By Lisa Femia, NIAF Public Policy Manager
For years after World War II, there was an open secret among Italian Americans. No one spoke about it, but the scars of wartime mistreatment didn’t fade quickly. Property taken, homes boarded up, nonne forcibly relocated—these were the memories etched in the minds of the war generation.
When their children and grandchildren asked for more detail, too young themselves to remember or comprehend, the war generation said, “No. We do not talk about this.” They didn’t want to relive the humiliation or re-experience the anger. After all, this generation was American now. And they loved their country.
When you hear “internment during World War II,” your first thought is probably not Italian Americans. The internment and forced relocation of 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese Americans, including American citizens, is certainly unmatched and is a story that has been rightly told. It’s a blemish on American history for which the government has had to apologize and provide reparations.
But the Japanese were not the sole targets of the U.S. government at this time. Italians also faced internment, forced relocation, restrictions, and loss of property on a large scale. This part of the story remains largely unknown—swept under the rug and classified by the government, kept quiet by the victims who wished to move on.
The arrests came first. Immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI conducted raids on scores of persons of Italian descent. Many were aliens, but not all. And of the aliens, many were permanent residents.
They were taken suddenly, told only that their arrest was “by order of President Roosevelt.” Those arrested were put on a train with darkened windows bound for internment camps. Missoula, Montana was home to the largest interned Italian population, with 1,200 non-military Italian men being held alongside Japanese and Germans. Their assets were frozen, their offices closed. Wives and children struggled to access the funds needed to pay bills or cover school tuition. Most were never deemed a sufficient security risk for arrest.
Then came the “enemy alien” classification and restrictions.
600,000 Italian citizens living in the United States were classified as “enemy aliens.” These were legal immigrants, many in the middle of pursuing American citizenship, many with children and families who were American citizens. They were classified as “enemy aliens” not because they exhibited subversive behavior, but simply because they were Italian.
As enemy aliens, they were required to register at local post offices, where they were fingerprinted, photographed, and given a card to carry at all times. They were confined to a five-mile radius from their homes and forbidden from leaving between the hours of 8:00pm and 6:00am. Firearms, shortwave radios, cameras, and “signaling devices,” including flashlights, were prohibited, confiscated, and largely never returned. The discovery of one of these items in a home was grounds for arrest.
Also confiscated were the boats of dozens of Italian fisherman for use by the U.S. military. When returned, most of the boats were damaged beyond repair. Hundreds of other Italians lost their jobs due to movement and curfew restrictions. No compensation was ever provided.
About 10,000 Italian Americans were forced out of their homes in California coastal communities and told to move inland. Any alien in an undesirable location was required to move, no matter age or circumstance. As there weren’t enough houses for all displaced Italians, it wasn’t uncommon for people to spend the night in a chicken coop or shed.
Italians further east were also relocated. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Joe Aiello, a U.S. resident for 56 years, evacuated his home in a wheelchair. Placido Abono was 97 years old when he was forcibly relocated. He was moved out on a stretcher.
The silence of Italian Americans who lived through the war shielded the federal government from having to share this troubling part of its past. Official documents regarding Italian treatment during World War II were withheld from the public until 1997, when several members of Congress pushed for declassification. Even now, not all relevant documents are publicly available and much of the story remains unfinished and unacknowledged.
On December 1, 2015, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren of California introduced two pieces of legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives. One, H.R. 4147, calls for an official apology on behalf of the U.S. Congress for the treatment of Italian Americans during World War II. The other, H.R. 4146, asks for funds to be made available to study Italian Americans during the same period.
While the Italian American community has thrived and assimilated in this country through hard work and perseverance, none of that diminishes the importance of educational initiatives and historical accountability, and this legislation provides both. This is not about whining about the past, it is about clarifying and raising consciousness.
A Congressional apology and an education program have political resonance, showing our representatives that what happened was an abuse of power inconsistent with American ideals. In a larger sense, this is an effort to honor the principles of liberty and justice that are at the core of American democracy, principles that motivated so many Italians and other immigrants to come to these shores.
Join NIAF and ask Congress to apologize for the government’s treatment of Italian Americans during World War II. Call on Congress to pass H.R. 4146 and 4147.