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Camp Ono Story - L.A. Times

Close-up of north camp at Camp Ono. Photo courtesy Perry Pugno



Editor's Note: The following story was published in the VIEW section of the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos were provided by Perry Pugno of Rialto.  It was re-published in the 1982 "Herritage Tales" by the San Bernardino Historical & Pioneer Society.

Southland Gave Warm Reception to World War II Enemies

Near the citrus groves and vineyards of Rancho Cucamonga, along Arrow Highway, stands a 15-acre complex of battered buildings known as the San Gabriel Valley Labor Association. As the name might indicate, the facility is a migrant labor camp, almost abandoned except during peak harvest seasons. Built during the Depression to house Civilian Conservation Corps workers, the camp today is a largely ignored shabby remnant of the past.

North Camp (Italian prisoner housing) at Ono, looking northerly. Photo courtesy Perry Pugno

Few realize that the camp was the setting for one of the most unusual - yet little known - chapters of recent Southern California history:

On January 28, 1944, 499 Italian prisoners of war were incarcerated at the camp, having been shipped over from the battlefields of Europe and Africa. Before war's end - and beyond - these Italians were to have a marked effect on the area, to change its character and, ultimately, to become a part of it.

* * *

Emilio Pascolati of Huntington Beach has been married to his wife Penny for 34 years. They have two children and four grandchildren. Pascolati works as an engineer for McDonnell Douglas, and is a member of the American Legion. In January of 1944, he was one of those 499 Italian POWs.

To the right of the fire barrel are Aldo Vagnozzi, American army sergeant; Perry Pugno; and Emilio Pascaloti. Three men to the left in the picture are unidentified.
Photo courtesy Perry Pugno

When Pascolati arrived at the camp the men were housed in barracks, sleeping 30 to 40 to a room. There were no fences or landscaping (all the men had been established as low-escape risks). Experienced gardeners in the group quickly went to work, and part of their work still stands in the form of a cactus garden near the main office of the camp.

A native of northern Italy, Pascolati was born in a small town called Bassano del Grappa. "They filmed part of the movie 'A Farewell to Arms,' by Hemingway, right in that town," Pascolati boasts. As a young man he was employed as an electrician for the railroad. When war broke out, he enlisted and was assigned as an Italian army artillery observer along the French border in the Alps, then retrained as a tank mechanic and sent to North Africa. There he fought British troops in places like Tobruk and El Alemain.

When the Germans decided to move into Alexandria, the Italian troops led the advance. Things quickly went bad, and the troops retreated all the way to Tunis. Exhausted, hungry, and low on supplies, they assembled on a hilltop and awaited the arrival of their British captors.

The prisoners were held for several days in a detention camp in Tunisia and then transferred to the custody of the American army. They were loaded on boxcars to make the long trip across the desert to Casablanca, where they boarded a large ocean liner commissioned by the Red Cross. The trip across the Atlantic took six days. "The Americans treated us very well and the ship was a nice one," Pascolati said, "but during the entire voyage I was terrified by the thought of German U-boats."

Arriving in Norfolk, Va., on May 28, 1943, the prisoners were sent by train, but this time in passenger cars, across country to Camp Florence in Arizona. During the trip Pascolati was amazed at the sights. "When I saw the big factories, one taking up several city blocks, I knew the war was over and we had lost." And whatever apprehensions he may have had about the treatment he would receive in Camp Florence vanished when he caught a glimpse of the well-fed inmates.

Pascolati stayed for three months in Arizona, where he was sent out to pick cotton with the other prisoners. But problems at the camp, which held 27,000 prisoners, were mounting.

The crux of the problem lay in the political leanings of the different groups of men. Some were Fascists, devoted to Mussolini, others were partisans, and still others were Communists. All these groups saw the war from a different point of view and they argued bitterly.

