Fosco Bugoni

University of Milan – Italy

While learning about the history of Fort Missoula during my first week at the archaeological field school, I came across an intriguing story concerning some fellow citizens of mine, happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; or maybe – this is derived from their narratives – in the right place at the wrong time.

Internees Eating In Mess Hall At Ft. Missoula ADC, 1943

Internees Eating In Mess Hall At Ft. Missoula ADC, 1943

During World War II, Fort Missoula became a detention center for Italian and Japanese civilians. With war threatening, many Americans in 1941 feared that some German and Italian civilians living in or entering the United States might prove to be enemy spies or sabouteurs. As part of President Roosevelt’s decision to get tough with the European Axis powers (Germany, Italy and their allies), the United States began seizing Axis merchant ships in American waters and detaining the crews.

The first group of Italian internees from Ellis Island, New York, began to arrive in Missoula in the spring of 1941. The internment camp at Fort Missoula was just one of several throughout the United States. Missoula was a logical choice for such a center because of its remote location. On May 18, 1941, 1200 Italian merchant seamen and civilians arrived at the Fort, which they promptly renamed Bella Vista (beautiful view) and were put to work constructing the rest of the camp. Many of these men were crewmen from the luxury liner Il Conte Biancamano, and included entertainers, waiters and chefs; they brought their musical instruments, their tuxedos and three dogs with them. Besides the sailors, 62 former employees of the Italian Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair were also sent to Missoula for overstaying their visas.

Internee Soccer Game At Ft. Missoula ADC, 1943

Internee Soccer Game At Ft. Missoula ADC, 1943

Accomodations at Fort Missoula far exceeded the guidelines set down by the Geneva Convention: Althought there were many fences all around, the impressive beauty and landscape made it feel like, “Una Villa”, a village rather than a concentration camp. [Umberto Benedetti]

The Italians inside the fence were given the authority to create their own organization to deal with US officials, and were soon rewarded with a high degree of autonomy to conduct their own affairs. Food rationing did not apply to the internees, they were provided with laundry and cooking facilities, personal items, writing materials and tobacco. They were supplied with books, magazines and were guaranteed access to religious service. The detainees had their own carpenters, shoemakers, barbers, a priest and several world-class chefs. They organized a fire department, postal delivery, religious services, formed library, and produced choir, band and symphony concerts. There were many recreational opportunities: the internees played cards, board games, soccer, bocci ball (one is displayed at today Fort Missoula Historical Museum), and tennis. Classes in foreign languages and navigation were offered for detainees, featuring textbooks written at Fort Missoula. Several of the Italian seamen built two large rowboats, which were used on the adjacent Bitterroot River. Building wooden models of their ships (some of them are displayed at the Historical Museum too) became a popular pastime.

One funny circumstance: Alcohol was forbidden at first, but the enterprising internees made their own wine from raisins, figs, and local fruit under the noses of the INS inspectors who roamed the camp. John Moe (one of the camp’s guards) remembered: “We provided them with raisins, and they made wine, then we provided them with fruit, and they made wine”.

Mess Hall Cooks For Internees At Ft. Missoula ADC, 1943

Mess Hall Cooks For Internees At Ft. Missoula ADC, 1943

As wartime tensions relaxed and the shortage of men in the Missoula work force became acute, officials allowed some Italian internees to work in town. They were employed as chefs, waiters, busboys and room cleaners at both the Palace and Florence Hotels, and worked as orderlies in Missoula’s hospitals.

Working on a day-to-day basis, the internees were accepted by the community. Missoulians greatly appreciated their work and some internees made Missoula, as well as Montana, their home.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • GLYNN, G., That Beautiful Little Post – The story of Fort Missoula, 2013.
  • BENEDETTI, U., Italian Boys at Fort Missoula, Montana 1941-1943, 1997.
  • VAN VALKENBURG, C., An Alien Place, 1995.
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