After the WWII Operation Torch campaign in North Africa in November 1942, the Allies transported captured German and Italian prisoners-of-war to camps around the world. The Americans brought 380,000 Germans and 51,000 Italian POWs to the US. After Italy surrendered and switched sides in September of 1943, the Italians were no longer enemy combatants, but couldn’t be sent home either, according to the Geneva Convention. Given the severe shortage of workers, the Army offered the Italian POWs a chance to serve in “Italian Service Units” in March of 1944. Almost all of them signed up.
About 1000 Italians were housed at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans until they were sent home in December of 1945. Many people are surprised to learn there was a sizable population of Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans’ French Quarter. In fact, the Mayor of New Orleans at the time was Sicilian-American Robert Maestri. Along with other cities that had thriving Italian-American neighborhoods (such as Boston), New Orleans’ Sicilian community adopted the Italian POWs–partly to help support the war effort and prove their patriotism, and partly out of compassion for their countrymen. The young women of “Little Palermo” found friends and dance partners, and many of them found husbands. Please visit the Posts section of this website to find out more about these unique American love stories.