Culture History

The Untold Story of Italian American Internment

On this Veterans Day, we honor the 1.5 million Italian Americans who served in the United States armed forces during World War II, accounting for about 10% of all US soldiers. Fourteen of these heroic individuals received the Medal of Honor for their service, underscoring the immense contributions and sacrifices that people of Italian descent have made to this country.

However, Italian Americans were not treated with the dignity or respect that their bravery demanded during war times. On December 8th, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation #2527 (Alien Enemies–Italians), which classified more than 600,000 Italians and Italian Americans as enemy aliens, who were “liable to restraint, or to give security, or to remove and depart from the United States.” He would later issue Executive Order 9066 as well, authorizing the removal of non-American citizens who were natives of Axis countries from certain areas in the interest of national security.

Within the next six months, the FBI had arrested over 1,500 Italians, many of whom were sent to internment camps without a trial across Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. Not only were these individuals not informed of the reason for their detainment or given legal counsel, but they were not even allowed to speak “the forbidden language” unless granted special permission.

Those who were not subject to internment still had to deal with a wide array of civil liberty violations. Under the “enemy alien” designation, Italians faced travel restrictions, the seizure of their property, and surveillance due to their suspected loyalty to Italy. They were also required to register at the local post office to obtain identification cards that were to be carried at all times.

In California specifically, nearly 52,000 Italians were not allowed to leave their homes between 8:00 PM – 6:00 AM, with no exceptions for night shift workers. When these so-called “enemy aliens” were allowed to leave, they could not venture outside a five-mile radius of their residence. This made it extremely difficult for Italian Americans to travel to their jobs and provide for their families, forcing thousands to risk losing their jobs or face arrest and immediate internment if found in violation.

About 10,000 Italian American residents living in the state were ordered to evacuate a large “restricted area” in February of 1942.  This area included “the entire coastline of California from the Oregon border south to a point approximately fifty miles north of Los Angeles and extending inland for distances varying from thirty to one hundred and fifty miles.” As a result, many impacted individuals had to abandon their homes and businesses.

Italians also had a long list of smaller property objects confiscated, many of which were never returned. Suspicion of possessing one of these items often led FBI agents to rain their homes and, if one of these prohibited items were found, an arrest would follow. These items included, but were not limited to:

  • Firearms
  • Cameras
  • Shortwave radios
  • Radio Transmitters
  • Flashlights and other “Signaling Devices”
  • Maps
  • Binoculars
  • Boats

The last item on the list is particularly noteworthy, as Italian fishermen saw their boats taken for military use. When they were eventually returned, the majority of these vessels were irreparably damaged. Not even Giuseppe DiMaggio, the father of baseball icon Joe DiMaggio who was in the midst of the greatest hitting streak in history during that very year, could escape the wartime stigma that many Italians were forced to bare. The fisherman was not only barred from San Francisco Bay, a location that he had used to fish for decades, but his boat was also confiscated.

Despite these enumerable hardships, Americans remain largely unaware of this history. While our education system makes it a priority to teach students about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, it is strange that the plight of Italian Americans in similar circumstances is not even a topic of discussion. Moreover, the U.S. government also gave each Japanese American survivor $20,000 in reparations when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 into law. Yet, the former internees of Italian descent received no compensation.

There have been recent pushes by politicians such as Tom Suozzi to call more attention to what Italian Americans had to endure during the war. However, the results of these efforts remain to be seen.

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