About the years 1943 or 1944, the government would keep Italian prisoners of war in Camp Shanks which was just across the New York border in Orangeburg. Very often, on Sunday afternoons, we would hear loud singing coming down River Vale and coming around Holdrum's Corner. There would be about 20 or 30 POW's, dressed in their Italian uniforms, out for a Sunday afternoon walk with one American soldier. Each POW had with him what was remaining of a long thin bottle of some kind of powerful smelling wine. By the time they reached River Vale they were not walking too good and seemed to think that they could sing pretty well. Usually the American fellow was not feeling much pain either. We would sit by the side of the road across from the firehouse and try to communicate with them. Of course this was a lost cause because they knew no English and we knew no Italian. They were nice fellows and all very friendly and were no threat to anyone. Those poor fellows never wanted to fight anyone anyway.
Sometimes when walking got too difficult for them, an army truck would come down from Shanks and scoop them up and drive them back to camp. About the same time, many American families, mostly from Hudson County, would bring their single daughters up to Shanks on a weekend and match them up with one of these nice Italian boys and every once in awhile they would have "mass marriages" up at the camp where they would marry about 30 or 40 of these couples all at the same time.
I do remember being told that they would not allow the German POW's to leave the camp because they thought that they were still supposed to fight the war, whereas the Italians had long since lost interest in the whole project. There were very few Germans there anyhow because it was not a very secure place.
One time an Italian POW "escaped" and made his way to River Vale and hid out in an unused chicken coop down by Brookside Avenue. The poor guy was really scared, I guess and hung himself in the chicken coop. If he had walked up to any house they would have probably invited him in for dinner. Many townspeople were quite sad about that...
The principal purpose of Camp Shanks was as a port of debarkation, or "staging area." This is where the army would gather troops from army camps all over the country and prepare them for transfer to Europe where the war was going on with great intensity. When they had gathered several thousand troops, they would load them into railroad cars and transport them to Hoboken or Weehawken to meet up with the troop ships that would carry them.
Many nights, when trying to sleep, we would hear the constant rumble of these trains going south on the railroad tracks through Harrington Park. These trains usually would be 140 or 150 cars long and there were many trains during the course of one night so the process often took hours to complete. I remember it as being somewhat of an eerie feeling and also quite depressing.
When Camp Shanks closed in about 1945 or '46, it seemed as though everyone left the place at the same time and apparently they didn't leave anyone there to "mind the store". Everyone disappeared. We would at times go up there and drive through the camp just to look things over. We found that there were clothes lying right where people had left them; dishes, coffee cups, books, magazines left on tables and a few warehouses still full of supplies that were left unlocked and unattended. Looked as though everyone made a mad dash for the door and no one thought to stay and watch the place. A couple of months later, there was big news in the local papers about how the camp had been looted and "they would find the villains".
As I remember, they did find a couple of people who pilfered "big time" and prosecuted them, but all the people that took little odds and ends stuff naturally were never located. I guess the local civilians saved the army the task of removing all the things that were left behind.
The camp then became a place for low cost housing where many newly married couples lived in converted barracks until they got started in their own homes. The place then just kind of went away a bit at a time until it all became a residential area, such as it remains today.
This story did not happen in River Vale, but it should not go unremembered. About 3/4 th of a mile west of Camp Shanks, still in Orangeburg, there were many empty fields as that section was not developed at all. Almost at the River Vale border was one of these fields, almost empty, but not quite.
In the center of this field was what appeared to be a old building about the size of a two car garage..
We all knew the building, however it never looked interesting enough to investigate. One warm summer afternoon, probably in 1949 or thereabouts. I was leaning up against a building on Washington Avenue in Westwood and all of a sudden there was a noise that sounded like thunder. Many of us heard it, and felt it, but of course no one had any idea what it was. It was not thunder. It seems as though some young lad from Pearl River was out wandering around shooting his 22 caliber rifle at inanimate things in that same field. If by accident or on purpose he happened to put one of these 22 bullets into the little house. Unbeknownst to him or anyone else that little place was a storage place for gunpowder used in the manufacturer of fireworks. That little house totally disappeared in a tremendous blast and all that was left was a hole that looked like a WWII bomb was dropped there. As far as I ever knew the fellow, although quite surprised, was not injured in the blast nor was he ever charged with anything and nothing came of it other than a big hole in the ground. The entire area is now under the present reservoir on that site...