|Italian POW Camp at Port Johnson Terminal
Bayonne, New Jersey
An almost forgotten chapter in the history of World War II is the housing of prisoners of war (POWs) in the United States. By mid-
1943, 36,688 Axis prisoners of war, including 14,516 Italians, were at twenty-one camps in eighteen states. Then many more of
the captured Italian soldiers from the North African campaign were brought here, increasing their number to about 50,000 in July
1944. By this time the Italian government had surrended and declared war on Germany, resulting in the reclassification of 35,000
of the Italian POWs from enemies to “co-belligerents”, men who volunteered to aid the U.S. Army. They were used in tasks other
than actual combat, such as laundering, cooking, truck and rail freight handling, and loading and unloading military ships.
These groups were called Italian Service Units, with Italian commissioned and non-commissioned officers in charge, who in turn
reported to American military officers. The Italian volunteers were screened by Military Intelligence and subject to U.S. military
law and regulations. About 15,000 other Italians refused to volunteer and were subject to tighter regulations in the 260 prison
camps located throughout the states. These “non-signers” labored on farms or projects in flood control and soil conservation.
In contrast, the men in the Italian Service Units enjoyed special liberties and privileges, including off-camp sightseeing and
cultural excursions, unavailable to the “non-signers”. Although these units released thousands of U.S. soldiers from manual
labor, not all citizens were supportive of the concept. Some wrote letters to the War Department, expressing resentment over the
favorable treatment for Italian soldiers who killed their loved ones in fighting in Tunisia and the Kasserine Pass.
There were Italian POW camps at multiple locations in the New York-New Jersey area. Italian Service Units, part of the U.S.
Second Service Command, were stationed at Governors Island, Pine Camp, Sencea Ordinance Depot and Fort Wadsworth in New
York and at the Raritan Arsenal, Belle Meade Depot, Fort Monmouth, Caven Point (Jersey City) and the Port Johnson Terminal in
During World War II the Army operated a vast logistical network at ten ports in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and New
Jersey. More than three million troops and 63 million tons of supplies were shipped out. A total of 55,000 civilians worked at the
ports. The Port Johnson Terminal in Bayonne was well suited for this purpose since it had warehouses, rail car sidings and a
loading dock on the Kill van Kull. There were large motor pool facilities to support the shipment of combat vehicles. Some of the
huge shops of the Babcock & Wilcox boiler making factory, as large as 100,000 sq. ft., were converted for the storage and
shipment of combat equipment.
Several hundred Italian POWs were housed at a camp in the Port Johnson Terminal during 1942-1945. The unit was called the
305th Italian Quartermaster Service Battalion. The members of the Italian Service Unit did heavy manual work as freight handlers
for the trucking, rail car and ship operations. They earned $8 per month.
The Italians were well treated and residents of the local Italian community brought them home-cooked spaghetti dinners on
Sundays when visits were allowed. In June 1944 the Port Johnson, Camp Kilmer (NJ) and Camp Shanks (NY) Italian Service Units
were taken on tours of New York City with Army supervision as a reward for good behavior. Wearing regulation summer uniforms
with green brassards marked "Italy", the men visited the Bronx Zoo, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's
But some citizens complained that the Italian POWs were being coddled. In July 1944 Brig. Gen. John M. Eager, commander of the
Italian Service Units, defended the units, saying they freed U.S. soldiers for combat duty, reduced the draft of new soldiers, and did
not replace civilian workers. On July 15, 1944 Bayonne patrolman Al Shipetofsky encountered three Italians wandering the city
streets at 3 AM without a guard. They were arrested and questioned with the aid of patrolman Frank Carlo as interpreter. The
men were returned to the Port Johnson camp and confined to the military brig.
The Bayonne Post of the American Legion requested the POWs be confined to the camp until the war ended. Bayonne Mayor Bert
Daly met with Col. James A. Stevens, commanding officer of port terminals in the New York Port of Embarkation, and Lt. Col.
Samuel Russell, commanding officer at Port Johnson, to discuss the situation. Mayor Daly said the newspapers exaggerated the
extent of the problem. Superintendents of the local industrial plants Standard Oil, Tide Water, Babcock & Wilcox, General Wire &
Cable, East Coast Shipyards, and Elco Boat Works, did not believe the Italians posed a sabotage risk to their companies. Lt.
Charles T. Todd, of the Office of War Information, said the Italians volunteered for combat duty, not allowed under the Geneva
Convention, donated blood to the American Red Cross, and bought U.S. War Bonds with their earnings. The Army officials told
Mayor Daly that camp restrictions would be enforced and all leaves cancelled. When the war ended in 1945, the Italian POWs in
the U.S. were repatriated to Italy by January 1946.
