Grotto built at Camp Myles Standish

This grotto was built by Italian "co-belligerents" at Camp Myles Standish, one of the few remnants of the camp that still remain.

Credit: Edgar B. Herwick III

The Ghosts Of World War 2 POWs Haunt A Taunton Industrial Park

March 25, 2016

The Myles Standish Industrial Park in Taunton is big—and busy. Trucks blare past on their way to and from dozens of plants. There’s a hotel, and a National Weather Service station located here. But back in the early 1940s, it was all woods and farmland—and then the war came to Taunton.

"The United States government announced that there would be, I believe it was 33 farms taken," said William Hanna, president of the Old Colony History Museum. "They would be taken by eminent domain, and they would be taken immediately, and an Army post would be built here."

It was dubbed Camp Myles Standish. In just six months the army constructed a village nearly as big as the whole of Taunton, with 30 miles of paved roads and more than 1,600 buildings. It’s precise size, 1,620 acres, was a nod to Standish and the Pilgrims.

The camp was an Army staging area for the Boston Port of Embarkation, the third busiest (After New York and San Fransisco) of 10 American Ports of Embarkation during the course of World War II. Most soldiers spent about a week here. They got physicals and went through orientation, did final training exercises and meticulously checked their equipment. When the time arrived, they were sent to the Boston port, within sight of the ship that they would board to go overseas.

Despite the short stay, many soldiers secured a day or weekend pass to Boston, Providence, or Taunton for one last taste of good, old-fashioned American life before heading off to war.

Listen to William Hanna explain what happened when some of these GIs went to Boston:

"When these young guys would arrive by train from all over the country, the first thing they headed for was the telephone," Hanna said. "They were not allowed to say where they were. They were simply allowed to say they were OK and that the family might not hear from them again for a while."

More than a million GIs passed through Camp Myles Standish over the course of the war.

Listen to William Hanna talk about the Camp Myles Standish baseball team:

But as it became clear the Allies would be victorious, it was no longer American soldiers who needed to ship out, but some 300,000-plus Italian and German prisoners of war being held in the United States.

"In 1943, the Italians signed an armistice with the United States and shortly thereafter joined the war on the side of the United States," explained Hanna.

And so, by the time the first Italian POWs arrived in Taunton in March of 1944, they had been officially reclassified as “co-belligerents.” They lived under military discipline but, like American GI’s, also enjoyed relative freedom and could get passes to leave the camp.

"An Italian-American family might bring them home for lunch, or bring them to Sunday dinner or bring them to church," said Hanna.

All told, some 4,000 Italians were encamped here during the final years of the war. Some, Hanna said, fell in love with the place—and the people.

"Romances developed. At the end of the war as many as several hundred of these guys ended up marrying American girls and raising families," Hanna said. "Some in this area."

But for the 3,000 Germans prisoners of war who were also brought to Camp Myles Standish, it was an altogether different experience.

"The Germans wore prisoner-of-war uniforms," Hanna said. "They had black shirts, black pants and on the back of the shirt was painted the letter 'P' [for prisoner]. And they were kept under guard."

In the 1990s, a former German prisoner, visiting America, contacted Hanna—who agreed to take him around the former camp.

"I said to him, did you ever think about escaping?" Hanna said. "He said, 'We had no idea where we were. We had no idea there was a city of 43,000 people four miles away.'"

Hanna points out that the Army was deeply concerned about the well-being of their own POWs in Europe, and took great pains to ensure that the German POWs here were treated well.

"That created some unhappiness amongst the local population here because their sons, brothers, etc. were overseas living in conditions far less favorable," he said.

But Hanna says that doesn’t mean it was Club Med. The German soldiers were sequestered, worked grueling jobs at the camp, and were made to take classes on American history and civics. At least one guard was fond of telling the Germans they were never going home.  

"In the mess hall, right at the end of the war, they put up big photographs across one of the walls of the concentration camps because they wanted these guys to own what they had done," Hanna said.

In early 1946, with the war over and the final POWs shipped back home, Camp Myles Standish was closed for good, and the federal government sold the land back to the state of Massachusetts for $1.

"It had a profound effect on the city," Hanna said. "That generation is dying off now, and so is the next generation. But for those people who remembered it, it was certainly among the highlights of their lives."

This story came on The Curiosity Desk's radar thanks to Patrick Monaghan from East Greenwich, R.I. If you have a story of hidden history, or there is something you're just plain curious about, email us at curiositydesk@wgbh.org


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