Shortly after I moved from Boston to New Orleans in 2002, I had the good fortune to meet renowned local chef Joe Faroldi and his wife Kitsy Adams. We were chatting about our Italian heritage, and Chef Joe told me a fascinating story that has stayed in the back of my mind ever since. His Mom, Felicia D’Anna, was the daughter of a local Sicilian-American family in the French Quarter, and his Dad, Giuseppe Faroldi, was an Italian soldier, brought to Jackson Barracks in 1943 as a prisoner-of-war. Recently, I’ve been writing a novel inspired by their magical story. In the course of my research for the book, I’ve been on a treasure hunt, with the help of American-Italian Research Library Curator Sal Serio, to piece together the broader story of these unusual wartime romances here in New Orleans, and around the country. Here’s what I know so far, from my reading and interviews:
In May of 1943, Allied forces defeated the Italian army in North Africa. 51,000 Italian prisoners-of-war (and about 380,000 Germans) were brought to the US and held on military bases across the country. About 900 of them were brought to Jackson Barracks, just outside New Orleans.
At the time, as Digest readers are aware, the French Quarter was known as “Little Palermo,” a thriving district of immigrants from Sicily and their descendants. The presence of the POWs created an interesting situation for the French Quarter Sicilian-Americans:
On one hand, these POWs were paesans—countrymen. Some were even blood relatives. Many had been conscripted or joined Mussolini’s army with little enthusiasm, often to escape grinding poverty. The New Orleans Sicilian-Americans were compassionate people, drawn to the plight of the captives.
On the other hand, Italian-Americans were fiercely loyal to their adopted country and were already uncomfortable about Italy’s role as an enemy combatant. They saw the Japanese-Americans—and even some of their own—being herded into internment camps. In spite of high-profile Italians in American life (including New Orleans Mayor Robert Maestri), some were worried that fraternizing with the POWs might call their patriotism into question.
In spite of the conflicting views, groups of local Sicilian-Americans organized trips to the barracks to visit with the POWs. Many local Catholics were inspired by Jesus’ words in the Gospels: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was in prison and you visited me.” The visitors were a great comfort to the POWs, so far from home. They spoke their language and brought them familiar food.
In September 1943, Italy surrendered and switched sides in the war, leaving the POWs in limbo—they were not really a threat, but the Geneva Convention prevented them from being set free until the war is over. Most signed loyalty oaths and provided much-needed labor through Italian Service Units (ISUs). They dressed in the same uniforms as the US soldiers, but with a green oval patch on their sleeves that said “ITALY.” They were allowed more freedom, including the freedom to leave the barracks to socialize.
At the time, the city was full of women, children, and older people. Most of the young men were off at war, so the daughters of local Sicilian-American families welcomed the young Italian soldiers as new dance partners and friends. Some prominent New Orleanians, however, (including boat factory owner Andrew Higgins) were outspoken critics of the liberties the POWs had been given.
Nevertheless, several local girls became romantically involved with Italian POWs. At least 11 of those girls would eventually marry POWs, including four Battaglia sisters, and their cousin, Felicia D’Anna. When the war ended, the men were repatriated to Italy, where they were soon joined by their fidanzate. After weddings in Italy, the brides brought their husbands back to New Orleans to start new American families.
Mr. Serio and I are trying to track down the families of these POWs who married local New Orleans girls. So far, we know of the families of Giuseppe Faroldi/Felicia D’Anna, Lorenzo Nuzzolillo/Eleanor “Noni” Battaglia, the Giovanni DiStephano/Virgie Battaglia, Loreto DiGregorio/Mamie Lore, Eugenio Chierici/Concetta “Tini” Battaglia, Mario Marranto/Marguerite Graffanini, and Giovanni Manfrin/Anna Mae Cassesi (who was at Camp Leroy Johnson, on the Lakefront). If you have information, photos, artifacts, and especially stories, we want to hear from you! Please contact: Salvadore Serio, firstname.lastname@example.org, (504) 838-1190 x2505 or Elisa Speranza, email@example.com, 504-390-2741.
Published in the Winter 2018 edition of the Italian-American Digest