World War II in the Tri-Cities: How Federal Convicts and Italian POWs Helped Support the U.S. War Effort

  • By C. Mark Smith
  • Posted 4/02/2023
  • Essay 22658
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This is the little-known story of the vital roles played by federal convicts and Italian prisoners of war in supporting the U.S. war effort at Hanford and the Tri-Cities during World War II. The nation faced a food shortage when property owners at the top-secret 670-square-mile Hanford site were evicted from their farms and ranches in order to build the reactors and other facilities needed to produce plutonium. To harvest the remaining crops, the army tapped into an unusual labor pool. And when the army needed to move 2.1 million tons of freight through the new Pasco Holding and Reconsignment depot from 1942 to 1945, it found another surprising labor source. In both cases, it was prisoners who came to the rescue.

Heading Toward Hanford

On January 19, 1942, only five weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt decided to act on a top-secret report that he had received three months earlier from Vannevar Bush, the president of the Carnegie Institution and chairman of the newly created National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). The report summarized estimates by the committee and British scientists on how much time and money it would take to develop the atomic bomb. On August 13, 1942, the U.S. Army created the Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers on the 18th floor of a New York skyscraper because of its proximity to their principal construction contractor and the atomic research facilities at Columbia University. On September 17, General George C. Marshall, the Army’s chief of staff, selected Colonel Leslie Groves to lead the Manhattan Project. Groves had overseen the construction of the massive Pentagon Building in Washington, D.C., and numerous Japanese prison camps in the West.

Within days, Groves was on his way to inspect Oak Ridge, a 56,000-acre site located in the Appalachian Mountains southwest of Knoxville, Tennessee, where the massive uranium-separation facilities would be built. Two months later, he approved the acquisition of 54,000 acres near Los Alamos, New Mexico, for the site of the top-secret atomic weapons research laboratory where scientists would design the bomb.

Originally, it had been assumed that the active, explosive ingredient of an atomic bomb would be uranium 235, slowly and meticulously separated from natural uranium at various electromagnetic, gaseous, and thermal diffusion separation facilities being built at Oak Ridge. But numerous production problems and costly delays quickly led Groves to seek another solution. Luckily for him, there was one.

Back in February 1941, Dr. Glenn Seaborg, working at the University of California, Berkeley, had demonstrated that a new fissile element bred in uranium could be chemically separated by dissolving U-238 in a toxic combination of acid and various chemicals. The result was submicroscopic amounts of what Seaborg called Element 94. The process, repeated over and over again, would produce enough material for a bomb. It would not be until the following year that Element 94 would receive a name – plutonium.

Scientists working at Columbia and Princeton were brought to the University of Chicago to study plutonium production using graphite to moderate a controlled nuclear chain reaction. A small test reactor was built in a squash court located under the bleachers at the university's football stadium. At 3:25 in the afternoon of December 2, 1942, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

Groves wanted DuPont, the giant chemical company, to take charge of plutonium production, but DuPont resisted. The company had no experience with nuclear physics and felt unqualified to undertake the project. DuPont’s management and scientists also remembered how they had been labeled as "merchants of death" by a special congressional committee in the 1930s investigating war profiteering during the World War I. DuPont finally relented after extracting certain conditions from government.  

It was clear from the start that the plutonium production reactors and their companion chemical-separation facilities were going to be a massive, costly undertaking. The danger of an accidental release of radiation demanded that the production reactors be built in an isolated location, preferably in the West.

Groves sent his former deputy manager of construction, Colonel Franklin T. "Fritz" Matthias, to look for sites. Matthias and two DuPont engineers looked at 11 places in four states. On December 22, 1942, they discovered what they were looking for when they flew up the Columbia River from Portland and viewed the vast expanse of a barren, semi-desert shrub steppe located at the great horn of the Columbia River in southeastern Washington. Matthias was already familiar with the area; he had been involved in selecting nearby Pasco as the site for one of the giant supply depots that shipped Lend-Lease supplies to the Soviet Union. Matthias immediately called Groves from Portland to announce his discovery. Groves confirmed their decision when he visited the Hanford site on January 16, 1943.

