Learning to live together in peace was the theme of Camp Atterbury Chaplain Maj. David L. Meinzen’s words to the diverse crowd gathered for the 28th annual Camp Atterbury POW Chapel Commemoration.
The crowd of about 80 civilians at the Sept. 16 ceremony included the mother of Vice President Mike Pence, a widow of an Italian prisoner of war, a Frenchman who lived through WWII and others who have been devoted to the preservation of the POW Chapel for decades.
“This chapel tells a soldier’s story. It was built by soldiers at war. But, it is also a story of human beings learning to live together in peace. It is a timeless story,” the soldier-priest Meinzen said.
The tiny cement brick chapel was built during World War II by enemy Italian soldiers who were captured by Allied forces in North Africa. Several hundred thousands of Italian POW soldiers were transported to the U.S. during World War II. Beginning in April 1943, more than 3,000 Italian POWs were detained at Camp Atterbury.
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Because the war was still raging across Italy, many POWs worried about the welfare of their families back home. The post commander, Col. Welton M. Modisett, and the U.S. internment camp commander, Lt. Col. John Gammel, decided that a special voluntary project might help the Italian POWs.
They were given the permission, time and the materials to build a new chapel where they could go to pray for the well being of their families back home. The Chapel was finished and dedicated in September of 1943.
After Italy surrendered in early 1944, the Italian POWs left Camp Atterbury in May, and 11,000 German POWs were brought to the empty camp.
Italian POWs were given the opportunity to join the U.S. Army. One of those who rejoin the fight on the side of the U.S. was Giovani Tedesco. He became U.S Army Pvt. John Tedesco and was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He met the very young Teresa, who lived in Louisville. After the war ended, Teresa and Giovani were married in Italy and then returned to the U.S. They established a home in Jeffersonville, where they raised their eight sons.
Though Tedesco died in, 1993, Teresa and her sons have attended the annual POW Chapel commemorations every year for more than 23 years.
“We didn’t hear about the ceremony until after he died, but we came to honor him. Coming here has always made me feel closer to him” said Teresa, as she smiled and remembered Giavani (John) in his U.S. Army uniform.
This year, assisted by four of her sons, the 90 year-old Teresa Tedesco arrived at the Commemoration in a wheel chair.
Nancy Pence-Fritsch, mother of Vice President and Columbus native Pence, stopped by the table where the Tedesco family sat for the picnic. Pence-Fritsch leaned down and introduced herself to Teresa Tedesco and said, “I saw your wedding picture in the museum. You were such a beautiful bride. Thank you for being here. I am just so honored to meet you.”