Che Bella Vista: Big Sky POWs

By McLaren, Robert T. | Sea Classics, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Che Bella Vista: Big Sky POWs


McLaren, Robert T., Sea Classics


Interned Italian seamen at Fort Missoula during World War Two

Fort Missoula was established in 1877 as a military post and located on the banks of the Clark Fork River outside of the city of Missoula, Montana. Its primary mission was to protect the settlers from Western Montana Indians. The soldiers only engaged in one clash with the Indians. In July 1878, a detachment led by Lt. Thomas Wallas pursued a band and killed several Nez Perce Indians who were trying to return from Canada. No one could envision that 64 years later the fort would intern over 1200 Italian seaman. The fort was an open fort with no walls, common of forts west of the Mississippi River. That was soon to change.

After being created after the Civil War the 25th Infantry arrived at the fort in 1888. When the Spanish-American War broke out, the 25th was the first unit called to fight. The unit served in Cuba and the Philippines and was reassigned to other posts after the war. There was no significant military use for the fort almost from its inception. Few troops were stationed at Fort Missoula over the years, though plenty of building took place. Much of the soldier's work consisted of settling labor disputes involving miners, putting out forest fires and providing protection for trains. It seemed the fort was without a purpose. Efforts of Congressman Joseph Dixon of Missoula led to the appropriation of $1 million in 1904 to remodel the fort. A modern complex of concrete buildings with Spanish tile roofs was constructed from 1904 and 1914, including a new Officers Row, barracks and Post Hospital.

The fort was used as a Military Training Center during World War One, and was almost abandoned by 1921. In 1933, it was designated as the Northwest Regional Headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). More construction continued, including barracks to hold more than 2000. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the CCC built the Recreation Building in 1939. Architect Robert Reamer also designed the Old Faithful Inn (1904) at Yellowstone National Park. The Recreation Building was constructed mainly of lodge pole pine, which was cut, peeled, and shaped at the Post and Pole Yard at the Squaw Creek Camp in the Gallatin National Forest, Montana, and shipped by rail to the fort, The center could hold over 800 people. The grand opening was held on 22 February 1940, with the Fort Missoula CCC Boxing "Golden Gloves" Tournament. Sadly, the beautiful center burned down on 7 December 1946. But, you will see how it served the Italians and the community well from 1941 to 1943.

War in Europe started with Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939. Britain's Declaration of War against Germany and its ally, Italy, left many German and Italian seaman stranded in US ports in the latter part of 1939. The British Government refused to grant safe passage on international waters for any ship carrying able-bodied men from nations with which they were at war. There were a total of 28 Italian ships being held in the following the following ports: Boston; New York; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Norfolk; Newport News; Wilmington, North Carolina; Savannah; Jacksonville; New Orleans; Mobile; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Portland, Oregon, and the Canal Zone. New York held five ships. Two German ships were held in Boston and Port Everglades, Florida, and 35 Danish ships in various United States ports.

Early in 1941, reports in the press appeared that Italian seamen were sabotaging their idle ships. The Motor Vessel Il Leme, the largest vessel of the Italian Line Service on the west coast sailed out of the Columbia River only to receive orders from the Italian Government to return. This seizure was in effect to collect a fuel oil bill of $137,000. While at Portland, the idle crew requested the WPA to hold English classes. They did, twice a week for two hours, all the while the crew destroyed the ship's navigation equipment, motors and other machinery. …

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