Fifty years ago, they had nothing -- No way to go home, no guarantee of freedom here But in Maryland they glimpsed the American dream And some found a way to make it their own

PRISONERS OF WAR

February 21, 1993|BY RAFAEL ALVAREZ

Lelio Tomasina had never seen such oranges.

Mammoths!

4 The oranges of America, as big as a baby's head!

It was late 1942, Lelio's first days in this strange land of gigantic bounty called the United States.

His gateway to the New World was not Ellis Island, but the belly of a prisoner-of-war ship.

And he knew very little, almost nothing, of life here when the

Americans herded him and hundreds of his surrendered countrymen into a mess hall at Camp Buckner near Raleigh, N.C.

The prisoners whispered among themselves: "No wonder America is so big, look at the big oranges they have!"

The Italian soldiers were just a few weeks removed from the battlefields of Sicily and North Africa, where they ate what they could find and bugs crawled on their bodies as they tried in vain to hold off British tanks with pistols and rifles.

Compared to such hell, the sight of oranges worthy of Eden left the Italians awe-struck.

"At first we were afraid to touch them," he said. "Geez, they were so beautiful and big!"

When the prisoners bit into the magnificent fruit the smiles on their faces turned sour.

Lelio Tomasina and his comrades had eaten their first grapefruit.

It was a small surprise in a constellation of change that transformed the young soldier and some 50,000 of his surrendered companions once the United States took custody of their fates.

The Italian prisoners were distributed among Army camps across America, and eventually, Lelio would be shipped to Maryland's Fort Meade, where more than 600 POWs were held between 1942 and the end of 1944.

When Italy surrendered in September 1943 -- leaving Germany and Japan to fight alone against the rest of the world -- the armistice required the immediate release of Allied prisoners in Italian hands, but made no provision for Italian prisoners held by the Allies.

Most of the captives signed "cooperation" papers, which transformed them from prisoners to "co-belligerents." By consenting to help the American war effort in non-combat duties, mostly dull kitchen and construction work, the POWs at Fort Meade received liberties they never dreamed possible.

Says Lelio, who held rank in the Italian artillery somewhere between a corporal and sergeant: "We were prisoners in a way, but not exactly prisoners."

Not exactly.

Not the way his father was a prisoner during World War I and traded his watch to German captors for a handful of potato skins.

Compared to their time as hapless, hungry, bug-infested soldiers in Sicily and North Africa, the stateside sojourn of Lelio and his comrades was a marvel of feasts with Baltimore's Italian community; warm beds, hot showers and new uniforms; and moonlit dances with local girls.

"We were treated better than we were as soldiers in the Italian army, as if we were family," said Lelio, who still carries a picture in his wallet of himself at Fort Meade with Sue Gentile, the Baltimore girl he eventually married and remained with 24 years until her death in 1972. "I never got mad one day about my prisoner days."

His first week in America -- where he kissed the ground after arriving by ship in Norfolk, Va., on his 22nd birthday -- was like a movie, Lelio said.

It was so unbelievably magnificent, he said, that he was sure the Americans were just being nice before they shot everybody.

"After I kissed the ground they began counting us off, 20 at a

time and they put us on a first-class train," Lelio said. "It had red velvet and crystal chandeliers and we're thinking: 'What are they going to do to us?' A black porter in formal dress came up to us with a silver tray of doughnuts and coffee. I had never seen a doughnut in my life."

He was thinking of his father giving up his watch for potato peels and remembers chuckling to himself at the sight of American soldiers guarding the prisoners at both ends of the passenger car.

Lelio thought to himself: "Who is going to try to escape from this?"

At Fort Buckner, they were given a physical, soap and shaving gear, new shoes, and clean clothes with POW stamped in red on the back of their work shirts.

And then nearly 400 of them sat down to eat dinner, the dinner of the great oranges.

"About this supper I could write a book," says Lelio, laughing.

After the grapefruit was served, the Americans served them a huge pot of spaghetti. Despite the bounty, the prisoners were so unsure of their next meal that they divided the pasta among themselves, noodle by noodle.

"It took us a long time just to count out the noodles 20 at a time to make sure everybody had the same amount," he said.

After the spaghetti came a cart of hot dogs. A pair of hot dogs were put on each prisoner's plate and everyone was free to go back for more.

With gastronomic pride, Lelio Tomasina -- now a U.S. citizen, now retired from 32 years with Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point -- remembered his first encounter with the all-American hot dog.

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