Secrecy, Trauma and Injustice: Exposing WWII Italian Internment Camps


FDR, fearful of an uprising among immigrants within the U.S., formed internment camps that subjected innocent people to crippling restrictions and mass detainment.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor

Not only was it forgotten but kept secret from the public—for years! It was a disgraceful, scandalous stigma on Italian Americans when legal immigrants as well as naturalized citizens, were labeled “Enemies of the United States.”

This tragic story of Italian internments unfolded in 1941; the result of WWII. U.S. authorities questioned the loyalties of Italian residents, fearing the formation of “Fifth Column” movements. They acted quickly to enforce restrictions against not only Italians but the Japanese and Germans, native-born and naturalized citizens.

On Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed undocumented Italians residing in America as “Enemy Aliens”:

 PRESIDENTIAL PROCLAMATION

No. 2527

Alien Enemies—Italians

PROCLAMATION

NOW, THEREFORE, I, FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, as PRESIDENT of the United States and as Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, do hereby make public proclamation to all whom it may concern that an invasion of predatory incursion is threatened upon the territory of the United States by Italy.

CONDUCT TO BE OBSERVED BY ALIEN ENEMIES

And, acting under and by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution of the United States and the said sections of the United States Code, I do hereby further proclaim and direct that…all natives, citizens…subjects of Italy being of the age of fourteen years and older…are termed, alien enemies….

The Proclamation ordered 600,000 Italian Americans, one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States, to register and carry cards identifying themselves as “enemy aliens.” It further forbade them from traveling more than five miles from their homes without written authority and forced the surrender of such “contraband” as firearms, radios, cameras, and flashlights that might be used as signaling devices. A mandatory daily curfew was imposed from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., thus restricting their freedom of movement, and means of employment. Italians were evacuated from “prohibited” zones, forced from their homes, and others were imprisoned.

For the Italians on the West Coast who made their living as fishermen, they, unfortunately, were restricted from going near the waters and had their boats confiscated. Joe DiMaggio’s father, Giuseppe, was also subjected to this discriminatory indignity against Italian Americans. The thought of FBI agents forcing themselves into Italian homes to arrest fathers, and sons, must have been a frightening, traumatic ordeal.

Authorities arrested more than 1,600 Italian Americans, from December 1941 through June 1942. Most arrests were short-termed; however, over 300 were confined in Oklahoma, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas internment camps. Several Italian men remained in prison even after the war’s end. Some Italian men feeling shamed and dishonored, and not able to provide for their families, committed suicide.

Italian internees defiantly grin at the camera while standing behind metal wire fencing at one of many secret internment camps established in 1941 in the U.S.

The Italians felt betrayed by their adopted country and would not speak of these events. No acknowledgement ever was made public by the authorities, until compelled to do so many years later. It remained a secret for years. These events forced Italian families to make significant social changes. Fearing retribution and rejection, families stopped speaking their mother language (at least outside of the home). Some “Americanized” their names, and children were urged to “assimilate” the American way, to avoid suspicion and harassment from community and school friends. It is indeed ironic, while this was happening, Italian sons were serving in the U.S. Armed Forces!

Historians and civil authorities have rationalized that the Italian predicament was not as pronounced as that of the Japanese Americans. Hogwash! It was a tragedy for Italian Americans, no matter how you slice it. The physical and psychological impact of these events, regardless of the degree of suffering inflicted, or the number of people impacted will be recorded as a most humiliating, disgraceful benchmark in the history pages of American history—if one would ever find it written.

The Japanese American incarceration story was undeniably the more severe catastrophe. At least, it is well documented, was publicly acknowledged, and reparations were made. In fact, surviving Japanese internees received a payment of up to $20,000 from the American government. It wasn’t a significant amount for the suffering, but it was a form of public apology and acknowledgment of blame and shame. On the other hand, the Italians who suffered loss of property, lives, and means of employment, received neither compensation, acknowledgment of wrong, nor public support.

If not for the efforts of Lawrence DiStasi, a Professor at the University of California, this story, may never have been revealed. In 1994, Mr. DiStasi organized a historical exhibition that traveled the country to broadcast this story. It was  called, “Una Storia Segreta: When Italian-Americans Were Enemy Aliens.”

And, through the efforts of Congressmen Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Senator Alphonse D’Amato (R-NY) legislation was enacted on June 26, 1997, making public the events of the Italian American tragedy during World War II. (H.R. 2090, later H.R. 2442 and now Public Law No: 106-451 known as the “Wartime Violation of Italian-American Civil Liberties Act.”)

The law further ordered the names of the imprisoned Italians to be made a matter of public record. These names may be found in the “Report to the Congress of the United States, a Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry During World War II, November 2001.”

The anguish and hurt suffered by Italian Americans as a result of living in the United States during WWII, were ignored, neglected, and denied, by historians and the American authorities. It was an event to be dismissed for whatever excuses they could dig up. It happened.

And despite the rationalizations put forward, it was a morally unacceptable censure of Americans of Italian descent.

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