In May 1942, the Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in California, also called the Tenney Committee, held hearings in San Francisco to investigate allegations of Fascist activities and influence. The city and state, the committee held, had to be secured from the wartime threat of disloyalty, and enemy aliens, including Italian and German Americans, had to prove their loyalty to the United States. After Pearl Harbor, Italian American noncitizens, some 600,000 of them, were classified as “enemy aliens,” and they had to register and carry pink booklets identifying them as such, and were required to turn in contraband such as shortwave radios. Some of their homes were raided and searched, and they were subjected to the military curfews along the West Coast. The some 10,000 Italian American aliens living in the prohibited zones of California were forced to move, and finally, nearly 300 Italian Americans were abruptly taken away from their homes and families and confined in internment camps.
In 1939 at the start of the war in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt secretly ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and military intelligence to create a list of “potentially dangerous” persons in the event of war. The outcome was the Custodial Detention List. In addition, the FBI placed wiretaps on persons suspected of subversive activities, and in June 1941, the United States closed Italian and German consulates and repatriated their diplomatic staff. Those preparations were operationalized on December 7, 1941.
During the first few weeks of the war, the FBI detained nearly 300 Italian Americans. All of them were summarily removed, and were not charged with any crimes. They were simply apprehended under emergency procedures. For Italian Americans, most had been placed by the FBI on the Custodial Detention List, which included members of allegedly pro-Fascist organizations like the Federation of Italian War Veterans, an organization of World War I veterans, editors and
writers of Italian-language newspapers and broadcasters on Italian-language radio, and Italian-language school teachers. The dubious charge of disloyalty for many of those on the Custodial Detention List was admitted by an August 1942 Justice Department document, citing a “lack of evidence of any subversive activities” on the part of the Italian World War I veterans who had fought on the Allied side against Germany.
Filippo Molinari, an employee of L'Italia, San Francisco's Italian-language newspaper, remembered the night of December 7, 1941. “I was the first one arrested in San Jose the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor,” he wrote years later. “At 11 P.M. three policemen came to the front door and two at the back. They told me that, by order of President Roosevelt, I must go with them. They didn't even give me time to go to my room and put on my shoes. I was wearing slippers. They took me to prison …. and finally to Missoula, Montana, on the train, over the snow, still with slippers on my feet, the temperature at seventeen below and no coat or heavy clothes!” (Scherini, 13).
FBI agents apprehended Carmelo Ilacqua at his San Francisco home in December 1941. They took him to an Immigration and Naturalization Service facility, after searching his home. His family knew nothing of his whereabouts except a phone message that he was leaving for “parts unknown.” Ilacqua left behind his wife and six-year-old daughter. Under armed guards and with other Italian and Japanese Americans, Ilacqua traveled by train to Fort Missoula. There, Ilacqua appeared before an Enemy Alien Hearing Board, comprised of two army officers and two citizens to prove his loyalty to the United States. The initial decision went against Ilacqua, but he petitioned for a second hearing, which was favorable. The board, without much evidence, was “thoroughly impressed with the alien's loyalty to the U.S. and his truthfulness when he stated he ‘believed Italy would be better off if the Allies won the war as he had always been opposed to the Axis.' He stated he fought against the Germans once and would fight them again, and the board's conclusion was that ‘this man is very loyal to the U.S.'” (Scherini, 15). Ilacqua was released in September 1943.
Italian fishermen along the California coast where they controlled about 80 percent of the fishing fleet were forcibly removed from waters designated by the military as a prohibited zone for enemy aliens. The Coast Guard confiscated their boats, and although the Coast Guard paid monthly compensation to the boat owners, the fishermen lost their livelihoods and homes. Some of the evicted Italian Americans moved in with family members outside the exclusion zone, and others moved into migrant labor camps, which were poorly furnished. Eighty-nine-year-old Placido Abono had to be carried out of his Bay Area home on a stretcher, and Celestina Loero was forced to leave her home of 50 years despite having two sons and two grandsons serving in the U.S. armed forces. Sixty-five-year-old Martini Battistessa threw himself in front of a passenger train in Richmond, California; 57-year-old Giuseppe Mecheli, a fisherman, cut his throat with a butcher knife; 65-year-old Stefano Terranova leaped to his death from a building; and 62-year-old Giovanni Sanguenetti of Stockton hanged himself. For all of those Italian Americans, life was no longer possible. Terranova, ordered to leave his home, wrote a note before his
suicide: “I believe myself to be good, but find myself deceived …” (Fox, 2). After five months, the exclusion order was lifted, and Italian American aliens were allowed to go back home.
No Italian American filed suit for redress against the U.S. government for losses sustained during the war. Unlike Japanese Americans, Italian Americans as individuals or groups have not sought an apology from the government, and by contrast many believe, like most Japanese Americans before the redress and reparations movement, the experience was a shameful episode better forgotten. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians considered German Americans and the testimony of one Italian American but made no recommendations for those groups. In 1992, the Sons of Italy's Social Justice Commission wrote to President George Bush, requesting an apology for the wrong committed against Italian Americans during World War II. The government's response was the forced removal and internment applied to so few German and Italian Americans that no redress was necessary.
Gary Y. Okihiro
Fox, Stephen. The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans during World War II. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Scherini, Rose D. “When Italian Americans Were ‘Enemy Aliens’.” In Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II. Edited by Lawrence DiStasi, 10–31. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001.