The site was named the Hanford Engineer Works (HEW), after one of the small towns located there. The nearest city of any size was Pasco, with a 1940 population of 3,900, located almost 50 miles away to the south. Pasco was a major division hub of the Northern Pacific Railroad, a port for barge traffic on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and the location of two recently completed military facilities, the Pasco Naval Air Station and the U.S. Army’s Pasco Holding and Re-consignment Point and Pasco Engineer Depot.

Breaking Ground

Groves appointed Matthias to be the Officer in Charge at Hanford with full authority to make any decisions he felt were necessary. He was also responsible for coordinating with the prime contractor, DuPont, as well as dealing with state and local governments, suppliers, organized labor, and local Native American tribes.

DuPont broke ground at Hanford in early March 1943, while many property owners were still living in their homes and as the sale of their properties were being negotiated. By the end of January 1943, the government had acquired almost 430,000 acres from 2,000 property owners at a cost of approximately $5.1 million. Most of the residents moved on, but a few remained to work for DuPont.

On March 6, 1943, all of the residents received eviction notices from the government. They had 30 days to leave their land and their crops. Many asked to return to their orchards and fields by day in order to harvest their crops – for most, their only source of income. Groves and Matthias saw these requests as impossible for logistic and security reasons and the requests were denied – but 3,500 miles away in the nation’s capital, others were paying attention to the issue.

The news of the land acquisition problems at Hanford reached officials in Washington, D.C., at the same time as the Roosevelt administration was becoming increasingly concerned about the potential of severe food shortages around the nation. As early as March 1943, President Roosevelt was voicing concerns to the National Defense Research Committee and the War Department about the possible adverse effects of the Hanford acquisition on the administration’s food production campaign, even asking on June 17 if it might not be possible to move the project to another site.

Roosevelt’s acute political antennae were vibrating because Washington’s junior senator, Monrad C. Wallgren, was hearing from his constituents. A Democratic insider, he was a member of the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program – commonly known as the Truman Committee after its chairman and future president. Truman and Wallgren were also close friends and poker-playing buddies. Spurred on by Wallgren’s inquiries, the Truman Committee began asking the War and Justice Departments to provide the committee with information about the Hanford site. In response, an alarmed General Groves met with Secretary of War Henry Stimson. On June 17, Stimson contacted Truman directly to say that he would assume full responsibilities for the Hanford project if Truman agreed to stop any further investigation. According to Stimson’s diary, he called Roosevelt later the same day and "satisfied his anxiety."

Convict Farm Labor

While these events were ongoing, Matthias was negotiating a contract with Federal Prison Industries, a government corporation within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to provide convict labor to harvest the crops on the land abandoned by the previous owners so that it could be kept in agricultural production. Under the contract, the army agreed to build and maintain a prison camp called Camp Columbia on the Hanford site. Federal Prison Industries agreed to provide inmates and undertake the maintenance of "all good orchards, vineyards, and some of the better farmlands ... and retain all harvested fruit and produce." The miliary would supply "all necessary automotive and fencing equipment and would furnish power and coal for the camp." Both parties clearly understood the public relations aspects of the agreement. 

The prisoners came from McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary, the nearest federal prison. They were selected because they were "minimum-custody-type improvable male offenders," who had no more than one year of their sentence remaining to be served. These included conscientious objectors, those who had been convicted of violating wartime rationing and price support laws, and other white-collar crimes. A March 8, 1944, memo from the Bureau of Prisons noted the importance of selecting the right inmates to work at Camp Columbia: "Selection of inmates for Columbia Camp is of great importance because the Army Engineers have there a secret military project which they are trying to guard very zealously. We agreed with them to select inmates carefully and give them criminal data on every inmate selected."

Bureau of Prisons statistics show that conscientious objectors made up less than 30 percent of the inmate population at any one time and that they were often discriminated against by the rest of the prisoners. During wartime, even prisoners in federal penitentiaries were patriotic.

