The land for Fort Andrews (88 acres) was acquired by the government in 1898. Built at the turn of the century and commissioned in 1901, Fort Andrews still persists, but less remains each year. Its classic brick and slate-roofed buildings are now succumbing in to fire, vandalism and decay and are slowly collapsing-in upon themselves. In 2011, contracts were let to demolish a dozen of its buildings.
The first of Ft. Andrews' gun emplacements to be completed, Battery Rice in 1901, was to have mounted two 5-inch guns, but it appears these may have never installed. Instead, eight 12-inch mortars were delivered to the two pits of Battery Whitman, and another eight to Battery Cushing. Battery McCook received two 6-inch guns, and two more 3-inch guns were installed at Battery Bumpus, next to McCook on its east. The gun batteries were on the high bluff looking out northerly across the harbor approaches, and had an average elevation of approximately 105 ft. above the channel.
The mortars, with a range of about 8 miles, commanded an arc that stretched from Revere in the north down to Cohasset in the south, extending well out to sea. These weapons could send 1,000-pound armor-piercing shells plummeting down on the lightly armored decks of any ships attempting to attack Boston and its neighbors. However, the mortars were decommissioned in December, 1942, and only the 3-inch and 6-inch guns were part of the WW2 harbor defenses.
In its heyday during the 'teens and 1920s, Fort Andrews had about 30 permanent buildings, including a huge combined PX and gym, a regal Administration Building, four colonaded brick barracks lining the northern edge of the parade ground, a massive storehouse at the northwest extent of the fort, a stable (which could house a dozen animals), a 50-bed hospital (75 beds by WW2), a guard house that offered accomodations for 50, its own fire station, and a wide assortment of quarters for NCOs and officers on the road that curves above the parade ground. On top of the hills to the east (100 ft.) and west (120 ft.) were several fire control structures (one with its own dormitory) and even one of the first military radio stations.
In WW2, the fort served as a training and and processing center for troops heading overseas to Europe, and temporary barracks and tents were scattered in the area north of the PX. Then in 1944, over 1,000 Italian POWs were moved into a tent city at Fort Andrews.
The on-line archives of the Boston Daily Globe have many stories about the presence of Italian prisoners of war at Ft. Andrews during WW2.
The troops whom the Army began moving to Ft. Andrews in June, 1944, were part of an "Italian Service Unit" (ISU). After Italy signed an armistice with the Allies on September 3, 1943, Italian POWs held in the U.S. who took an oath of allegiance to the United States and were "screened for Fascist tendencies" by the Army, were formed into ISUs and put to work doing various non-combat jobs. In Boston, this generally meant working on the docks at the Port of Embarcation at the Boston Army Base in South Boston, loading and unloading ships for $.09 per hour (the standard ISU wage rate). [Note]
Initially (both before and after the Italian armistice), Italian POWs were quartered at Camp McKay, a collection of some 93 buildings that were completed in 45 days in 1943. The camp was located on the north side of Columbia Point in South Boston, adjacent to Carson Beach. [Camp McKay appears to have been about here, on the north end of what is now Joe Moakley Park. only about 2 miles south of the docks where the prisoners worked.]
During the summer of 1944, friction began to emerge between the prisoners and the residents of South Boston. At first, only a single wire fence separated Camp McKay from the locals who swam at Carson Beach, and reports tell of local girls "fraternizing" with the Italians, pushing items to them through the fence.
During June, 1944, a number of the prisoners were moved from Camp McKay over to Fort Andrews. This made sense, because the Army's harbor shuttle boats already ran from the Army docks to the fort (which was six miles away, out on Peddocks Island in the harbor) and because there were very few civilians on the island during the war.
Then, at the beginning of July, the Globe reported there were three "disturbances" between the prisoners and the community. The South Boston Citizens Association, a local group, was apparently outraged that the Italians, whom they still considered enemies of America, were not only occupying valuable residential quarters much in demand by returning servicemen but also being paid for their work. It also probably didn't help that the Camp McKay prisoners were frequently furloughed over the weekends to Italian "host familes" from East Boston, with whom they would visit and recall life in Italy.
By the end of July, the Globe reported that the the number of POWs remaining at Camp McKay had been reduced from over 1500 to about 400. Apparently many of these had been sent to Ft. Andrews, but the Army also reported sending some 50 prisoners (likely the more "difficult" ones) "out west." The group remaining at Camp McKay probably included those prisoners who were not members of the ISU, having failed the "anti-Fascist" test or simply not wanting to work on the docks.
Later in the war, Camp McKay was emptied of POWs and converted into Columbia Village, a City of Boston public housing project, where it helped to ease the housing crisis caused by the large numbers of returning servicemen. Storm damage in December, 1950, reportedly caused the 780 families who lived there to transfer to other projects, and Columbia Village was closed.
Troops from Fort Andrews had shipped out in WWI as Field Artillerymen (manning French mobile 155 mm GPF guns) and fought at the Battle of the Marne and in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918. Reports indicate they fired some 33,000 rounds during those engagements.
As recently as the 1960s, retired Coast Artillery soldiers lived in the former NCO housing at the fort, and the island still has summer and year-round residents. In 2003, however, an MDC dredge broke the island's water supply pipes from the mainland, and these were not replaced.
Today, the mortar pits and gun emplacements (see tabs off the Ft. Andrews manu at left) range in condition from slightly to severely deteriorated. Unlike the crisp concrete of the 3-inch gun positions of Fort Strong on nearby Long Island, the stairways and platforms of Fort Andrews' Battery Bumpus at the crest of the northern bluff are spalled and crumbling, choked with brush and crevaced by water and ice. Many portions have turned back to cement dust and gravel. The mortar pits and their embankments, once clear for hundreds of feet, are now overgrown with trees and choked with brush.
In 2010, Fort Andrews had the feeling of a ghostly time capsule, as shown in the photo gallery at top left. After the City of Boston intentionally razed all the wood and brick structures at nearby Fort Strong on Long Island in the 1990s, Ft. Andrews remained as the last example in the Boston defenses of an 1890s artillery fort. However, this example also appears to be headed to a rendezvous with the wrecking ball during the upcoming demolitions.