They Came To Spokane As Prisoners And Stayed
And there they were: members of Field Marshal Rommel’s deadly Afrika Korps, picking apples in the Okanogan Valley.
“I wasn’t dreaming as I beheld this scene, but it was fantastic enough to have been a dream,” wrote a Spokesman-Review reporter on Nov. 19, 1944.
German prisoners of war, held at Fort Lewis, were once shipped east to pick apples. Their hearts were not in it, the reporter concluded. The Desert Rats, their proud hats cockily askew, “lazed away,” picking only 40 boxes a day compared to the 361 boxes turned in by the champion Chelan picker.
In Arizona meanwhile, Italian infantrymen built swimming pools, picked cotton and tended lettuce fields.
World War II prisoners of war, held in scattered camps throughout the United States, were generally well-fed, working and paid for their work. U.S. officials, fearing retaliation against the more than 100,000 Americans held prisoner overseas, ensured their treatment fell well within the rules of the Geneva Convention.
For some, the camps were all they needed of America. For others like Gino Clarizio, it was just the beginning.
Today, you can hear Clarizio singing in the Spokane Memorial Arena or wherever he may be installing flooring for Floormart. His Italian heritage is as obvious as the opera he breaks into, the grapes he tends in his back yard, the small pension he collects from the Italian Army.
“Italian welfare,” he says with a laugh when the check arrives. It’s a good joke, but nothing is funny about how he earned it.
Clarizio’s youth disappeared in a cloud of desert dust: three years of fighting for the Italian Army in North Africa. By the time the young soldier left his tank waving a white sheet in surrender, his dreams of becoming a lawyer had blown away.
Taken prisoner of war, he was transported to a camp in Arizona and eventually went to San Francisco where he distinguished himself in the motor pool. After Italy was liberated, he continued to work in California alongside American servicemen. He visited uncles in Oakland. He performed in choirs and quintets singing “You’ll Never Know How Much I Love You.”
At war’s end, Clarizio went home to Italy. In his devastated town of Bari, he helped disarm bombs, sold surplus equipment and eventually married Mary, the girl next door.
His father-in-law had emigrated to Spokane years earlier. (Mary’s brother Laurence Ferrante was a North Central graduate who died fighting the Axis Powers.)
The couple followed Mary’s family here. Settling in Spokane, they struggled to learn English, raise three sons and start over. It’s been a good life, though not always easy.
“It’s tough,” Mary said. “It’s like being born again.”
“When I came to this country, I started at the bottom,” Clarizio says. “But I made a foundation.”
Wilhelm Leneke made one as well.
The German soldier was held a prisoner of war in Texas and Utah. In 1953, after Germany was divided by the Iron Curtain, he returned to the United States.
“He must have had pleasant memories of it,” said his former wife. “I don’t know if he would have even come later at all except for the fact he had been a prisoner. He knew what he was coming to.”
For four decades, Leneke worked in Spokane, mostly in nurseries. He also returned home frequently and grew more and more homesick.
In 1993 when the Berlin Wall went down, he went back. At 83, he returned to East Germany to rebuild the family farm. The story made Germany’s national news.
It also ended his marriage because his wife didn’t want to go.
Leneke is 85, his health is failing, but he is still working on that farm.
“You leave home, you leave everything you know,” his former wife said.
The Spokesman-Review reporter said it years ago:
“Incongruous business, this thing called war.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo