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Prisoners left legacy in Desert Southwest
Editor's Note: As part of the celebrations leading up to the Arizona Centennial on Feb. 14, 2012, the Yuma Sun is highlighting historical events, places and people in our area.
Over 60 years ago, during our world's largest war, the Yuma Test Station was formed by the Army Corps of Engineers to test floating bridge designs on the easily regulated waters of the Colorado River.
At the same time that tens of thousands of combat troops trained at nearby Camp Laguna for duty on one of the war's fighting fronts, hundreds more performed an equally vital war mission at the test station.
As the bridge workload expanded as the war progressed, more and more soldiers were needed. Between 1944 and 1945, much of this workload was assigned to former Italian prisoners-of-war who had pledged their loyalty to the United States. The Italian soldiers were captured earlier in the war in North Africa and had been formed into Italian Service Units after fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown and the nation declared its neutrality.
The newly assigned soldiers arrived in Yuma by train on July 18, 1944, and were trucked to the test station. Many were crestfallen to see the location of their new assignment, for they had had their fill of desert duty.
As one Italian soldier proclaimed, “We were in Hell in North Africa and have simply moved from one part of it to another.” A sit-down strike resulted, being resolved only when the test station commander ordered that only bread and water was to be fed to them until they relented.
The Italians were willing workers once they acclimated themselves, pitching in to build dozens of pontoon bridges for testing over the Colorado River, operating boats and driving a variety of vehicles over the floating bridges, both armored and unarmored. Stories tell of the Italian troops visiting Yuma on weekend liberty passes.
Aside from being able to perform more common tasks, the Italians brought more specialized skills with them. Some proved talented in the fine arts, such as sculpting and painting, while others specialized in the culinary arts and stone masonry. Distinguished visitors to the station often were treated to elaborate meals served on white tablecloths by members of the Italian unit. They even conducted experiments with exotic local foods such as fried rattlesnake.
One lasting reminder of the stay of the Italians near Yuma silently slumbers off Highway S-24 in California, near the Colorado River. Members of the unit constructed an ornate stone-faced concrete storage shed called the “Italian castle,” using rock quarried nearby.
The shed, constructed to provide cool underground storage for cans of paint, was decorated with stones by masons intent on using their skills. The top of the shed was decorated with several stone towers, one of which was inscribed with the word “Italy.”
The castle saw several years of active use, but the ravages of time have taken their toll in the over 60 years since it was constructed.
Today, the building sits forlornly in the desert heat — its concrete walls cracked and its main door sealed shut. Many years ago, the Bureau of Land Management erected a brass sign and a wire fence to protect and commemorate the structure.
Though World War II seems distant and far away to many members of today's world, reminders exist for all to see, even in Yuma. The elaborate castle erected long ago by members of Yuma's Italian Service Unit signifies the hopes, dreams and feelings of homesickness felt by these war-weary Italians — universal feelings felt by millions of Americans, British and others serving overseas during those same years.
Chuck Wullenjohn is the public information officer for Yuma Proving Ground.