When the demand for naval boilers ended, Babcock & Wilcox consolidated its operations in Barberton, Ohio. The War Assets
Administration sold the southern 14-acre portion of the Port Johnson facility to Pharma Chemical Corporation in 1949. The
property had several temporary structures, probably housing for the POWs, the dock on the Kill van Kull and two cranes for
loading barges and lighters. The government had paid $344,000 for the property but sold it for only $141,000. Pharma Chemical
built a new dye plant at the site. Pharma Chemical also had a plant at 169 W. 52nd Street in Bayonne since the World War I era.
The remaining parcels of the Port Johnson facility were purchased by several companies. The Maidenform Brassiere Co. bought
the former Babcock & Wilcox office building at E. 3rd St. and Lexington Ave. in 1948. The Norton Paint Co., , Lehigh Warehouse
and Transporatation Co. (later Rollins Bulk Storage Terminal) and Berry Bedding Corp. (later Bay Ridge Lumber) eventually
established operations at the site. In the early 1970s Pharma Chemical became the Verona Dyestuffs Division of Mobay Chemical
Corporation. Verona used the former Drum Shop building of Babcock & Wilcox as a bonded warehouse for imported raw
materials. The Verona dye plants were shutdown by 1984 with production transferred to a larger, more modern facility in Bushy
Park, South Carolina. The Verona site on E. 2nd Street was sold to the adjacent Norton Paint Co. in 1987. In 2003 the Maidenform
factory was converted into a 60 unit apartment for senior citizens. These changes reflect the transition of Bayonne from a heavily
industrialized city to a city now benefiting from service industries, residential developments and recreation.
1) "36,688 of Enemy in Prisons Here", New York Times, June 5, 1943
2) "Italian Prisoners Will Visit New York Sites, Troy (NY) Record, June 14, 1944
3) "Ex-War Prisoners See City Sights; Awed by Sizes of Our Skyscrapers", New York Times, June 19, 1944
4) "Coddling of Italian Prisoners Denied; Citizens of U.S. Found Among Captives", New York Times, June 30, 1944
5) "Captured Italians Now Aiding Our War Effort", New York Times, July 16, 1944
6) "Italian Prisoners of War Are Arrested", Bayonne Times, July 16, 1944
7) "Italian Prisoners of War No Problem, Daly Declares", Bayonne Times, July 18, 1944
8) "Prisoner Antipathy Unfounded, Says Daly", Bayonne Times, July 18, 1944
9) "Legionnaires Rap Prisoners' Freedom", Bayonne Times, July 19, 1944
10) "Restrictions Put on Italy War Prisoners", Bayonne Times, July 19, 1944
11) "Army Tightens Curbs on Captured Italians", New York Times, July 19, 1944
12) "Block in Bayonne in New Ownership", New York Times, August 27, 1948
13) "U.S. Sells Port Site at Bayonne", New York Times, January 14, 1949
14) Floyd W. Parsons, ed., New Jersey: Life, Industries and Resources of a Great State, New Jersey State Chamber of
Commerce, Newark, NJ, 1928, pp. 303-305
15) Timothy J. Runyan and Jan M. Copes, To Die Gallantly: The Battle of the Atlantic, Westview Press, 1994, p. 289
Note from ColorantsHistory.Org: The author, Robert J. Baptista, worked as a research chemist and later as plant manager of the
Verona Dyestuffs plants in Bayonne during the period 1972-1985.. The author thanks Lisa Attanasio, archivist at the Bayonne Free
Public Library, for researching the Italian POW camp and providing the local newspaper articles. Mr. Vincent Daniel, retired
Personnel Director of Verona Dyestuffs, is thanked for his many contributions to the history of Pharma Chemical and Verona
Aerial view looking north of the former Port Johnson Terminal in Bayonne, New Jersey, ca. 1970. The 50-acre
industrial site, outlined in green, was the original site of the Babcock & Wilcox boiler manufacturing facility
established in 1901. In World War II, the U.S. Army operated a military supply depot and Italian POW camp
there. Remnants of the concrete wall surrounding the prison camp are still visible on the east and west sides.
View to southeast and Staten Island from the Pharma Chemical Corporation dye plant
located at E. 2nd Street and Hobart Avenue in Bayonne, ca. 1950. Remnants of the Italian
POW camp walls and guard tower are visible in background.
|Drum Shop of the Babcock & Wilcox Co. at Port Johnson, 1928.
During WW II civilians worked here, rustproofing rifles with Cosmoline
grease, and packing them in wooden crates for shipment to Europe.
Photo: New Jersey: Life, Industries and Resources of a Great State, 1928.
Click to enlarge.
|History of the Italian POW Camp at Port Johnson Terminal, Bayonne, New Jersey
by Robert J. Baptista, June 16, 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by ColorantsHistory.Org. All Rights Reserved.
|A 5-inch wide Italy emblem was worn on
uniforms of the Italian Service Units.
|Letter mailed from Port Johnson POW Camp
to the Red Cross on Aug. 16, 1944. Click to Enlarge.
Image Courtesy of Jim Forte, http://www.postalhistory.com/