Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Spencer Di Scala

Second Advisor

Paul Bookbinder

Third Advisor

Vincent J. Cannato


The Italian prisoners of war who came to the United States from North Africa and worked in the camps, on farms, and other jobs as prisoners and the crucial work of the Italian Service Units are the focus of this paper. America faced critical labor shortages in agriculture and other areas because many Americans were required to work in war industries or were needed in the Armed Forces. The paper also briefly examines several factors that made the Italians trustworthy helpers in the war versus Germany, including the place of Italian-Americans in America, the boastful bluster of Benito Mussolini that most of his soldiers recognized as foolhardy fantasy, and the American public's perception of the former foes. The United States insistence that the rules of the Geneva Convention regarding POWs be followed so U.S. POWs would be treated well overseas and so Axis POWs would tell their countrymen about how fairly they were treated in America is also an important component of this paper.

Over seventy percent of Italian POWs detained in the United States volunteered for Italian Service Units. Another estimate puts final number of POWs who entered the ISU as high as 90% or 45,000 participants. This shows that the term cobelligerent, the new classification given Italy following its surrender in September 1943, meant something to the Italians who were eager to help defeat the Nazis. The volunteers in the Italian Service Units freed up American soldiers, who would have performed supporting roles, to serve in combat. Due to the assistance of the Italian Service Units thousands less American men had to be drafted. The security issues involved in both the prisoner labor program and the Italian Service Units were minuscule in comparison to the productivity these programs produced. The initial opposition of the public and military leaders to the use of prisoners was overshadowed by the use of nearly 95% of the men with only minor discipline issues. Prisoner labor accounted for over 90 million man days of labor from 1943-1945. In financial costs the programs saved the United States an estimated $230 million, not enough to pay for the costs of caring for the war prisoners, but a large contribution to help defray those costs.


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