The site chosen for the prison camp, now a Benton County park, was located on the very southern boundary of the Hanford Site, on the north bank of the Yakima River, just above the Horn Rapids Dam. The camp was accessed by a narrow, two-lane paved road that ran from the tiny town of Richland (1940 population 240) north to an area of orchards along the Columbia River, and then northwest through 15 miles of barren shrub steppe to the camp site. It was located approximately 15 miles southwest of where the huge Hanford construction camp was being built at the former Hanford town site, and about 20 miles south of where the B Reactor was being built. Although the camp was located on the Yakima River, it was for some unknown reason, named Camp Columbia.

Originally, the camp consisted of 11 wooden buildings that had been moved from a former Civilian Conservation Camp in Winifred, Montana, and placed surrounding a parade ground with a tall flagpole. These buildings served as offices, a hospital, mess hall, and storage buildings. The inmates were housed in a row of five double hutments — later known as Quonset huts — identical to those being built for construction workers at the Hanford construction camp and located adjacent to the quadrangle. Twelve smaller Quonset hut structures were built soon thereafter a short distance away to house administrators, prison guards, and their families. There was no security fence. There was no need for one. There was no place to go. Only 12 prisoners escaped from Camp Columbia and they were quickly apprehended. 

A senior custodial officer at McNeil Island, Harold E. Taylor, was selected as warden of the new camp. Because of the severe manpower shortage, staffing the camp was difficult and there was little guidance to be gained from past experience within the prison system. There was no similar facility within the entire federal penal system.

One of the first challenges Superintendent Taylor faced was finding a horticulturist to oversee the prison staff of field supervisors. George E. Hess, a farmer in Roseburg, Oregon, was hired with responsibility for all aspects of orchard and farm management.

Camp Columbia officially opened on February 1, 1944, and operated until October 10, 1947. Between 250 and 290 inmates were housed in the camp at any given time and a total of 1,300 served time there between 1944 and 1947. The prisoners were supervised by 24 officers living on site with their families in the Quonset huts and another 25 who lived off-site.

The inmates’ primary role was to maintain and harvest crops in those areas that were not impacted by construction and plutonium production. These consisted of more than a thousand acres concentrated in three areas. The first was at Vernita, located along the Columbia River in the northwest corner of the Hanford site. A second concentration was located on the east side of the Columbia River in Franklin County. The third area was located to the west of Richland Village, including a number of cherry orchards. Most of the fruit was trucked back to McNeil Island where it was processed for sale to the military. A 1947 report summarizing the activity at Camp Columbia noted that in 1944 the camp managed more than a thousand acres, including 550 acres of orchards, 125 acres of vineyards, 73 acres of asparagus, and 280 acres of hay and potatoes. The camp produced almost 5,669 tons of crops between 1944 and 1947, valued at more than $500,000 (more than $7 million in 2020). 

Expenses were not insignificant, but the camp represented a real value under the circumstances. Direct operating costs, including housing, materials and supplies, coal, vehicles and fuel were provided by the army. Fuel and transportation costs were high because the nearest crops were located 15 miles from the camp and the farthest more than 35 miles away on the other side of the Columbia River. Inmates were transported in specially modified trucks that could carry between 25 and 30 prisoners. Chevrolet sedans were also cut in two and extended to carry a guard and five to 10 inmates. In addition to transporting the work crews, hot lunches had to be trucked to each, doubling the number of trips required each day.

Living at Camp Columbia was a memorable experience. In an early 1944 letter to his wife, Doris, Harold Taylor described living in a Quonset hut: "... if the floors were properly finished and the windows and doors fixed so as to keep the dust out; if the windows were placed for vision; if they weren’t so awfully cold in the cold weather; if the heating arrangement were other than 2 coal stoves; if the tin roofs wouldn’t swelter one in the summer; and if they weren’t so homely and forbidding looking’ then, yes, with some adequate furniture they would be 'all right!'"

Some of the prisoners were memorable. Sandy Hess, the Field Supervisor’s daughter, remembered a particularly nice inmate who would play with her in her backyard. After the war, when the time came for the prisoner to be discharged, a suitcase arrived at the camp containing a fine quality tailored suit. A limousine picked him up and drove him to Yakima where a chartered plane was waiting. She always wondered who he was.

