It was 1942, and America was facing a two-front war.
The immense war machine run by America and its World War II allies demanded an inland military depot in Pennsylvania.
So work began to acquire land northeast of Chambersburg. That meant claiming farms. As we shall see, those vacant Franklin County farmsteads that became Letterkenny Army Depot would not go to waste.
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As the months passed, Allied forces captured scores of enemy forces and transported them to America for detention.
Late in the war, Italian prisoners of war started arriving at the base.
By day, the prisoners provided labor on base for the war effort. At night, the men were locked down – an idle time that spawned reflection about their families back home and the buddies that had been killed in action.
One night, Brig. Gen. Ray M. Hare, the base commander, was making his customary rounds of the prisoners’ barracks when he came upon a soldier who received word that his wife had died. The general sensed that the prisoner had nothing to live for.
Hare knew the prisoner had been a master stone mason and asked him to come by his office the next day.
He had a project in mind.
POWS arrive in region
With thousands of servicemen away at war, a worker shortage developed in America. Still, the flow of food and other supplies to support the military could not be interrupted.
The military developed a plan to use prisoners of war to plug this gap.
In York County, about 2,000 German and Austrian prisoners of war were dispatched from Fort Indiantown Gap to work the fields, orchards and canneries in the county’s southern tier in the summers of 1944 and 1945. At night, they were detained in a temporary camp in the former recreation park in Stewartstown: Camp Stewartstown.
In Gettysburg, Camp Sharp, just off Confederate Avenue, was built to house German POWs. Interestingly, it had been the home of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s tank corps in World War I and later a Civilian Conservation Corps camp.
Near Pine Grove Furnace in Cumberland County, a far different type of POW camp was erected. A secret interrogation camp was formed from a former Depression-era CCC camp. There, thousands of German and Japanese prisoners were interrogated to obtain secret information that would help the Allied forces.
Central Pennsylvanians in uniform went to battle in World War II by the tens of thousands, and the war, in turn, arrived in this region by the thousands in the form of POWs.
At Letterkenny, Hare revealed his project to the Italian stone mason, whom he knew to be a religious man.
Could he design a chapel for his fellow prisoners?
The man said he could do more than that. He would build the chapel as well.
The POW gathered a team of craftsmen, collected materials from the old farmsteads and erected a bell tower from the native stones.
When finished, the chapel had these design features:
- The bell tower or belfry is 65 feet high, about 6 feet square and of Florentine design.
- The entrance is of San Francisco design and the interior is Roman.
- The chancel or front of the chapel is a semi-dome, with longitudinal and latitudinal lines. Its features include large gold letters with the words, in Latin: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The Letterkenny Chapel was dedicated in 1945 and closed after the war.
POW families return
Remarkably, the Italian prisoners, who fought against America and its allies under Hitler’s Nazi regime, found civility in Franklin County.
We know this because family members have returned to Letterkenny and chapel, which has been carefully restored.
For example, Maurizio and Stephania Calizza from Rome visited in 2018. Maurizio’s father, Ettore Calizza, helped build the chapel, and he explained that his father returned to Italy after the war in good health and with positive memories of his time at Letterkenny.
Another gathering was scheduled for this summer at the chapel now operated by the United Churches of the Chambersburg Area, but it was postponed because of the pandemic.
Today, a bell tower plaque, translated from Italian, states: “In Behalf of Those Who Fought With Military Honor for Their Country, We Have This Memorial of Stone For All Times.”
Sources: James McClure’s “Never to be Forgotten,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Spring 2020; National Park Service; “The Letterkenny Chapel” brochure; Public Opinion, Chambersburg.
I will speak on the topic of “Fascinating things about Northeastern York County” at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19, via Zoom. It is a free digital presentation sponsored by North Eastern York County History in Preservation, ALLVETS of York and Red Land Community Library. Register here: http://www.neychip.com/.
Jim McClure is the retired editor of the York Daily Record and has authored or co-authored seven books on York County history. Reach him at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: When south-central Pennsylvania was home to World War II prisoners of war