered what they did in Hawai‘i as building a piece of Italy in the Pacific Ocean.”
Last June, another delegation of World War II prisoners of war made a similar pilgrimage to Hawai‘i — that group from Okinawa. The 72-member delegation included two former Okinawan prisoners of war who were held at the Sand Island and Honouliuli camps. The pilgrimage coincided with the annual memorial service, Irei no Hi, held in Okinawa to remember the tens of thousands — Okinawans, Americans and Allied forces — who died in the battle.
The delegation included relatives of the POWs, representatives of the Okinawa-Hawaii Kyokai (Okinawa-Hawaii Association) and government officials. They held a memorial service and placed lei at the Schofield Barracks cemetery where the remains of the 12 POWs were initially interred. They also held several other memorial services for the 12 Okinawan prisoners of war who died and asked the U.S. Army and the Okinawan government to find the final resting place of their 12 comrades.
Okinawan POWs Hikoshin Toguchi, 90, and Saneyoshi Furugen, 87, were students when they were conscripted into the Japanese army and captured on Okinawa on June 22, 1945. They were sent to Hawai‘i and imprisoned for more than a year.
During their imprisonment and isolation in Honouliuli, nicknamed “Hell Valley,” Toguchi and Furugen said they lived in constant fear of being executed. Their few bright spots were occasional contacts with local Okinawans who brought them food, snacks and cigarettes and gave them psychological and emotional support.
While in Hawai‘i, the delegation met with Hawai‘i Uchinanchu who had befriended the POWs by giving them bento lunches, cigarettes, fruits and snacks. Many of the local Okinawans remembered asking the prisoners about their own family members in Okinawa.
But the largest ethnic group of prisoners were the 5,000 Italian soldiers who the U.S. War Department transported from the continental U.S. between July and September 1944. They provide much-needed manpower to support the war effort.
Schofield Barracks’ East Range was designated as “Compound 1” for the prisoners. It was located across from what is today known as Kawamura Gate at Wheeler Army Air Field, near the current location of Schofield’s Department of Public Works. The battalion camp known as “Troop Area HH” was surrounded by double barbed wire fences, guard towers and floodlights.
Other Italian POWs were held at Sand Island, Fort Hase in Käne‘ohe, Kalihi and Honouliuli. Four Italian POWs died in Hawai‘i and are buried at Schofield’s cemetery. A 1981 Star-Bulletin story identified them as Giovanni Napoletano, Domenico Accossato, Francesco Crimele and Germano Abbo.
Three years ago, Schofield’s Army Cultural Resources Program, which is charged with finding, documenting, and managing historical properties and cultural resources, decided to survey and record whatever remained of the POW camp and the Cabrini Chapel, which was built by the Italian prisoners.
Richard Davis, Schofield’s cultural resources manager, said fieldwork and surveys were done in August 2014. This was done after the eight Italian POWs made their pilgrimage to Hawai‘i in 1993, only to learn that the Cabrini Chapel they had completed in February 1945 had been razed five years later.
“We need to do more research to fully understand the property and its connections to history in order to decide whether it qualifies as a historic property under National Registry criteria and the best way to manage it,” Davis said.
Vegetation and a highway overpass now cover the sites. The chapel was demolished in 1950 when the Army could no longer maintain it and the Roman Catholic Church here felt it did not add to its diocese. An H-2 highway ramp was built above the chapel site in 1976.
The Army published its preliminary findings of the field study, which noted that Sean Newsome, cultural resources technician with the Office of Cultural Resources Program, found fluted columns from the chapel in July 2014.
Using GPS units, tape measures and digital cameras to record the site, archaeologists found 31 features and identified the foundations of a mess hall, latrines and a guard tower. Features associated with water and plumbing appeared to be intact. Pathways and roads can still be seen in portions of the camp.
On July 7, 1946, a high mass was held to celebrate the opening of the Mother Cabrini Shrine. The Most Rev. James Sweeney, bishop of Honolulu, delivered the sermon at the ceremony, which coincided with the canonization of Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini by Pope Pius XII in Rome, in recognition of her service to Italian immigrants in New York City. Cabrini was an Italian-born nun who was the first U.S. citizen to be canonized as a saint. In 1950, she was named the Patroness of Immigrants. The Sunday ceremony was broadcast on radio station KGU.
According to a July 4, 1946, Catholic Herald story, Frances Xavier Cabrini (later, Mother Cabrini) was born in Saint Angelo on July 15, 1850, near the city of Milan in Italy.
She was the 13th and last child of parents who died a few months after her birth. Cabrini began her missionary work at the age of 30. Due to her frail health, however, she was not permitted to join the Daughters of Sacred Heart, who had been her teachers and under whose guidance she obtained her teaching certificate.
In 1880, Cabrini, along with seven other young women, founded the Institute of Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, according to its website. Cabrini and her sisters wanted to serve as missionaries in China, but during an audience with Pope Leo XIII, she was told not to go east, but rather to go west — to New York.
Cabrini arrived in New York City nine years later and organized catechism and education classes for Italian immigrants. She also established schools and orphanages. By the time of her death in December 1917 at the age of 67 in Chicago, where she was naturalized, Cabrini had established 67 schools, hospitals and orphanages in United States, Europe and South America.