In 1947, with World War II over and the Cold War yet to heat up, the future of Camp Columbia was uncertain. With fewer acres being managed, the income from the camp was declining while the cost of transportation to distant fields and orchards remained high. Balanced against these financial constraints was Taylor’s concern that abandoning the crops was socially irresponsible and might become a public relations nightmare. Ultimately, Federal Prison Industries and the Army concluded that the camp should be closed and its buildings sold off as surplus. The camp officially closed on October 10, 1947.

"Big Pasco"

The war had changed the city of Pasco, too. By 1943, it was the primary point of arrival for workers and supplies headed to the Hanford Site. The city was already the location of two other major military facilities which helped account for the severe labor shortage in the area. By March 1942, construction began on the Pasco Naval Air Station. On July 31, it began training air crews for the growing fleet of aircraft carriers so vital to America’s war in the Pacific.

Late in 1941, a 459-acre tract of land along the Columbia River was chosen by the Army Corps of Engineers as the site of the Pasco Holding and Reconsignment point. It was one of 10 similar facilities located near major ports along the east and west coasts to store and ship Lend-Lease supplies and equipment to our allies. The site offered excellent rail and barge service and was located approximately 230 miles inland from both the Seattle, Portland and Vancouver ports ― out of range of potential aerial attack. Colonel Franklin Matthias, who had been involved in the selection of the site, told the Pasco Herald on January 18, 1945, that, "Pasco was the only [site] on which there was no further investigation after its initial selection. The location and transportation facilities offered here were so nearly perfect for the purpose, that it was not felt that there was any further need for study.”

Construction on the depot began in February 1942 and was completed six months later at a cost of $5 million. Major Lealand S. Davis, a former official of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, had been instrumental in lobbying the government to select the Pasco site and was stationed there as Transportation and Operations Officer for two years. As many as 800 workers were employed during construction, including a number of still segregated African American labor units. They built eight large warehouse buildings containing 1.7 million square feet under roof. Each warehouse was 960 feet long and 180 feet wide, with rail car loading platforms running the length of each building and truck bays on each end. Sixteen other buildings provided barracks, a mess hall, commissary, and administrative services. The site included a large rail yard, a rail dock, and barge terminal. More than 2.1 million tons of freight moved through the facility between 1942 and 1945.

Two of the eight giant warehouses on the western side of the complex were designated as the Pasco Engineer Depot, a separate operation run by the Army Corps of Engineers, whereas the rest of the facility was managed by the Army Transportation Corps. Almost immediately, the locals began combine the two operations by calling the sprawling facility, Big Pasco and it provides yet another largely unknown story of how prisoners helped support the war effort in the Tri-Cities.

Tapping into Italian POWs

Italy had joined the Axis Powers in June 1940. A member of the Allied coalition during World War I, Italy felt it had been slighted by its more powerful partners at war’s end when the Treaty of Versailles redrew many of the world’s boundaries. After Benito Mussolini’s fascist government came to power in 1922, it sought revenge and empire by attacking Libya and Abyssinia. After it joined the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Japan in September 1940, it attacked British interests in Egypt and around the Red Sea.

After some initial successes, Italy suffered a number of major losses. British and Commonwealth forces captured more than 130,000 Italian prisoners in Libya in September 1940, and another 64,000 in East Africa in early 1941. A decision was made to transport most of them to England or to Commonwealth countries — in spite of significant security concerns — because of their substantial value as a supplemental source of labor.

Italy followed Germany in declaring war on the United States four days after Pearl Harbor. On the defensive for much of 1942, the Americans fought mainly in the Pacific but finally led an Allied landing in North Africa on November 8, 1942. By April 1943, the allies defeated German general Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and their Italian allies in Tunisia, capturing 252,415 German and Italian prisoners. 

