The Second World War prompted the establishment of many new military installations throughout California and Nevada, including the Sierra Army Depot. It was built in Herlong, California in 1942 as a storage facility for ammunition. To learn more, we join professional historian Alicia Barber for this segment of Time & Place.
Located about sixty miles north of Reno, Herlong became one of the destinations for Italian prisoners of war who were captured overseas by the United States and their Allies.
Mary Forson was hired as a clerk at the Depot in 1942 when she was just 21 years old, and she remembers the first prisoners showing up a few months later.
“Most of the Italians that came into Herlong were from the North African campaign. And when our troops landed in Anzio, they captured a lot of them, and they were…most of those Italians were from the northern part of Italy, and they were blond, redheaded, and very handsome, talented…”
Spirits were high among the Italians, who were understandably relieved to be out of harm’s way.
“Most all of the Italians were so interested in seeing some American women, they showed us pictures of their families and their children and seemed like a very happy group,” Forson remembers.
The prisoners were put to work at the depot, and as word of their presence there spread, many Italian-American families from the Reno area began to make Sunday trips up to Herlong to socialize with them, sometimes in their native dialects.
Lena Porta Green, whose parents ran an Italian grocery on Reno’s Third Street, remembers visiting many times with her family. They themselves had immigrated to the United States from Parma, Italy when she was a child.
“As soon as you talked to an Italian, it’s, 'Oh yes. You know, they’ve got these Italian prisoners out at Herlong.'” I don’t know how many times we went out, but I drove Mom out there quite often. When we went out, they’d have dessert for us. The baker would bake a beautiful cake for us. They’d have music, and we’d dance.”
After Italy surrendered to the Allies and joined the fight against Germany, the Italian soldiers were given permission to take short trips to Reno, where they often visited Green and her parents.
“They were awfully glad to see us and to have somebody that reminded them of home," said Green. "They were very appreciative of our taking the time to go, and they felt like we were family, I guess.”
The Italian POWs are long gone, but the Sierra Army Depot remains in Herlong to this day.
Transcripts of these and other oral histories about the Italian American Experience in Northwestern Nevada can be found in the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries.