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POW's in San Bernardino

By Nicholas R. Cataldo

Camp Ono, looking south along the road between south camp and north camp,
with San Bernardino's Little Mountain at left.  Photo courtesy Perry Pugno

Do you remember that 1960's sitcom called Hogan's Heroes? You know, that the nutty show which attempted to prove that, at least in the world of television situation comedies, life in a Nazi POW camp during World War II could be fun.

Well, we had our real life version, right here in the Inland Empire. It was called Camp Ono.

With the outbreak of World War II and under the leadership of General George S. Patton, this new military installation, named after a nearby Santa Fe Railroad siding just southwest of Cal State San Bernardino was established as a satellite and supply station of the Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot and also became part of the Advance Communications Zone Depot in the Southern California Defense System.

But it was after Italian prisoners were captured in Africa and Europe by the allies in 1943, that the Camp Ono story gets interesting.

The POW's were initially shipped to Norfolk, Va. and then sent by train to Florence, Az. where they were put to work picking cotton. After a sweltering hot summer toiling in the cotton fields, many eagerly volunteered to pick oranges and grapes for the local farmers, many of them Italian, in Cucamonga, California.

Then, in February of 1944 the 499 prisoners at Cucamonga were transferred to Camp Ono. The military site was set up with a north camp and a south camp. The north site was to become their new "home" until after the war ended in late 1945.

With Italy's formal surrender and Mussolini being ousted in favor of Marshall Pietro Badoglio in September - October of 1943, a rather unique agreement was made between the new leader and General Eisenhower. The monumental decision was that all captured Italian troops were allowed to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.

"Technically", all who agreed to do so were free. But just to play it safe, the United States retained custody of these new allies until the war was over. And boy, did the Italians have it made!

The climate here was as close to that of Italy as one could get. The grape vineyards, wineries, similar topography, and the many Italian immigrants made this lifestyle transition a breeze. All the men had to do was put in a day's work manufacturing tents for the American G.I.'s, making uniforms, working in the laundry or kitchen and they got three square meals plus free time to socialize or for dances which were held at the camp clubhouse. Young ladies from San Bernardino were driven to the camp by bus.

As former Camp Ono POW turned permanent San Bernardino Valley resident, Perry Pugno often said, "Those were the three best years of my life"!

Pugno once revealed in an interview with Todd Pierce, a local video producer, just how good he and his comrades had it.

Shortly after arriving at Camp Ono, the prisoners went on strike over the food served to them. Now, it wasn't the quality or quantity that was the problem. It was simply that the Italians were not used to the American style breakfast, eggs and jam for instance. Back in the old country, all they had were coffee and rolls.

The funny thing is that these men were being fed better now than ever were in the poorer conditions of Italy, and yet they still went on strike. And, as it turned out, the strike was a success; they were given coffee, milk, and rolls for breakfast from that time on.

Pugno was one of the few prisoners who had a driver's license, so his "job" was to drive the Colonel to his office or the commanding officer's wife into San Bernardino to do her shopping. That was it!

The prisoners had frequent visitors, some rather unique individuals.

A man who frequently came to the camp by military plane in order to visit a prisoner, Cellestino Zinasi, who had been a former colleague at the University of Milano, was the Italian scientist, Enrico Fermi. Fermi, the Nobel Prize winner who's expertise was most instrumental in designing the world's first atomic bomb would spend hours at a time sitting on a bench under the trees in the prisoners yard quietly talking with his friend about their lives before the war ripped countries apart. One can only guess if the two men included in the their carefree conversations information on Fermi's special assignment by the Office of Scientific Research and Development to Project Manhattan, the most guarded secret in American History.

The POW's had many liberties regarding entertainment. In fact, on many weekends they were driven into San Bernardino to see a movie or to have dinner with their girlfriends' families!

Charlotte (Traina) Giudice told me that on Sundays the prisoners were allowed to take walks into the surrounding vineyards, as this was a fond reminder of their homeland. They would casually walk out for hours at a time with no military escorts. Their only identification was a green arm band that each wore with "ITALY" spelled out in white letters.

On one of those walks, her future husband, Corporal Luciano Giudice, found out about the Italian family who owned most of those grape vines. And that's how the two met.

In 1946 the prisoners were shipped back to Naples and many of their sweethearts soon followed. Then, after getting married, a number happily came back to the country that once held them as prisoners.

Some of the Italians at Ono who chose to return to the San Bernardino Valley were:

Luciano Giudice ... worked for Santa Fe and later owned Auto Fast Freight Company in San Bernardino.

Perry Pugno ... worked for Santa Fe and eventually owned Perry's Electric in Rialto.

Emilio Pascolati ... became a radio announcer in Cucamonga and later worked for Aerojet.

Paul Lucifora ... became a shoe maker in Cucamonga.

Luigi Traverso ... retired with Santa Fe.

[Read the Los Angeles Times story about the San Bernardino Italian POW's]