Animosities were exacerbated by an agreement between the Italian and American governments. Shortly after the capture of troops in North Africa the Allied forces invaded Italy, which quickly surrendered. Mussolini was ousted and replaced by Marshall Pietro Badoglio, who then declared war on Germany. In an agreement between Badoglio and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, captured Italian troops were allowed to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Although after taking the oath the men were technically free, the United States retained custody, and they were housed and given jobs for which they were paid.

The controversy over taking the oath of allegiance sharpened bitter feelings. When Pascolati, along with a number of other prisoners, volunteered to cooperate, the Army quickly removed them from the camp.

* * *

Although the ultimate destination of the men was Camp Ono in San Bernardino, 499 of them were taken to Cucamonga as part of a deal between the Southern California Farmers' Association and the U. S. Army.

The war had caused a shortage of manpower in the agricultural industries of Southern California. The farmers' association agreed to house the prisoners, provide food, put them to work and compensate them for their labors. The Army agreed to provide the security. In order to minimize problems, the Army had chosen men who had proved themselves to be low-escape risks - among them Emilio Pascolati.

On the morning of January 28, 1944, the prisoners arrived at a railroad siding in Guasti - a largely Italian community just south of Cucamonga. Many of the local residents of Guasti, some of whom had immigrated to the United States just a few years earlier, turned out to greet them. Handshakes and kisses were exchanged and inquiries made about relatives back in Italy. Pascolati met a man from the same province as he.

By the time the last of the prisoners was off the train and onto the waiting buses the entire group had begun singing Italian folk songs.

Lilla Lucas, 86, is the widow of Henry Lucas, president of the Southern California Farmers' Association during that period. She was office manager at the camp, and remembers the prisoners still singing as they arrived at the camp.

The men were given an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the camp. Several days of rain prohibited them from working in the fields, and they spent the days exploring. At one point an alarmed police officer from nearby Upland came to the Army captain in charge, and voiced his concern about the wandering prisoners. Pascolati remembers the captain assuring the police officer there would be "more but not less" prisoners back at the camp in time to be fed.

Actually, the Army could not have picked a better place than Cucamonga. It was the most like Italy that one could find. Around the turn of the century there had been a large influx of Italian immigrants. The climate and surrounding topography are similar to Italy, and the soil fertile. Vineyards were planted and wineries soon followed. The small town of Guasti, a good part of which is now taken up by the Ontario International Airport, was originally settled as an Italian colony. The local Catholic Church, San Segundo D'Asti, is a miniature replica of a church in northern Italy.

This environment, combined with the warm reception of local farmers and other residents, made the prisoners quickly feel at home.

With the end of the rain the men were organized into work groups and taken out into the fields every morning. A military guard was sent with each group, but there was little need for one. Out in the fields the prisoners worked side by side with the farmers, many of them Italian, and their families. At noon meals were served by the women. Often there was a bottle of wine passed around.

* * *

Efforts at hospitality often led to romance.

Pascolati was invited to the house of the man from his own province in Italy, whom he had met when the prisoners arrived in Guasti by train. "The man had a niece," Pascolati said. "This is how I was able to meet Penny."

Penny Bianco's father had come to the United States in 1912. After several trips back to Italy he finally settled in Cucamonga. Emilio and Penny began going together, since Italian-American mothers and fathers had no objection to their girls fraternizing with the POWs. To them the prisoners were just what they wanted - nice Italian husbands for their daughters.

As lax as security was at the camp, almost to the point of the prisoners being able to come and go as they pleased, there was still much activity inside. Almost every night the men held marathon poker games. They were paid 80 cents a day for their labors and many of them, including Pascolati, parlayed their earnings into sizeable amounts. Often the prisoners would gather in groups and sing.

There was never a shortage of food. Many of the grateful farmers, feeling 80 cents a day was not enough, donated chickens, eggs, vegetables, cheese and the like.

* * *

At the conclusion of the pruning season the prisoners were taken from Cucamonga to the larger Camp Ono in the San Bernardino foothills. Ono was an official prisoner - of - war camp and was more structured.

Here, because of his mechanical experience, Pascolati was placed in charge of the motor pool. "When we didn't work on the trucks we mended tents."

