Local history: World War II internees left Akron barracks 75 years ago

Mark J. Price
Akron Beacon Journal

The war had ended and it was time to go home.

Italians, Germans and other nationalities filed out of their Akron barracks 75 years ago to return to their native lands following World War II.

The men, nearly 75 in all, had spent the previous year working as internees at the Copley plant of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., known today as 3M. 

Many had been detained as sailors when the United States seized foreign merchant ships and luxury liners in the Southern Hemisphere in December 1941 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The men had been held at four internment camps in the western United States before volunteering in 1944 to transfer to the war factory in Ohio.

Former Italian sailors Antonio Scorcu, 49, and Nicola Passaro, 37, show off the ships they had made at internment camps in the western United States during World War II. In 1944, they were internees living in an Akron barracks and working at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. plant in Copley.

The 40-acre complex welcomed the “alien labor” amid wartime shortages in the workforce. After being vetted by immigration officials for the jobs, internees were allowed the same working privileges and wages as other employees.

Every 24 hours, the Copley plant produced tons of oleum, a concentrated sulfuric acid used in the manufacture of nitroglycerin for the war. When their shifts were done, internees rode in company vans to their bunks at a former nightclub in West Akron.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Little Ritz at 1428 Copley Road had been a popular jazz club famous for its barbecue chicken, steaks, chops and frog dinners. The mosaic floor featured a pattern of a cocktail glass.

“Dance while you dine,” proprietors Earl C. Wilhelm and James A. Franklin advertised in 1929. “Our new dance floor will provide many happy hours for you. Bring your friends, and dine at the Little Ritz, where you can enjoy yourself as long as you wish.”

Fifteen years later, the brick building was filled with dozens of iron cots, singles and doubles, as internees rested after long shifts at work. The men paid for their own room and board through their jobs at 3M. Seventeen Italians made up the first group to live in the barracks. Only five could speak English, so Minnesota Mining chemist Knute Morelli acted as interpreter.

The Little Ritz nightclub, famous in the 1920s and 1930s for its chicken barbecue, steaks, chops and frog dinners, served as an Akron barracks for Italians, Germans and other internees during World War II. This ad is from 1930.

Ercole Deluca, a former chef on the Italian ocean liner Conte Biancamano, served as cook of the living quarters. The oldest internee Antonio Medolo, 77, who had spent 30 years at sea, worked as a janitor in the barracks. Before the war, the internees had varied occupations, including banker, chemist, bar owner, coffee exporter, industrialist, casino operator, chauffeur and big game hunter.

Internees working at the Copley factory were grouped into two categories: internees at large or Class 2 internees. Internees at large were allowed to travel as they wished and could get rooms elsewhere in Akron. Class 2 internees were housed in the barracks and taken to and from work in special vans.  

Class 2 internees were allowed one evening off per week. If they went out for a night on the town, they were divided into groups of five, chaperoned by a 3M co-worker and ordered to return by curfew.

“No one ever tried to escape although they were unguarded at all times,” plant manager Robert C. Johnson, formerly of St. Paul, told the Beacon Journal for an article Nov. 11, 1945. “Once two of them ‘went overboard’ and got drunk one night and stayed out after the deadline. A few were chronic complainers and didn’t work well. These were all taken away as soon as reported to immigration authorities. The authorities would whisk in here and take them away without warning for any infraction in rules.”

As more Germans arrived at the barracks, the newcomers outnumbered the Italians and installed their own cook in the kitchen. Joining them were a handful of detainees from South America and Central America. The foreigners got along surprisingly well despite their differences in language and culture, according to company officials.

Some Maple Valley neighbors grew concerned when they learned that Germans and Italians were living among them. They feared that Nazis would peek in their windows and Axis spies would run amok in the neighborhood.

“But after it was explained to them at a Maple Valley Civic Association meeting that these were not Nazis but rather internees who had come here by their own choice to produce war goods, the neighbors became cooperative,” Johnson said.

As far as he could tell, the men were displeased with Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and regretted the devastating war in Europe.

“We are for America,” one internee had told Johnson.

“Hitler’s off his beam,” another had said.

“Maybe they were just talking but frequently they would refer to the western camps from which they had come and tell of certain men who were real Nazis there,” Johnson said. “They’d describe with disgust how these real Nazis would carve swastikas out of silver dollars.”

Instead, the Akron internees liked to carve wooden models of the ships, including detailed likenesses of the vessels on which they had served.

With the war over, the men gathered their meager belongings for the trip home, wondering what they might find when they returned to their battle-scarred countries. They had helped the United States defeat their own nations.

“Johnson is regretfully watching the last of his 74 internees leave — for they have been a big lift during the manpower shortage,” the Beacon Journal reported in November 1945. “There are only 18 left now in the ‘barracks,’ the former Little Ritz night club.”

The building had several uses over the decades. After the war, it maintained its European flavor as Little Bit of Sweden, a smorgasbord restaurant. It then served as the Maple Valley library branch, Crusade Baptist Church and Furniture Land before housing a Kirby vacuum shop in the 1960s and 1970s. The mosaic tile floor still featured a cocktail glass pattern.

Library patrons leave the Maple Valley branch at 1428 Copley Road in West Akron in 1952. During World War II, the building had served as a barracks for Italians, Germans and other internees.

Finally, the building was demolished in the early 1980s and the property was redeveloped as a four-bay, self-serve car wash. Today, Copley Road motorists will recognize the address as the home of West Side Tires.

Few would recognize it for its role in Akron wartime history.

Mark J. Price can be reached at mprice@thebeaconjournal.com.