The Boston Harbor Islands are popular destinations for camping, sailing, and exploring. Their development and importance to Boston’s history may perhaps be seen most clearly in the well-preserved Fort Warren on Georges Island. An often-overlooked destination among the islands is Peddocks Island, which hosts the remains of Fort Andrews, a defensive compound built at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898. It was named by the land donor Eliza Andrews after her uncle, Civil War brigadier general Leonard Andrews, and was used as a training station for soldiers during World War I and World War II. The structures left today include a barracks, firehouse, stables, gym, and chapel.
Peddocks Island was also used as a prisoner of war camp, in which at least one thousand Italians captured in North Africa were detained following Mussolini’s surrender to the Allied forces in 1943. Here, many prisoners signed forms of allegiance to the United States “anywhere in the world” and were “screened” for Fascist tendencies in order to join the Italian Service Unit (ISU) program, which had been established in the United States in February 1944. This program allowed working prisoners, already receiving a small wage under the requirements of the Geneva Convention, a higher pay of $24 a month, one third in cash and two-thirds in post-exchange scrip used for goods in the camp store. Liberty of movement around the military-owned eastern part of the island and travel to the city of Boston in small groups with an Army chaperon were also included. A 15 May 1944 article in the Daily Boston Globe stated that an ISU working at Franklin Park was the first such to be employed in the country.
Matilda Silvia was born on Peddocks Island and was one of the last owners of private land on the island, which was appropriated by the Boston Metropolitan District Commission in 1970. Her memoir of life as an islander, including the years of World War II, describes the arrival of the Italian prisoners of war in the summer of 1944:
On this particular day … we climbed the hill near the radio shack to our favorite blackberry patch where the bushes were loaded with fruit. Absorbed in picking and chatting, we were completely oblivious to the fact that we were almost imperceptibly being surrounded by men. Slightly startled, we stared at them as they tried to communicate in sign language and very broken English. We realized we were meeting head on with the Italian Prisoners of War (POWs), which scuttlebutt had told us would be arriving any day. We had been asked by the commandant to remain aloof unless we were with GIs. Rumor had it that these particular prisoners had been troublesome in the South Boston POW compound and were being sent to the Island where they would not have easy contact with civilians – particularly women. We found them to be gentlemen, but after very brief communication, Vi and I, following orders, decided to say “good-bye” and hustle home.
One of the major reasons for the ISU program, and the major argument made by military command in its support, was a shortage of labor in the U.S. This was especially the case on the West Coast, as the war with Japan escalated. However, a significant amount of conflict arose around the country and in the national media regarding the “coddling” of the ISUs, especially in the editorials and radio broadcasts of the Boston Herald’s columnist Bill Cunningham. Citizens and media argued that their own boys on the Front had it nowhere near this good. Matilda Silvia describes some of the liberties which enraged many others in Boston:
The Italian prisoners were mostly responsible for loading combat materials to be first shipped to the Port of Embarkation (POE) at the South Boston Army Base and then onto the war zone. This type of work was heaven for them compared to what they had experienced in the hot, dirty, insect-ridden desert area of North Africa. They had access to certain areas of the Post with movies every night, a canteen with all the special goodies they wanted, and most of all freedom from the war. They did their own guard duty with and occasional check by the GIs, as well as getting paid for their work at the POE.
On weekends, they rotated on a two-day pass to Boston. One group alternated each weekend from Friday night until Sunday night. Those remaining on the Island were allowed to have friends and relatives visit them on either day of the weekend. The guests were not allowed to stay overnight. As far as I know, no one went AWOL.
Despite the uproar over the ISU program, Silvia seemed to feel generously toward the Italians on her home island:
… we had little personal contact with the Italian prisoners. They would greet us with smiles and a salute when we met them on the Post … they seemed to readily adopt American customs… We got to know and admire one particular POW who was a doctor. He was a wonderful, kind, understanding, concerned, and fine doctor. All the Americans on the Post thought he was great. Whenever they had a medical problem they sought him out.
The ISUs were disbanded in September 1945, after which Italian prisoners of war were sent back to Italy. Peddocks Island has been much renovated, and the preservation of structures and land continues with the much-anticipated restoration of the Fort Andrews chapel. Its inhabitants on both sides of the barbed wire are often little known, but an important part of national, Bostonian, and Italian-American history.
Christopher Klein, Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands: a guide to the city’s hidden shores (Boston, Mass.: Union Park Press, 2008), 99–100; John Hammond Moore, “Italian POWs in America: war is not always hell,” Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives 8: 3 [Fall 1976]: 144–45; “Former Italian War Prisoners at Work Here,” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960); 15 May 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872-1982), p. 1; Matilda Silvia, Once Upon An Island (Cohasset, Mass.: Hot House Press, 2003), x, 149, 151–53; “War Prisoners Work on Docks Due to Labor Pinch, Army Says,” Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960); 2 August 1944; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Boston Globe (1872-1982), p. 7.