If readers were ever curious about how WWII effected Mendocino citizens, here’s one answer. While many people are familiar with the internment camps for people of Japanese ancestry that the government established during World War II, few folks realize this was not the only group incarcerated in California. Residents of Mendocino County born in Germany or Italy were considered “enemy aliens.” Then prisoner-of-war (POW) camps were established all over Northern California.
People of Japanese descent were considered threats to security on the west coast and these folks were forced into internment camps. When the government looked at the sheer number of Italian and German Americans, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they realized they couldn't incarcerate them, but they could watch them closely. A Mendocino City family’s travails is shared later in this story.
Why did California end up with POW camps for German and Italian servicemen captured in the war? England and France were war zones and did not have the time, space, or energy to develop and sustain camps. Meanwhile the USA had wide open spaces and a need for workers, since young men had been drafted into the military. The USA help the worldwide war effort by accepting POWs.
Consider this problem. Let's say you were a German sailor on a freighter pulling into San Francisco Bay after the USA entered World War II. You, and your ship, were under arrest. The USA was not going to let you go back home and become a military man, or let your ship become involved in the enemy's Navy. These enemy aliens went to POW camps. They were joined by 175,000 military prisoners from Europe that Great Britain sent West on Liberty ships.
What does a nation do with these thousands of men who didn't speak English but had strong backs? Put them to work! Got a cotton field that needs picking and is owned by a German who has US citizenship? Send German POWs. Got a Vineyard that needs grapes picked and it's owned by an Italian American? Send Italian POWs.
Over 65 POW camps were established in California. Large camps sent smaller crews with guards to dozens of locations. German and Italian groups were never mixed — the camp had one ethnicity. Among the work the prisoners did was logging, agriculture, field work, canning, fish processing, clothing manufacturing, work in arms and ammunitions factories, and building transportation vehicles for land, sea, and air. They were paid 80 cents a day, a comparable wage for a civilian day laborer at that time
In San Francisco Bay Angel Island had been an immigration center, and during the war, processed and dispersed POWs. If a prisoner had medical experience and training, he was placed in a military hospital to work with staff there. Other POWs might be doing housekeeping or landscaping at the same location.
It was a rule that detainees were decently housed and fed the equivalent of meals served American servicemen. They did their own cooking and baking. Italian prisoner groups got more pasta, and Germans received more potatoes. Detainees had canteens or they could spend script they had earned. Religious services were available, as were classes to learn to speak English.
Around Northern California, POWs worked in almond grows in Arbuckle, in Auburn during Civilian Conservation Corps projects, and in Tule Lake cleaning irrigation canals for farmers. In the Central Valley there were 4,100 Germans at Yuba City and Beale Air Force Base, and 2,400 at Fort Ord near Monterey. Crews works on Highway construction, but most work was agricultural.
Just over the state border in Malheur County, Oregon, for example, POWs in two camps were responsible for seven farms — 7,500 acres of potatoes, 3,500 acres of onions, and 3,000 acres of lettuce between 1944 and 1946. They also worked in sugar beet fields.
In Camp Flint near Auburn the local Italian community brought POWs cookies and cake. At Tagus Ranch in Tulare County prisoners were allowed dogs, cats, and doves as pets. Friendships and romance between prisoners and the public had some detainees returning to the US to establish citizenship after the war.
The war ended and the prisoners were returned to Europe on the same ships that were bringing servicemen home. Sixty-five camps for POWs closed down in California.
Now, for the local connection.
Once World War II started, any resident from a country we were fighting was immediately under suspicion. Not every immigrant had taken the time to obtain citizenship. The Piccolotti family, who ranched on Big River, outside of Mendocino City, faced many problems.
Italian natives Pete and Rosa Piccolotti migrated to Fort Bragg, married, and had eight kids. In 1942 three brothers went into military service and the family moved to Big River. Meanwhile the parents were declared enemy aliens and for national security were not allowed to travel west of Highway One. Their post office and bank were in Mendocino City, and they couldn't go there. Friends did errands in town for them and the Mendosa family delivered produce to Fort Bragg for them.
During the war, two Piccolotti brothers died from non-combat health issues. In 1948 Pete and Rosa started studying for all the hard questions a judge might ask during citizenship proceedings. They were sponsored for US citizenship by Joe Mendoza and Ernest Madera.
When big day came, the Piccolotti family and friends drove to Ukiah, and when the judge interviewed them he asked if their sons served in the military? “Yes! Four of them,” the proud parents replied. That was all the judge needed to hear, no questioning needed. He said, “You are citizens.” A happy ending.
To learn more about this time of California history, read “American Prisoner of War Camps in Northern California,” by Kathy Kirkpatrick, or “Piccolottis, My Life on the Ranch by Big River,” by Alice Piccolotti Ivec. The last title can be read at the Kelley House Museum.