Italian POWs dug escape tunnel in Hereford

by Don McAlavy: CNJ columnist

This story began early in 1942 when the Army began making plans to pepper the United States with internment camps for prisoners of war. The Army decided to make a camp near Hereford for the purpose of housing captured Italian soldiers. Most of the Italians were captured in North Africa late in 1942.

The first to arrive at the Deaf Smith county camp came by train in early April 1943 at Summerfield and were marched 8 miles to the camp.

The camp that was to be their home for the duration of the war covered 800 acres of land 6 miles southwest of Hereford. The camp was surrounded by two 12-foot high electric fences embedded in four feet of concrete with 20-foot guard towers every 400 yards. The towers were manned by two guards with machine guns, high-powered rifles and spotlights.

The complex was divided into four compounds. One compound held the Fascists and Communists, another was reserved for officers, and the other two were for the enlisted prisoners.

Some officers tried to tunnel their way out, digging straight down from one of the barracks, then out for about 500 yards into a cornfield. The tunnel was tall enough that the prisoners could nearly walk through it. They connected tin cans together to make an air tube for the tunnel and dirt was brought up each day in small amounts and scattered in the various garden plots so as to hide their efforts. It was kind of like a pilot for the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.”

The guards began to notice that not only were the garden plots starting to multiply at an alarming rate, but those same plots were beginning to rise against the skyline. The discovery of the tunnel came during a soccer game when the ball disappeared under one of the barracks and no one would retrieve it.

Another attempt was made by an officer, who made it outside the camp and was eventually apprehended nearly 300 miles away as he headed for the Mexican border.
Prisoners tried to get out of work by acting sick. One doctor put a stop to the fakers by ordering a gallon of castor oil, bolting the infirmary door, and ordering a large spoonful for each one. No prisoner was on sick call for a month.

The late Dr. Michael de Maio of Clovis was one of those prisoners. When the war was over and they returned him to Italy he studied medicine and became a doctor and eventually came back to America to practice medicine in Clovis. He became one of Clovis’ outstanding citizens and doctors. (The original story was written by Bill Kopf in 1978.)
Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at:
dmcalavy@telescopelab.com