This is basically all that is left of the Hereford Interment Area, that once housed nearly 4,000 Italian POW's
from 1943 - 1946. This small chapel was built by the Italians in memory of five of their number who died
at the camp.
Italian P.O.W.'s Leave Their "Mark"
in the Heart of the Texas Panhandle
by: Bobby McDonald
There's hardly anything left, besides a small chapel that is in somewhat disrepair, and during cropping season is almost surrounded by cornstalks, and a couple of marble markers, but once the section of land, 4 1/2 miles southwest of Hereford, in the Texas Panhandle, housed almost 4,000 Italian Prisoners of War and was a city within itself, surrounded in barbed-wire. The ground breaking for the camp, on the Texas High Plains was on June 30, 1942, and the Hereford Interment Area cost approximately $2. million to construct. It contained four compounds, each designed to hold 1,000 prisoners, and a military police unit quarters for those guarding the POW's. The first company of American soldiers to come to the newly built POW camp was the 400th Military Police Unit, followed by the 426th and the 417th Military Police Escort Guide. Each of these policing units had 155 soldiers and two officers, and the men worked in the prison camp compounds, hospital, and kitchens.
These guard towers were located at each of the four corners of the
The first captives, who were Italians, arrived in April of 1943, and most of them had been taken during the invasion of North Africa, in battles near Tripoli and Southern Tunisia. The prisoners were shipped in by train to Summerfield and marched the eight miles north to their new quarters. Tromping down the flat, dusty roads to the encampment, the prisoners were said to have sang "Rosemunda," as they marched, or as we know the song, "Roll Out the Barrel," as they passed the cotton and vegetable fields of the area.
"You can imagine the sight of 'the enemy' marching down the road, that we'd only heard about on the radio, and us seeing them walk past our farm fields, heavily guarded, as they made their way to the camp," exclaimed one Hereford resident, as she described the scene that was played out before her eyes, as a child in her father's farm field. "Singing in a foreign language, they offered a certain mystique and element of danger, but we soon learned they were just regular people, when later they came to work in the fields. But, we were always warned by our mothers not to have any contact with the Italians, we worked. So, that made them that much more mysterious and us that much more intent on trying to learn a few words of Italian, so by chance we could say something to them!"
The Italian POW's at the Hereford Camp worked on local farms and in the compounds of the prison
for 80 cents per day, and were allowed to use the money to purchase sundries in the "PX."
Here some of the POW's are shown with Hereford area residents as they worked on local farms.
The Hereford Camp was originally designed to house prisoners from Italy, Germany, and Japan, but due to animosity among the prisoners, it only housed the Italians, and the others were taken to other camps. There were two classes of Italian prisoners at the camp, and they were kept separated.....the "Nons" or those who remained loyal to the Fascists, and those who switched sides to the Allied Forces, when Italy joined the Allies in September 1943. Almost all of the "Nons" in the U.S. were housed at the Hereford Camp. And, most of the men who were termed "Nons" were not "hardcore Fascists," though a few certainly were, and they were not particularly evil, but just remained true to their beliefs, principles, and honor regarding their original purpose in the war.
The Italian prisoners that worked the farms were utilized in the short labor supply, caused by our own men fighting in the war, and were used to harvest crops, clear trees, cleaning river banks and canals, and various other tasks suitable to their skills. Most of those in the Hereford camp were used to harvest cotton, vegetables, and for shocking feed for cattle, on the Texas High Plains. Local farmers paid the government the prevailing local wage for laborers, so as not to undercut what other available laborers might receive, but the prisoners only received 80 cents per day for their labors. Their pay, including a regular monthly allowance, based on rank, came in the form of scrip, which they could spend at their own prisoner PX (post-exchange store). The PX had candy bars, cigarettes, art and stationary supplies, sports equipment, and even musical instruments that could be purchased.
With this many men interned in the camp, they were constantly looking for something to do, to pass the time, and the arts and crafts portion of the time was important. For those working in arts and crafts, the local population and camp guards were their audience. Sometimes Hereford area residents might visit the camp for a portrait sitting, or arrange for the creating of scrap-metal jewelry or furniture for the homes, built by the prisoners.
Today, there are still charcoal drawings and sketches, rings, oil paintings, and other items that the Italian prisoners crafted during their confinement in the Hereford camp. However, the two major and lasting artistic achievements in the area are the Chapel pictured above, and the "crown jewel," the St. Mary's Catholic Church, in Umbarger, thirty miles north of Hereford.
St. Mary's Catholic Church, in Umbarger, Texas, a small German farming community, north of Hereford,
and south of Amarillo.
