In 1941, the United States entered combat with Japan, Germany, and Italy. Even before the US formally entered WWII, the FBI started rounding up "enemy aliens," or Americans of Japanese, German, and Italian descent, whom the government deemed a threat to national security. While most Americans are aware of the Japanese internment camps, few realize that Italian Americans faced similarly harsh treatment, including internment. In the name of "national security," and using the infamous Executive Order 9066 that authorized the internment of Japanese Americans, the US government also targeted 600,000 Italian Americans.
Thousands of Italian Americans had to evacuate their homes. One mother learned her son hadn't survived the Japanese operation in Hawaii on the same day the US forcibly evicted her from her house. Another man being held in detention learned his son had passed after adversaries shot him down over Europe. Hundreds of thousands had to follow a strict curfew or face arrest. Men, women, and children had to carry documentation and couldn't travel more than five miles from home without notifying the police.
Millions of Italian American immigrants felt a need to prove their allegiance to the US. Young men joined the armed forces, scared Italian Americans stopped speaking their mother tongue, and even baseball hero Joe DiMaggio's father endured prejudice and mistreatment.
When the Japanese attacked a Hawaiian naval base on December 7, 1941, it triggered a massive response from the US. The next day, the US officially engaged in combat against Japan, and only a few days later, Japan's allies, including Italy, followed suit.
For millions of Italian Americans, the declaration against Italy incited fear. What would fighting mean for the many who lived in the US for decades or even generations? Rumors began to swirl about the US government targeting Italian Americans.
Some feared that Italians who had not received citizenship could lose their property, or that authorities might force Italians to move away from military bases or defense factories. Italian Americans also wondered if the government would confiscate their arms.
Shortly thereafter, the government did indeed take action against Italian Americans.
Between 1901 and 1950, more than 3.7 million Italians moved to the US. The majority became citizens, but for the 600,000 Italian Americans who were not citizens when the US joined the Allied forces in 1941, their lives changed drastically. All 600,000 people suddenly became "enemy aliens," forced to carry papers at all times.
They had to follow a curfew or face arrest. Membership in an Italian American club or other organization could draw FBI suspicion. Italian language schools also shuttered in the US during the war.
The US declared "restricted zones" where enemy aliens could not enter. Signs read:
ENEMY ALIENS PROHIBITED AREA
The United States Government requires all aliens of German, Italian, or Japanese nationality to vacate this area.
These restrictions caused many Italian Americans to move and lose their jobs.
The FBI raided Italian Americans' homes around the country, even before the US declared anything on Italy in WWII. In New York, an FBI raid at Louis Berizzi's house occurred at night on December 8, 1941. His daughter said:
We were all sound asleep. My father was in his pajamas; they told him to get dressed, as they had orders to take him away. No explanation was given. They would not divulge where they were taking him.
The family learned days later that officials were holding Berizzi at Ellis Island. The government had also seized Berizzi's office and frozen the family's assets. When the family needed funds to pay for Berizzi's son's college tuition, they had to file a petition to the Office of Alien Property Custodian to access their money.
Before the United States officially joined WWII and fought against Italy, the FBI began arresting Italian Americans. Aware of the impending combat, the FBI had already devised a list of suspicious people, and just hours after the incident in Hawaii, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover authorized the incarceration of hundreds of people.
The next morning on December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamation 2527, which declared that anyone of Italian descent over the age of 14 and not a US citizen was an "enemy alien."
Filippo Molinari was one of the men apprehended on the night of the Hawaii operation. At the time, Molinari sold a newspaper for Italian Americans in San Jose, California. The FBI shipped Molinari and 500 other men to Montana. He recalled walking "over the snow, still with slippers on [his] feet, the temperature at 17 below, and no coat or heavy clothes."