In the woods north of Camp Atterbury stands a chapel surrounded by fences and trees. Colored in baby blue, concrete walls and white columns, it stands approximately 11 feet wide, 16 feet deep and 12 feet high.
In the 1940s, Italian prisoners of war built this chapel with leftover building supplies as American troop numbers and Camp Atterbury infrastructure swelled for the war effort.
Now, 74 years later, the Italians who built the chapel and the Americans who guarded them are coming back to life as part of the Indiana Historical Society’s “You Are There” series.
“The ‘You Are There’ program really gives our guests an opportunity to tell their own stories as we tell them stories too. An exhibit like this, it’s a living memory for so many of our guests, said Daniel Shockley, the society’s director of museum theater. “This will draw out stories within families that may never have been told before.”
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About 3,000 Italian POWs were held at Camp Atterbury from 1943 to 1944. A large portion of them fought in the Battle of Mareth Line in Tunisia in northern Africa.
One of those prisoners was Fioravante Pagnucco, who is being played by Zach Heider.
“Since I’m the only one with a known living relative, in a way it’s kind of like that family’s legacy.” said Heider of portraying Pagnucco. “So it’s important to me in the sense that that person’s story gets told, and that it gets told with justice.”
For Pagnucco’s son, David, who lives in Detroit, his father’s story will be told with justice because of the collaborative effort between Camp Atterbury, the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana and the Indiana Historical Society.
“It’s tremendous. I can’t speak enough about it,” said David. “I think from the camp, to the Indiana Italian American, to the historical museum. It’s emotional. It’s such a special you thing you got here, and what they did.”
Fioravante spent about six to eight months at Camp Atterbury. Meanwhile, Heider had just a month to prepare to play him.
Part of the preparation included field trips to Camp Atterbury’s museum and chapel, guest speakers from the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana, and for Heider interviewing David.
“He was great for giving me specific insights to my character like — I only had a fifth-grade education, I drove motorcycles in the army,” said Heider.
Heider also said that Pagnucco was part of an elite Italian force known as Bersaglieri.
Now Heider said he feels he’s ready for the 18-month run.
“At this point I don’t know what I don’t know,” said Heider. “I’m excited to get it on its feet and to get it rolling. Because we’ve done all the book work that we can, and we just have figure out the kinks along the way.”
Heider likes to teach and inform others so that was another important aspect for him in being a part of the presentation.
“I’m pretty passionate about educating,” said Heider. “I like to teach and this is something not a lot of people know about. Everybody I’ve told so far has no idea that we had POWs here at Camp Atterbury.”
Through a common connection between the historical society and Camp Atterbury, Shockley visited the chapel and immediately became enthralled.
“I just kind of fell in love it. The story possibilities flooded me,” said Shockley. “For me immediately it was a story of these men and the Americans caring for them in a time of war and loss and fear, and yet hope and survival, and carrying on. It was a great story to share.”
Shockley attributed the depth of the preparation to the people who work at Camp Atterbury willing to share the varied history of the southern Indiana post.
“The care and help that we’ve had from Camp Atterbury and all the folks here associated with Camp Atterbury, it’s been above and beyond anything we’ve expected,” said Shockley. “It’s been such a joy and a surprise even to have had the folks at Camp Atterbury so committed to helping us tell this story.”
The historical society will be telling the story for the next 18 months, but the history will go on through the families of the Italian POWs, the Americans who guarded them and the chapel that stands alone in the woods near Camp Atterbury.
You Are There 1943: Italian POWs at Atterbury
What: An interactive living recreation of the construction of the Chapel in the Meadow, a small worship space built at Camp Atterbury by Italian prisoners of war in 1943.
Where: Indiana History Center, 450 W. Ohio St., Indianapolis
When: March 4 through Aug. 11, 2018
Cost: Included with admission to the center’s Indiana Experience, $9 for adults, $8 for seniors 60 and older, $7 for children ages 5 to 17, and free for children under 5.
Hours: Center hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.