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.
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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.