As a result, more than 50,000 Italian prisoners of war were transported to the United States, where they were incarcerated in 21 prison camps located in 18 states. Most were delighted to find themselves in America. However, their status became more confused after Italy surrendered on September 8, 1943, and then switched sides by joining the Allies on October 13. A high priority for the new Italian government was to retrieve its prisoners from prison camps around the world, but the Allies resisted. Not only was it impossible to repatriate the Italians in the middle of the war, but the prisoners had become a valuable source of labor, freeing up American workers for combat duty.

Building on British experience, the Italian prisoners in the United States were asked to join what became known as Italian Service Units ― roughly 200-man non-combatant units attached to U.S. military units. About 35,000 Italian prisoners agreed to join the units after pledging that they would not engage in combat or conduct sabotage. In return, they received incentives which included good working conditions, light supervision, some personal freedom, early repatriation back to Italy after the war, and the possibility of being able to return without having to wait for an immigration visa. Each unit had an Italian officer and five or six enlisted men who served as overseers and interpreters who followed orders from American officers. They received the same pay they would have received in the Italian Army — an average of about eight dollars a month – and $16 a month for use at the base canteen. 

Major Lealand Davis, the former SP&S Railway official serving as Operations Officer at Pasco, placed an order for 1,200 Italians prisoners to help meet the severe local manpower shortage.

On July 30, 1944, the 255th Quartermaster Salvage and Repair Company arrived in Pasco where they camped in Sibley tents near the huge warehouse complex. Wooden barracks, like those built at the Hanford construction camp, were procured two months later. The 255th had been formed from prisoners at a POW camp in Ogden, Utah, and activated on April 15, 1944. Captain Enrico Tagliavacca was the Italian officer-in-charge under the command of U.S. Army Captain Raymond J. Ernest. On August 10, 1944, the Pasco Herald reported that the Italians would be "used to perform necessary labor operations which have heretofore been neglected because of the impossibility of obtaining sufficient manpower."

Their primary work involved loading and unloading freight, often as many as 225 freight cars a day. The Italians loved driving the forklift trucks and other vehicles, however, many had special skills and they were often put to work as mechanics and electricians working on vehicles and equipment being repaired before being sent to the Soviet Union. While most of the Italians could not understand English, they comprehended enough through gestures and other forms of communication to know what needed to be done. About 25 were employed as cooks, kitchen police, orderlies, and clerks.

The Italians became a common sight on the streets of Pasco during their off-hours. They were generally well accepted by the Pasco community. Some were even invited into the homes of the small number of Pasco residents who spoke Italian or attended Mass at the tiny white frame St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

The language barrier did not seem to deter them from trying to date American girls working at the depot. LaDona Dawe Madison was 18 when she began to work in the payroll office and then transferred to the Patrol Office where she interviewed job applicants and made out their identification badges. She remembered the Italians as being "a nice group of kids," and "very flirtatious." She particularly remembered that an attractive Italian from Northern Italy asked her to go to the movies using an Italian-English dictionary. She thought, "I can’t be dating the enemy for goodness sake," but she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She asked her co-workers for advice and finally decided to tell him that her boss wouldn’t allow her to go out with him. "He was disappointed, but he understood."

Madison also remembered that the Italians were quite musical and would sing the entire time that they were working.  "They had beautiful singing voices." They put on a Christmas show for the officers at the depot and the girls working for them were invited to attend. "It had to be almost entirely pantomimed because the Italians did not know enough English."

The formal history of the 255th Quartermaster Company notes that it was disbanded in February 1945, but news stories in the Pasco Herald suggest that the Italians continued to work at Big Pasco into the Spring of 1945. In August, they returned to Italy from Seattle. It is unknown if any of them ultimately returned to marry their American sweethearts or were later able to immigrate to the United States.

The Pasco Holding and Reconsignment Point was deactivated on June 15, 1947, although the Corps of Engineers continued to use some of the facility to house supplies related to the construction of McNary Dam and the Hanford Site. The facility was reactivated for the Korean War and closed again on June 1, 1955. The Port of Pasco was the successful bidder when the government put Big Pasco up for sale in 1959. The buildings are still leased out by the Port for storage and light manufacturing. 

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