In the late summer of 1945, as the "Nons" in the camp realized that the war was ending, and that they would soon be leaving, they began to think of the five prisoners who had died while at camp. If something wasn't done, the men would be completely forgotten. So, they got permission and decided to build the chapel, that is still located at the Hereford site. The chapel was built by Italian prisoners and was in honor of the five men......Pvt. Innocente Ortelli (1921-1943), Lt. Evaristo Fava (1909-1944), Cpl. Pierluigi Berticelli (1921-1945), Captain Renzo Banzi (1900-1945), and Sgt. Giulio Zamboni (1902-1945), all of whom had died of natural causes, while at Camp Hereford. The men had been buried at the camp cemetery, but were later re-interred at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, in 1947.
The small chapel was built using scavenged bricks, broken glass, surplus materials, and a few purchased supplies, and consisted of the outside chapel, an altar, double French doors, stained glass windows, and a marble-like concrete surface. The project was completed in two to three weeks, and a monument to the five men was placed beside it.
And, almost simultaneously, in October of 1945, a small, plain Catholic Church, in nearby Umbarger, became the beneficiary of the greatest artistic achievement of the Italian prisoners of war. Conditions at the camp worsened, as the Italian prisoners received reduced rations of food, and boredom was at a premium. Nine prisoners, mostly officers, were "tapped" to use their artistic talents in transforming the inner walls of the St. Mary's Catholic Church into a lasting work of art. They were accompanied to the church daily by U.S. Officer, Sgt. John Coyle, a native of Pennsylvania, who was sympathetic to their hunger and saw that they received a huge meal at lunch each day, provided by the parish women, and even killed jackrabbits that could be smuggled back into camp to provide food for others.
The officers worked on the church, painting the centerpiece for Father Krukkert and the Umbarger Parish, as well as providing intricate wood carvings on the altar. They worked from October until the dedication ceremony on December 8, 1945. "I went to the war," advised John Grabber, who gave me a tour of the Umbarger St. Mary's Church. "My family had moved here just prior to the war and I attended the church before I left. And, was witness to the transformation, when I returned home, after the war!"
"There are two women that are still members of the church, Jerrie Gerber and Elsie Battenhorst, that were young girls and helped to prepare meals for the Italian prisoners, during the time they worked on the church," related Mr. Grabber. "They remember the interaction and skills of these men, well!"
The artistic interpretations include: The large oil-on-canvas of the assumption of Mary into heaven, painted by prisoners Catanei, Gambetti, and Di Bello, that took seven to ten days to complete, and was influenced by Murillo's Immaculate Conception; Carlos Sanvito crafted the Last Supper, from wood, on the front of the altar; and two other "non-com" officers carved wheat and grape trims for the altar; and then, two murals, using scenes the prisoners saw from their location in Umbarger, are painted on either side of the Assumption of Mary.
The artists shown with the Priest and those involved in the
St. Mary's Church project, in 1945.
Still today, what was a perilous time in our nation's history, the talents of Italian P.O.W.'s, incarcerated in a remote Texas Panhandle location, continue to influence the lives of the parishoners in the farming community of Umbarger, Texas, each Sunday, as they come to worship. The beautiful artwork is a testimony to the universal goodwill of mankind and serves to unite the community with those Italian artists, from a "half-a-world" away.
Some of the Italian P.O.W.'s have returned to Deaf Smith County and to the Church in Umbarger with family members, in the 65 plus years that have passed, since the works were completed, to denote their stay on the Texas High Plains.
The Hereford P.O.W. Camp was the second largest Camp in the state of Texas, during World War II. The largest camp was located at Mexia, Texas, and was a German Camp, as was another very large camp that was located at Hearne, Texas. There was also a number of other camps located all across Texas, during the war. One near Hopkins County was located at Princeton, Texas, on the blackland prairie.
Additional information can be found about the artwork, the Hereford Camp, and the Italian P.O.W.'s, in the following:
"Italian POW's and a Texas Church" by Donald Mace Williams, a 168 pg., soft cover book.
"Hereford P.O.W. Camp 1942-1946," a soft-bound booklet, available at the Deaf Smith County Museum, in Hereford, and prepared when a group of Italian P.O.W.'s returned to refurbish the Camp Chapel, in 1988.
Several artifacts from the camp are also on display in the Deaf Smith County Museum, in Hereford.
Private tours of the Umbarger St. Mary's Church can be arranged by appointment.
My sincere thanks to the personnel at the Hereford Chamber of Commerce, to Paula Edwards at the Deaf Smith County Historical Museum, and to Mr. John Grabber, who gave me a tour of the Umbarger St. Mary's Catholic Church. They aided in bringing you this remarkable story about a period in our State's history.