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Days of infamy: War's siege on Italians


By John Pike, Globe Correspondent, 9/24/2000


 When the Red Sox star Dominic DiMaggio returned from a stint in the Navy for World War II, he discovered that the US government, for a time, had prohibited his father, Joseph, from visiting the family restaurant at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.

 DiMaggio's parents also were not allowed to travel more than 5 miles from their home without a permit. The reason: They were Italian.

 ''My dad was very disappointed, and it hurt me when I found out about it,'' DiMaggio said in a recent interview from his home in Ocean Ridge, Fla. ''He loved America, and had lived here since about the turn of the century.''

 It is known that in World War II, a time when fear of domestic terrorism was high, the government imprisoned 120,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast because of security concerns.

 But few today are aware that about 600,000 Italian immigrants were declared ''enemy aliens'' during the war, and about 250 were incarcerated without having committed any crime. Most had been living in the United States for years, although few had yet become naturalized citizens.

 This little-known chapter of US history is receiving fresh attention these days. Starting Oct. 1, the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts will hold an exhibit at the Italian Cultural Center in Cambridge, dealing with the mistreatment of Italians during the war.

 In Washington, Senator Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, has introduced the Italian American Civil Liberties Act. The bill, now in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would formally acknowledge the government's role in the denial of basic constitutional rights to Italians during the war.

 ''This bill is important to millions of Italian-Americans whose rights were violated during WWII and whose lives were unjustly disrupted,'' said Torricelli, whose effort has the support of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. ''And meanwhile tens of thousands of Italian-Americans ably served our nation during the war, and many sacrificed their lives. With this legislation, the government for the first time will acknowledge the humiliation and embarrassment felt by those Italian-Americans, and heighten public awareness of the injustices they suffered.''

 Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the FBI arrested about 250 Italians and incarcerated them in states such as Montana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee for almost two years. Most of them were prominent members of the Italian community; some were vocal supporters of Benito Mussolini, who had gained a sizable following among Americans of many ethnicities during the Depression.

 In January 1942, about 600,000 Italian immigrants were labeled ''enemy aliens'' and were required to register at post offices around the country. They were fingerprinted and were required to carry photo-bearing enemy alien registration cards.

 Their travel was restricted to 5 miles from home, and any cameras, flashlights, shortwave radios, and weapons were confiscated.

 A curfew was imposed on Italians at some locations on the West Coast, requiring them to be home from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. In some sensitive military zones along the California coast, evacuation was required, forcing Italians to leave their homes and jobs behind.

 Because boats and docks were considered prime areas for sabotage, many Italian commercial fishermen were not permitted to ply their trade, including 200 in the Boston area. ''They are all harmless,'' Joseph Pucillo, a North End baker, said at the time of the fishermen. ''They would not harm a cat.''

 The effort snared the famous as well as ordinary citizens. Enrico Fermi, a leading Italian physicist who was instrumental in America's development of the atomic bomb, could not travel freely along the East Coast.

 Ezio Pinza, the famed opera singer and star of the Broadway hit ''South Pacific,'' was among those incarcerated unconstitutionally.

 On March 12, 1942, FBI agents entered the unlocked door of his home in Mamaroneck, N.Y., without knocking, and told him, ''In the name of the president of the United States, we place you under arrest.'' Then they searched his house and found nothing of interest except the bill of sale of a boat.

 His lawyer was not allowed to attend a hearing 12 days later.

 Pinza, who had been due to get his citizenship in several months, was freed after three months of imprisonment at Ellis Island after proving he was not a saboteur. Three years later, on July 2, 1945, he was chosen to sing the national anthem at the homecoming ceremonies for Generals George S. Patton and James H. Doolittle.

 ''He was arrested without proper charges, not told why he was arrested, or what the charges were,'' said Pinza's widow, Doris Pinza, from her home in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

 ''It is hard to believe this happened in America,'' said Mrs. Pinza, who was born and raised in America. ''At the time, I felt confused, amazed, and stunned. He did not do anything to hurt the United States.''

 Lawrence DiStasi, the president of the Western chapter of the Italian-American Historical Association, said one reason so few people, even Italians, know of these injustices is that many of the Italians victimized were ashamed it happened to them and chose to remain silent.

 ''I do not know the extent, but I am sure my father was changed after his experience as an enemy alien,'' DiMaggio said. ''The number of people affected by these events will never be known, and the effect on the Italian-American community can never be measured. What we can do is acknowledge these terrible events and work to ensure that it will never happen again.''


This story ran on page A08 of the Boston Globe on 9/24/2000.

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