53 years ago, during our world's largest war, the Yuma Test Station was formed by the Army Corps of Engineers to test floating bridge designs on the easily regulated waters of the Colorado River. At the same time that tens of thousands of combat troops trained in the area's harsh desert, at nearby Camp Laguna, for duty on one of the war's fighting fronts, hundreds more performed this equally vital mission.
As the bridge workload expanded as the war progressed, more and more soldiers were needed. Between 1944 and 1945, much of this workload was assigned to former Italian prisoners-of-war who had pledged their loyalty to the United States. The Italian soldiers had been captured earlier in the war in North Africa and were formed into Italian Service Units after fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown and the nation left the war.
The newly assigned soldiers arrived in Yuma by train on July 18, 1944, and were trucked to the test site. Many were disappointed by their new assignment, for they had had their fill of desert duty. As one Italian soldier proclaimed, "We were in Hell in Northern Africa and we have just moved from one part it to another." A sit-down strike resulted, being resolved only after the test station commander ordered that only bread and water was to be fed to them until they relented.
In addition to their bridge-building and vehicle driving capabilities, the Italians brought many other skills with them. They were talented in the fine arts, such as sculpting and painting, the culinary arts and stone masonry. Distinguished visitors to the station often were treated to elaborate meals served on white tablecloths by members of the Italian units. They even experimented with exotic foods such as fried rattlesnake.
One lasting reminder of the stay of the Italians in Yuma silently slumbers off Highway S-24 in California, near the Colorado River. An ornate stone-faced concrete storage shed was constructed by members of the unit using rock that they quarried nearby.
The shed, constructed to provide cool underground storage for cans of paint, was decorated with stones by masons intent on using their skills. The top of the shed was decorated with several stone towers, one of which was inscribed with the word "Italy".
The "castle" saw several years of active use, but the ravages of time have taken their toll in the nearly 50 years since it was constructed.
Today, the building sits forlornly in the desert heat -- its concrete walls cracked and its main door sealed shut. Many years ago the Bureau of Land Management erected a brass sign and a wire fence to protect and commemorate the structure.
Though World War II seems distant and far away to many members of today's world, reminders exist for all to see, even in Yuma. The elaborate "castle" erected long ago by members of Yuma's Italian Service Unit signifies the hopes, dreams and feelings of homesickness sensed by these war-weary Italians -- universal feelings felt by millions of Americans, British, and others during those same years.