Activities at Camp Ono were organized at a much higher level than they had been in Cucamonga. There was an official soccer team, and several local Mexican teams were invited to play.

There was also a talent search by members of a San Bernardino music group to recruit singers. James Guthrie went out to the camp, and after auditioning about 350 baritones and tenors selected 75 who were featured in performances put on by the San Bernardino Concert Association and the Redlands Bowl.

At Camp Ono there were restrictions, but they were kept to a minimum. Pascolati took advantage of the situation and visited Penny and her family frequently.

Many of the other men also pursued romances. The war was almost forgotten. On weekends the men would slip away from the camp and go into town. Some even went as far as Hollywood.

* * *

Reality came crashing back when the war ended in April of 1945. Under the rules of the Geneva Convention the men had to be returned to Italy.

"I had mixed feelings about returning," says Pascolati "I would have to leave Penny and the people I had come to know. I was happy to go back to Italy but apprenhensive of what would be waiting there for me." Nine months later, in February of 1946, the men were bused to San Pedro and boarded a ship bound for home.

At home the worst of Pascolati's fears was confirmed. Italy was economically depressed to the point where it offered him nothing. But Penny followed, arriving 17 months later. Their wedding, in August of 1947, was so big the town had to close down.

Now that Pascolati was married to an American citizen he was given preferential status to immigrate back into the country. The newlyweds returned here in March of 1948.

Pascolati quickly got a job at a garage in Cucamonga, where he had also worked while staying at Camp Ono. He also found employment with Aerojet as the company's official interpreter. In 1951, when Pascolati became a citizen, he went to work full-time for Aerojet as a rocket technician, and later on as an engineer.

* * *

As Pascolati sits in his kitchen with his wife and concludes his story, he brings out a list. It is a copy of the official roster at Camp Ono, as well as a list of the inmates at the Cucamonga camp. There are notations beside some of the names indicating a letter received, a child born, or the date of death. Some of the names have local addresses beside them. Pascolati notes that he is not the only former POW to have returned to the United States: "There are 25 to 30 living between Santa Barbara and Orange County," he said.

* * *

Joe Gaiba was an electrician in the employ of a large Italian aviation company. Because of his expertise he was "militarized" and sent to North Africa as part of the repair services. He was supposed to have precedence over regular military but in the heat of the retreat, he was unable to get out. Gaiba was with Pascolati in the Cucamonga camp and later stayed at Camp Ono. He was also housed for a time at the Pomona fairgrounds while working at the Kellogg Ranch, caring for Arabian horses. Gaiba remembers seeing German POWs from Chino arrive to take.his place at the end of the war. He now lives in a mobile home park across the field from the Cucamonga camp.

* * *

Alceo Vecchio, 61, lives in Claremont and is co-owner of the Etiwanda Grape Company. He was on a tank crew and was wounded at Tobruk. Vecchio tells of how he was able to win enough money in poker games at Camp Ono to be able to purchase a Model-A Ford. He registered it in the name of an Italian-American friend and parked it in the gas station near Camp Ono. Vecchio has a son and a daughter and is area director in Claremont for the American Youth Soccer Organization.

* * *

Perry Pugno at Camp Ono, 1945. Photo courtesy Perry Pugno

Perry Pugno owns an electrical contracting firm in Rialto, and lives in a house he built himself. Pugno has a son, Perry Jr., who is a doctor and director of emergency services at Riverside Community Hospital, as well as two daughters and five grandchildren.

* * *

Paul Lucifora is a well-known personality in the city of Rancho Cucamonga. He owns a shoe-repair shop which he runs with his son, Paul Jr. Lucifora is active in the local chapter of the Sons of Italy. He has a daughter, Maria, who lives with her husband in Yucaipa. Lucifora is unabashedly proud of his adopted country. "America is a good country," he says in his thick Italian accent. "America is the best country in the world."

[Read the story published by local historian Nick Cataldo about the San Bernardino Italian POW's]