On July 7, 1937, Japan invaded China to initiate the war in the Pacific; while the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, unleashed the European war.
World War II (WWII or WW2), also known as the Second World War, was a global war that was underway by 1939 and ended in 1945.
Italy entered World War II on the Axis side on June 10, 1940, as the defeat of France became apparent. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and the US entered the conflict.
World War II was fought between two sets of partners: the Allies and the Axis. The three principal partners in the Allies alliance were the British Commonwealth, the Soviet Union and the United States; the three principal partners in the Axis alliance were Germany, Italy and Japan.
During World War II, American forces captured 50,000 Italian soldiers and sailors. 5,000 Italian prisoners of war were sent to Hawaiʻi and held at Schofield, Kāneʻohe, Kalihi Valley and Sand Island.
Japanese Americans were also incarcerated in at least eight locations on Hawaiʻi. On December 8, 1941, the first detention camp was set up on Sand Island.
The Sand Island Detention Center held war captives as well as civilians of Japanese, German or Italian ancestry who were under investigation.
This Italian prisoner contingent was highly skilled in construction and engineering, and as a voluntary effort they were used extensively on many construction projects around the island where skilled labor was, at that time, in short supply, particularly around Honolulu Harbor, Sand Island, etc. (Ponza – Army-mil)
“For the most part, the US Army welcomed their labor and skills in construction of needed military facilities.” (Moreo)
“At the end of each day, the Italians would salvage whatever waste materials were about as well as scouring and scooping up cement from spillage.” (Moreo)
With this salvaged material the Italian POWs built buildings and works of art (fountains and statues) at various locations on Oʻahu (these pieces are at Schofield Barracks, Fort Shafter, Sand Island and the Immigration Building.)
The Mother Cabrini Chapel, designed by POW Astori Rebate, “was huge, with an alter, and two large paintings of Mother Cabrini all done by the POWs. The chapel had a full basement for vestments and religious articles. Out in front of the chapel, the area was paved and filled by ‘well constructed benches acting as pews for a thousand or more worshippers.’” (Moreo)
The Italian POWs “decided to dedicate to the memory of Mother Cabrini, who was at that time being considered for sainthood for her earlier good works in the United States, and who was subsequently canonized as the first American saint by the Vatican around the year 1946.” (Ponza -army-mil)
Upon the chapel’s completion, Sunday mass was celebrated every week with the prisoners exiting the prison compound in order to attend the services, seating themselves in the open air pews. As word spread to the adjoining areas, Pearl City, Honolulu, Nanakuli, and even as far as Waikiki, a small group of Catholic worshipers started to drive up to the chapel on Sunday mornings to attend the services.” (Ponza – army-mil) In the way of Kamehameha Highway construction, it was torn down in 1948.
At Sand Island, “(a)t sunset, hundreds of Italians formed a male chorale and sang for an hour. It became widely known and so popular that visitors came in the evening to listen and applaud.” (Moreo)
At Fort Shafter, a fountain crowned with pineapples was designed and crafted by POW Alfredo Giusti, with winged lions and topped with pineapples. (Reportedly, Giusti inscribed his name and address on the north side of the fountain.)
Dedicated to give hope to those without hope, Giusti also crafted two statues, “The Hula Dancer” and “The Bathing Beauty,”) which now sit outside the Coast Guard administration building on Sand Island.
A hard-to-see fountain crafted by the Italians is within the secured Immigration Center on Ala Moana Boulevard (you can see it through a chain link fence on the makai/Fort Armstrong side of the facility.)
The war ended in December 1945 and the Italian POWs were repatriated in 1946, having left some lasting legacies of the war and their time in Hawaiʻi. (Unfortunately, due to increased security concerns, access is restricted at the facilities where their work is located.)
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