During World War II, more than 50,000 Italian soldiers were brought to the United States as Prisoners of War because Britain ran out of space to house the increasing number of captives. A number of those POWs, including all of the captured senior Italian military officers, were imprisoned at Camp Monticello, an Italian POW camp east of Monticello on property now belonging to the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
As the train transporting the POWs arrived at Camp Monticello, most of the prisoners looked in the direction of the camp to see where they would be imprisoned. But those who looked in the other direction saw the ominous sign “Killin”.
“These prisoners had been locked in rail cars for 24 hours and they didn’t really know where they were going because troop movements are supposed to be secret,” Michael Pomeroy said during a recent tour of the camp. “As the train rolled to a stop on the rail siding, everyone is looking toward the camp to what will be their new home and somebody looked out the window and saw the sign. Word quickly spread throughout the rail cars that the area was called ‘Killin’. It got their attention.”
Was it a subtle hint that they better behave themselves? Perhaps. But the prisoners were treated fairly at Camp Monticello.
Pomeroy, who has been fascinated with the history of the POW camp since a young boy, has conducted extensive research on the camp, even traveling to Italy to meet the grandson of Gen. Dino Parri, an Italian general once housed at the camp.
Parri’s grandson, Maurizio Parri, has the general’s journals which include an account of his experiences at Camp Monticello. The story of seeing the “Killin” sign upon their arrival is one of the stories of Camp Monticello preserved in Gen. Parri’s journals and included in his grandson’s book Il Giuramento – Generale a El Alamein, Prigioniero in America (1942-1945).
“Had it not been for Dino and Maurizio Parri, the story would have been lost forever,” Pomeroy said.
Written in Italian, the book translates to “The Oath – General at El Alamein, Prisoner in America (1942-1945).” The reference to an oath refers to Gen. Parri’s struggle to stay true to the oath he took when he entered the Officer Corps of the Italian Royal Army in 1911 in light of the rapid change of fortune for Italy during WWII.
“Without giving away the ending, he did stay true, but it cost him,” Pomeroy said.
“The relations between the guards and prisoners at Camp Monticello were pretty good but you didn’t try to go through that fence,” Pomeroy said, pointing to an area where parallel barbed wire fences were once located. “If they caught a prisoner there that was not on a work detail — cutting grass or something — they would shoot you. If you’re already between the fences, they didn’t have to warn you.”
No prisoners were shot at Camp Monticello.
The late George Sherry, who supervised the guards in the guard towers, once heard a machine gun fire six or eight rounds. When he went to the tower to see what was going on he discovered that a bored soldier was playing with his gun and he accidentally set off a few rounds before he could get his finger off of the trigger, according to Pomeroy. “Otherwise, a few rifles would go off by accident, but did they have to shoot anyone trying to escape? Not here,” Pomeroy said.
At its peak, Camp Monticello housed about 3,800 Italian POWs and 1,500 U.S. military personnel. The number began to dwindle as some POWs joined Italian Service Units at other locations. Shortly after the POWs arrived, Italy switched sides in the war and most of the POWs agreed to collaborate with the Allied war effort. No longer subject to the 1929 Geneva Convention, Italian prisoners could engage in any labor short of combat. The United States created Italian Service Units (ISUs) and recruited Italian prisoners to join. ISU members agreed to help America in the war against Germany and to obey orders from American military officers. In return, they received $8 of their $24 a month salary in cash and $16 in canteen coupons. They could have visits from relatives, expanded mail privileges, and the chance to leave base on weekends if accompanied by an American military escort.
Some ISU members, however, were returned to POW camps for disciplinary reasons. One of those who joined an ISU in Arizona was returned to Camp Monticello after marrying an American girl. Though he was an ISU member, he was still a POW. War Department regulations prohibited POWs from marrying.
Describing his experience in Louis Keefer’s book “Italian Prisoners of War in America, 1942-1946: Captives or Allies?”, a former POW said while Camp Monticello was a very strict POW camp and the heat and humidity were terrible, the POWs were fairly treated at Monticello. “Our rights were never abused or denied,” he said. “Nobody ever tried to indoctrinate us, or influence us politically or otherwise, in any manner or form. Worship facilities for any denomination were available for all, the food was adequate, and no unjust punishments were doled out.”
In the same book, another POW at Camp Monticello said his best memories of the camp were playing cards, checkers and other games in a little wooden building with homemade tables and chairs.
Almost all of the structures once located at Camp Monticello are gone but some relics and artifacts remain in the forest adjacent to the Drew County fairgrounds. The most noticeable is the 80-foot chimney that towers over the property. The chimney and remains of the steam plant that supplied hot water for the hospital compound are clearly visible if you take a hike into the woods from the main compound gate.
Another remaining structure is a concrete bunker (pictured below) that likely was built into the east end of the administration building or the west end of the post exchange. It is approximately 8-feet by 18-feet and constructed completely of concrete, even the roof.
“My guess is it was for fireproof storage of vital records,” Pomeroy said. “Some people thought maybe it was a munitions locker but munitions lockers usually have a real flimsy top on them so if the ammunition does go off the blast goes up where there is less chance of hurting anybody.”
Throughout the property are foundation blocks, fencing, roads and other camp remnants.
Buildings on the Drew County fairgrounds that once served as quartermaster buildings are still in use though the old wooden lap siding has been covered with tin. The open area surrounding the quartermaster buildings is where the motor pool was located.
Sadly, the POW chapel featuring a statue of the Madonna, is gone. The chapel, built by the POWs, was not preserved.
However, Pomeroy collaborated with Dan Coston, an artist and former Drew County resident, to create a painting of the chapel. Pomeroy, and his father, the late Ed Pomeroy, had a couple of old photos of chapel. Using those photos and Pomeroy’s memory, Coston and Pomeroy worked together to help Coston visualize the detailed description of the chapel altar.
The property where the camp was located is now being utilized by the University of Arkansas at Monticello School of Forest Resources for teaching and research projects. However, both Pomeroy and UAM Chancellor Dr. Jack Lassiter would like to see the property preserved as a historic site with a museum.
“Mike (Pomeroy) and I have talked a lot about that and several of the family members of POWs would like to come and do a program, a 2-day symposium,” Lassiter said. “That would be the first phase.”
The next phase, he said, would be the development of a walking tour and a museum to house artifacts. While the plans are still in the discussion phase, Lassiter believes he may be able to get grants to fund the projects.