In a May 1993 interview, Italian architect Renato Astori, then 82, told this reporter that he designed and supervised the building of the chapel in 1944. He said the chapel was “an act of devotion to Madonna, so I could see my 75-year-old mother again.”
About 2,000 Italian POWs helped build the Cabrini Chapel using salvaged materials. The prisoners hid pieces of concrete and stone in their pockets before returning to camp. They also stockpiled excess construction materials until they had sufficient supplies to complete the chapel.
Supported by four fluted columns, the chapel was said to have had an altar decorated with two large portraits of Mother Cabrini that were painted by the prisoners. Sunday morning mass was celebrated every week until the camp was closed and the prisoners were returned to Italy.
Armando Beccaria said Astori later told him that the Italian POWs had buried an Italian flag under the altar in the Cabrini chapel “with vows to return to retrieve it.”
Besides the Cabrini Chapel, the prisoners built two water fountains and lava rock walls at Fort Shafter, several female statues at the Sand Island Coast Guard station and at the old Immigration Center on Ala Moana Boulevard. They also did landscaping at ‘Iolani Palace, Saint Louis School and at various military installations. And, they operated the laundry at Schofield when the Army was unable to find civilian laborers.
Upon hearing that Cabrini Chapel had been demolished in 1950, Benelli said, “several POWs chose not to come when they heard the chapel had been torn down. They cried like babies when they heard the chapel was gone.”
Beccaria said he communicated with the family of Alfredo Giusti, who died before the 1993 visit and was responsible for the two fountains built at Fort Shafter, one of which features winged lions — the emblem for Venice — and pineapples. Beccaria said he “tried to get in touch with Giusti, but was only able to speak with two of his granddaughters. He eventually sent them pictures of the works their grandfather had made. Giusti had died long before I contacted them. The granddaughters said their grandfather was very adventurous.
Beccaria said that after the Italian POWs left Hawai‘i in 1945, Giusti wrote to Lt. Gen. Robert C. Richardson, who commanded the U.S. Army, Pacific (Hawaiian Department) until retiring in 1946, thanking him for his support of the POWs’ projects.
Richardson replied with a handwritten card, Beccaria said, telling Giusti that the fountain near Palm Circle fronting Fort Shafter’s headquarters building, was “a nice symbol of the presence of the Italian soldiers and would always remind people of Italian art in Hawai‘i.”
Giusti also carved two female statues that remain in front of the Coast Guard’s administrative building at Sand Island. After the 1993 visit, Beccaria asked the Coast Guard to place two plaques on the statue, explaining their significance. One of the statues is titled “Hula Dancer” — the other is titled “The Bathing Beauty.” Both are dedicated “to give hope to those without hope.” The plaque on the “Bathing Beauty” says Giusti “gave the statue the face of his girlfriend.”
When the right hand of the “Hula Dancer” statue was damaged, Beccaria said he asked Nisei artist Bumpei Akaji, one of the original members of the 100th Battalion, who had studied art in Italy after World War II, to coordinate efforts to restore it. Akaji also created the sculpture honoring the Varsity Victory Volunteers at the Student Services Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and the monument at Fort DeRussy in Waikïkï honoring the four AJA units who fought in World War II.
In its 2015 report, the Army said a work order from the War Manpower Commission notes that the East Range site was the closest to the main post, making it easy for the prisoners to be marched or transported to work areas at Schofield. Two undated plans from the archive of Army engineering plans and historic maps titled “Laundry and Prison Camps” placed the laundry in the northwest corner of the camp, which had a capacity for 3,000 men.
The Army report said the exact number of POWs at the Schofield East Range Camp fluctuated, but at least 2,390 Italians were in custody there in February 1946, around the time Italian prisoners were being repatriated. The Italian prisoners were captured by the British in North Africa in 1943 and shipped to the continental U.S.
According to the Army report, the status of Italian soldiers changed when Italy surrendered and war was declared on Germany in October 1943. The Army War Department formed an Italian Services Unity organization, or ISU, in March 1944 to maximize this new source of labor. Men who joined the ISU were reassigned to war-related industries. In exchange, they earned the status of “collaborators,” received a portion of their monthly pay in cash, were given better food and had the opportunity to participate in off-post social activities, according to the report.
Nearly 35,000 of the 50,000 POWs in U.S. captivity joined the ISU. The Italians who were sent to Schofield’s East Range POW camp were pro-fascists who refused to recognize the new Italian government and refused to join the ISU. Mario Benelli, the leader of the former POWs who visited Hawai‘i in 1993, said some of the POWs considered their imprisonment in Hawai‘i as punishment for declining to join the ISU.
“We were young and wanted to stay loyal to Italy, but we didn’t know what was happening back in our own country,” he said.
Beccaria said the Italian POWs told him that they had already been taken prisoner when Italy surrendered in September 1943 and were transported to POW camps in the southern part of the United States.
“The surrender split Italy,” Beccaria said. “There were about 50,000 Italian POWs when the surrender was announced. Many were young and idealistic. Many thought they should be sent home right away.”
The East Range POW compound also housed Japanese POWs after the Italians left. A sign was posted in Japanese warning its newest occupants to say out of the Cabrini Chapel.
Some of Mother Cabrini’s remains are preserved in the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine in New York City.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.