Italians at War

Italians at WarIn the North Beach-Telegraph Hill section of San Francisco, Giuseppe Di Maggio was raising nine children while earning a living as a commercial fisherman.  By 1937, three of his sons, Vince, Joe and Dom were playing center field for Major League Baseball teams.  When the United States was drawn into World War II in 1941, the three brothers enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces to show their patriotic support as first generation American born Italians.  Their patriotism didn’t spare their father or mother from what was coming.

Benito Mussolini had been Prime Minister of Italy since 1922.  His reorganization and rebuilding of Italy through the 1920’s and 1930’s instilled an intense nationalistic pride in Italians both in Italy and abroad.  Italians in the United States, who had been treated as second class by Irish immigrants who predated and outnumbered them, embraced this new source of pride regardless of Mussolini’s violent fascism and socialist political views.  Pictures of Mussolini hung in shops in every Italian community in America.  Even President Roosevelt admired Mussolini’s national accomplishments.

When Mussolini allied his nation with Germany and Japan as one of the Axis Powers in 1941, Italy became an Enemy Nation.  On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Proclamation No. 2527 designating all unnaturalized Italians in America as “Alien Enemies”.  Italians who had not obtained American Citizenship prior to this proclamation were required to obtain documentation papers from their local Postmaster no later than the end of February 1942.  No “Alien Enemies” were permitted west of Highway 1 in California.  Those who were forced to relocate referred to the night when government agents arrived as La Mala Notte – “The Bad Night”.  One 97 year old man in Pittsburg, CA was taken away on a stretcher.  Unnaturalized Giuseppe Di Maggio’s fishing business and family were devastated.  San Francisco’s three term Mayor Angelo Rossi had been organizing a massive mobilization of his city in support of America’s war efforts in the Pacific.  He was a model citizen.  But, because someone anonymously accused him of giving a fascist salute to an image of Mussolini, he was called to testify before a Federal Grand Jury and his political career was ruined.

All of this despite the fact that nationwide, Italians had torn down images of Mussolini.  “Don’t Speak the Enemy’s Language – Speak American!” signs replaced the images.  Award winning movie producer/director Frank Capra produced “Why We Fight” films to rally Americans in support of the war.  Rosie Bonavita of Peekskill, New York was dubbed “Rosie the Riveter” as she set riveting records while assembling Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers at a converted GM automobile plant in Tarrytown, NY and Ettore “Hector” Boiardi ran his Milton PA Chef Boyardee factory 24/7 to keep up with production demands to supply US troops with a variety of the foods they required.

Oct 12, 1942, Executive Proclamation No. 2527 was reversed and unnaturalized Italians were no longer to be considered “Alien Enemies”.  In the previous 10 months, over 600,000 Italians has been relocated nationwide, 1200 were detained and 400 had been kept in internment camps.  This was overshadowed by the Japanese internments so the press and history books barely remember La Mala Notte.

WWII ended in 1945. 1.5 million American Italians had fought for America against the Japanese threat in the Pacific and against their own family members who fought for the Axis Powers in Europe while loyal family members supported the war effort at home in America.  In the PBS documentary “The Italian Americans; Episode 3; Loyal Americans (1930-1945), American Journalist Pete Hamill said “The war was a dividing line.  By then, notions about Italian loyalty and all that were all over.  They could count the names on the graves and the Congressional Medal winners whose names ended in vowels and say, you know, “If they’re not Americans then who the hell is?””

Thank you to my wife, Sharon, for helping me with research for this article.  My future mother-in-law, a young Evelyn Pellegrino (in the photo above) , worked at the Timken Roller-Bearing Plant in Canton, Ohio as an inspector during World War II while all four of her brothers fought in the war.  My sincere thanks to all Veterans and let us remember on this Veterans Day all those who fought and continue to fight personal wars because of a lack of understanding right here at home.

© 2015 Curt Savage Media

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