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High Plains Commedia A Story of P.O.W.s in the Panhandle BY RICHARD PHELAN INTERLUDE IN UMBARGER: Italian P.O.W.s and a Texas Church. By Donald Mace Williams. Texas Tech University Press. 191 pages. $25.00. In Umbarger, a little farm town near Amarillo, at the end of World War II, a group of Italian prisoners of war decorated the small Catholic church with murals \(the Annunciation, the a wood carving of the Last Supper, and various ornamental panels of crosses and sheaves of grain. Shortly after the job was finished, they were sent home. The work they did is still there. Almost no attention was paid to the artwork, outside the parish, until 1992, when the newspaperman Donald Williams published a book about how the work came to be done. It is a remarkable, even irresistible, tale about a community of German-American farmers, their Dutch-born priest, the Italian P.O.W.s, an Irish commander of the P.O.W. camp \(twenty-six miles away, near over a long haul, they would have died. The men were so weak and hungry they killed and ate the pets in their compounds dogs, cats along with whatever birds, lizards, and rattlesnakes they could catch and cook. The painters and carvers did the work at St. Mary’s chiefly because they were hungry. They wanted the huge farmhand dinners the church ladies cooked for them every day and served them in the basement. Slowly, awareness of the book, the paintings, and the story has grown. Composer Steve Paxton and librettist William Wenthe are writing an opera based on the book, scheduled for production in 2001 at Texas Tech, where Paxton and Wenthe teach. The daughter of one of the P.O.W.s reports that a publisher in Italy has shown interest in having the book translated and published there. Next year, the Texas Tech University Press will release a new paperback edition. The prisoners in the camp were all Italians. The head count varied, but at one time there were more than 3,000 prisoners at Hereford, in four fenced and guarded compounds: three for enlisted men, one for officers. Williams’ central character is Lieutenant Franco Di Bello, twenty-three years old, good-looking enough for the movies, taken prisoner in North Africa in 1943. He was a career officer, and an athlete who stood out in any soccer team he joined. Like nearly all the men at Hereford, he had been pressured to renounce his loyalty to his country and become a collaborator, and had refused. These men called themselves “Nons,” and despised their countrymen who did collaborate and were rewarded with freedom and jobs in military supply, engineering, and transportation. In return, the staff of their American prison \(and perhaps most The cutback in rations began after V.E. Day, when Americans learned of the brutal treatment and starvation of Allied prisoners in German camps. Reactions varied, but quite a few people in this country favored suspending the Golden Rule and cutting the rations of prisoners in our camps. The Army in fact called for a cut. On May 4, 1945, the Eighth Service Command in Dallas ordered a limit of 2,300 to 2,500 calories a day for prisoners who did not work, and 3,500 for those who did: a significant cut, but not anywhere near what was inflicted on the Italians at Hereford. Williams lously carried out, the cats and dogs would have survived.” But the commanding officer at Hereford, Colonel Joseph R. Carvolth, went far beyond what he had been ordered to do. Besides reducing the mealtime rations to slow-starvation levels, he stopped the sale of snacks and drinks in the canteen. He ordered returned all food packages arriving for the prisoners. And letters of complaint written to various officials were read within the prison and thrown away. Nearly all of this treatment was in violation of the Geneva Convention, which says that P.O.W.s are to be adequately fed by their captors. Carvolth was good at closing ration loopholes, but he left a small one: some of the men bought brilliantine at the P.X., fried grasshoppers in it on their woodburning barracks stoves, and ate the insects. Not much food value, but the detail does tell you this: they were hungry. Prior to Hereford, Colonel Carvolth had been in command of the big camp for German P.O.W.s at Mexia. He wore a toupee, was a meticulous dresser in uniforms, of course and carried a quirt as close as he could legitimately come, perhaps, to the British colonial officer’s swagger stick. In prewar life he had been the top clerk in a Pennsylvania court and belonged to the National Guard. Clearly he liked being In Charge. At mess, he carved the meat and took the best cut for himself. He like to flick the back of Esther But, nearly forty years later, Klinke told Williams she liked Carvolth anyway: “He was a great guy.” Others thought otherwise: a medical officer at the camp told his wife the commander was “stupid and selfish.” The cutback in rations began in May 1945, and went on and on. By late October, when decoration of the church began, the prisoners were hollow-eyed, listless, and thin. For lack of energy, many had given up sports, writing, painting whatever they had been doing to get through the monotony of prison life. The priest who started the project was Father John Krukkert, back to service by wartime shortages as priests became chaplains in the military. He saw an exhibit of the prisoners’ art paintings, drawings, crafts, sculpture and negotiated with the camp commander to have seven prisoners decorate the many plain surfaces of 12 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 24, 1999