By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
When most Americans look back at the civil rights violations at the beginning of WWII against Americans who’s heritage or race were of countries who had become our enemies, they think of the Japanese. The Japanese were the most visible, since they were of a different race.
Tens of thousands of American citizens and legal residents of Japanese descent were rounded up and help prisoner in camps all across the western United States. While these actions have been called racism at its worst, it wasn’t just racism.
Thousands of Italian and German American citizens were also harassed imprisoned and denied in their citizens rights merely because of their heritage. These measures, including the possibility of internment had been considered even earlier than when America joined the war in 1941. When Britain and France declared war on the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan were the major Axis nations) in 1939, President Roosevelt asked FBI Director Hoover to create a list of persons to be arrested in case of national emergency.
These lists were called the Custodial Detention List and was a eventually included pro-communists, anti-fascists, pro- fascists, pro-Nazis, and even some Jewish refugees. The authority came from Title 50 of the U.S. Code, based on the 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts, which gives the government power to detain aliens in times of emergency.
While no one thought to put General Eisenhower in the camp because of his German background, officials of both the FBI, U.S. Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service rounded up many other Americans just to be safe.
While it wasn’t random, it often didn’t make sense. In one of the most obvious and almost humorous events legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio’s father, who was born in Italy, had his fishing boat confiscated and was not allowed on San Francisco’s Fishermen Wharf where his son’s restaurant overlooked the bay. Agents wanted to insure that this immigrant couldn’t count the military and cargo ships at anchor or monitor their sailings. So for more than a year, Joe’s father had to stay away. All the while, Joe, one of the most famous and well-known Americans of his day was serving in the military.
But it wasn’t just in far away California that these events occurred. Matthew DiDomenico now owns a successful real estate company in Devon. But during the war his paternal grandfather was one of thousands of suspected aliens. The family lived in South Philly and although his father Matteo was an American citizen, Matthew’s mother Fortunata wasn’t.
DiDomenico thinks that’s why government agents were concerned about the possibility of their loyalty to Italy being greater than their loyalty to America. In Matthews case, his grandfather’s shortwave radio was confiscated evidently so he couldn’t receive instructions being from Italy or elsewhere just in case he was a spy. All the while he had two sons serving in the military and a defense industries.
In the months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of Italians were arrested. “Many were interred in camps in Montana, much like the Japanese,” he says. About 250 were interned for up to two years in military camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Most of the arrestees from the West Coast were shipped by train to Fort Missoula, Montana, where over 1,000 Italian nationals had been interned since May, 1941.
These Italians were merchant marines whose ships had been impounded at Atlantic ports after the European war began in 1939. Although most of those were released after short periods By June of 1942, the total reached 1,521 Italian aliens arrested by the FBI, many for curfew violations alone.
“Even in 1941 people knew that every German, Italian or Japanese wasn’t a spy,” he says. “I don’t think the officials were trying to be cruel, but they were a part of the nationwide hysteria at the time.” But for that period of time at the beginning of the war, it seemed there was no simple answer. The United States was almost defenseless, particularly on the West Coast. Officials feared that there would be a Japanese landing at any time, and there was nothing they could do to stop it except keep that fact from the enemy.
But the internment wasn’t the only impact.
Many of the “enemy aliens” were required to evacuate certain areas of the West Coast. Thousands had to move or lost jobs because they couldn’t get to their work. Many Italians were fishermen, and with the evacuation order lost the ability to do their jobs and often their fishing boats.
By July, 1942 the fear of an invasion had lessened the Army rescinded its order of evacuation although the Japanese mass internments had already taken place. However many of the Italian aliens some of whom couldn’t even read Italian, let alone English, remained unaware of this change. The notices that they could go home was posted on local post offices.
It’s ironic that the Italians were the largest immigrant group in the United States, and even more so that they made up the largest group in the military, as well. Although some Italians were specifically excluded some 250 Italian and Germans nationwide, the government announced in October 1942 that Italians were no longer “enemy aliens.” Those that were excluded were eventually allowed to return to their homes it the end of 1943.
In January 1942, all enemy aliens were required to register at local post offices around the country. As a result, more than 600,000 Italian immigrants and their families were branded enemy aliens” he says.
Although all resident aliens had already registered in 1940 under the Smith Act, now as ‘enemy’ aliens they would be required to be fingerprinted, photographed, and carry their photo-bearing “enemy alien registration cards” at all times. To those affected this was alarming; in retrospect, it recalls the authoritarian methods of the very fascists it was meant to combat.
Many Italians immigrants, were loyal Americans who simply hadn’t been able to or chose not to apply for American citizenship. “Often the issue was whether the people spoke English well enough. Many of the immigrants weren’t comfortable with their ability to speak English, which was required,” he says.
Hearing these stories as a boy developed a strong interest in DiDomenico for his Italian roots and ethnicity. He how services at the executive vice president of the National Italian American Foundation. The group promotes and educates people about the Italian American culture. It also lobbies on their behalf in Washington. There is currently a bill working its way through Congress that would provide for a government report detailing injustices suffered by Italian Americans during WWII and “a formal acknowledgment of such injustices by the President.”
DiDomenico worked hard lobbying for this bill, even joining many Italian American luminaries to testify before a Congressional hearing on the subject of the bill. The bill asks for recognition that the history of what happened to Italian Americans has been suppressed. According to DiDomenico many documents dealing with this issue are still classified.
But the Italian American community has been busy making people aware of what happened. “While most people know what happened with the Japanese and their internment after the attack on Pearly Harbor, they aren’t nearly so aware of what happened to Italian Americans,” he says.
The bill would include the requirement that the government prepare a report that would, among other things, list the names of all Italian Americans who where taken into custody, interned, required to evacuate specific areas and were arrested for violates related to Executive Order 9066 (the authority for many of the actions taken by the government against enemy aliens.)
It also would fund programs to prepare educational material concerning the issue, even a film. It would also provide financial support for these projects. Finally it would have the President on behalf of the United States Government formally acknowledge that these events during WWII represented a fundamental injustice against Italian Americans.
The world was a less enlightened place compared to today, and the real fear that the America could lose overcame any compunctions. The good of the whole was considered extraordinarily more important than the rights of the individual, but that doesn’t excuse the trampling of people’s civil rights, but it may explain it.