Not so long ago, in a place not so far away, 3,000 Italians found themselves in a prisoner of war camp in Indiana. In 1943, Italian soldiers captured in North Africa were sent to POW camps across the U.S. A large group of them lived in a compound next to Camp Atterbury, a military installation that’s about 30 minutes south of Indianapolis. That this place – so much a part of the community – held POWs is surprising to many.
When you hear the term “POW camp,” you expect the story to be heartbreaking, and maybe even demoralizing. The story of Camp Atterbury’s POWs is quite the opposite. The rapport between the captured Italians and their American guards allowed the POWs the freedom to build a chapel, form an orchestra, pursue hobbies and even enjoy the pasta-based diet they preferred. Letters and interviews tell us the Italians actually enjoyed their time there. They were off the battlefield, far from war, and being taken care of by people who treated them with surprising compassion.
At the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center in downtown Indianapolis, you can visit a recreation of the chapel these men built in 1943 and “go back in time” to talk to the POWs and soldiers.
Of course, these POWs weren’t free. The actors at the History Center portraying POWs walk a fine line between expressing relief they were out of battle and being treated well, while not overlooking that they missed their families and worried about conditions in Italy. The actors playing American guards have figured out how to line up to the expectations of guarding “the enemy” with the fact that these were men just like them – soldiers living far from home and stuck in the middle of a war they themselves didn’t instigate. Sometimes the conversations between the actors in the space are incredibly silly and playful. Other times, the heartbreak is palpable.
Visit the “Chapel in the Meadow” in You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury so you, too, can experience the unexpected magic of this hope-filled story.
The Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center, 450 West Ohio Street, Indianapolis, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Exhibit presented by Jane Fortune and Franciscan Health