State apologizes for mistreatment of Italian residents during WWII


When Mike Maiorana was a boy during World War II, his family was like a lot of others in his Monterey neighborhood.

In 1942, his mother was declared an “enemy alien,” along with 600,000 other Italians and half a million Germans and Japanese who weren’t U.S. citizens. More than once, men in suits searched the Maiorana house for guns, flashlights, cameras, shortwave radios — anything that could be used to signal the enemy.

Like 10,000 others up and down the California coast, the family was suddenly forced to uproot. At their new place in Salinas, they had to be home by 8 p.m. or face arrest. And when the government seized fishing boats for the war effort, Maiorana’s dad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, saw his livelihood go down the drain.

“He was on the skids for the rest of his life,” said Maiorana, 75, who owns a boatyard and marina on the harbor where his father’s boat — as well as those of his uncles and several dozen other Italian fishermen — were confiscated.

Families like the Maioranas last week received a formal acknowledgement from California. A measure that swiftly made its way through the Legislature expresses the state’s “deepest regrets” over the mistreatment of Italians and Italian Americans during World War II. Not nearly as severe or long-lasting as the internment of Japanese Americans, the wartime restrictions are still little-known throughout California, where they were the most heavily enforced.

The resolution was the brainchild of a 79-year-old San Jose man who entered a legislator’s annual “There Oughta Be a Law” contest.

“The treatment Italians received in California was horrible,” said Chet Campanella, who recalled his father hiding a radio in a backyard chicken coop. “There wasn’t one tiny bit of evidence that any Italian was responsible for spying, sabotage, or doing anything else to hinder the war effort.”

Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) sponsored a bill based on Campanella’s idea.

“I was wholly unaware of the circumstances he described,” Simitian said. “Somehow this story had passed me by.”

Simitian, an attorney and former Palo Alto mayor, said he saw “contemporary importance” in the effort: “We’re at war on the other side of the world, and I think it’s important to remember that there are millions of Americans who are ethnic Arabs or Muslim by faith, and that they’re good Americans.”

No comparable measure has been passed by the state or federal government on behalf of more than 11,000 interned Germans, including some Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.

Even before war broke out, the FBI had compiled lists of immigrants who were considered dangerous. Among the Italians, there were journalists, language teachers and men active in an Italian veterans group. After Pearl Harbor, about 250 were sent to camps in Montana and elsewhere.

They were seen — without basis, according to many historians — as ardent supporters of Mussolini. But the dictator’s popularity in the Italian community had waned, despite his sponsorship of community centers, Italian language classes and trips back to the homeland for U.S. immigrants.

Gloria Ricci Lothrop, a professor emeritus of history at Cal State Northridge, said her future stepfather, the editor of the Italian-language La Parola newspaper in Los Angeles, was hustled off to Fort Missoula, Mont., in a train with darkened windows. Giovanni Falasca stayed there until war’s end. He later started a restaurant on Figueroa Street, where he was beaten to death during a robbery.

Lower on the watch list, Lothrop’s mother, Maria Ricci, was a poet and La Parola columnist. The FBI fruitlessly scoured translations of her work for subversive content, Lothrop said. An agent in a fedora and double-breasted suit showed up repeatedly but would end up talking to her about gardening.

In New York, the FBI incarcerated Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza and released him, without charge, three months later. In San Francisco, Joe DiMaggio’s father Giuseppe couldn’t visit the family restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf: As an enemy alien, he could not travel more than five miles without permission.

Enforcement was chaotic. On the East Coast, with its massive Italian population, there was no forced relocation. In California, the mandate hit Northern California harder than the Los Angeles area.

In the Bay Area, Pittsburg was home to Camp Stoneman, a jumping-off point for Pacific-bound troops. About 2,000 Italians were ousted from the community, with the burden falling most on elderly people who didn’t speak much English and hadn’t become citizens.

Lucy Gallaro Dube of Orange County recalls her widowed grandmother cramming into a house with half a dozen other displaced women.

“She was just a few months from getting her citizenship,” Dube said. “I don’t know what they thought these old ladies were going to do.”

Sad ironies abounded. In Monterey, Rosina Trovato was told that her son and nephew had died at Pearl Harbor. The next day, she was ordered to leave her home.

Then there was the confiscation of fishing boats from California’s mostly Italian fleet. Paying their owners a nominal fee, the government used them to haul targets and refuel PT boats. But the cost of postwar repairs and a vanishing sardine fishery spelled disaster for many.

Angelo Maiorana, Mike’s father, owned the 95-foot Dux, which was returned to him in bad shape after four years in the Philippines.

“They gave him a $20,000 check, but it cost him $46,000 to get the boat back into condition,” his son said. “He was on his back, flat broke.”

In 2000, Congress passed a bill formally acknowledging “injustices” during World War II.

One of its most eloquent advocates was Lawrence DiStasi, a writer and historian who put together “Una Storia Segreta,” a travelling exhibit on the wartime restrictions.

“When we started, I had trouble getting people to talk about it,” he said. “There was still a lot of shame, stress and pain.”

Most of the measures ended within a year. The government realized they were logistically impossible — especially with hundreds of thousands of Italian Americans fighting for the U.S. overseas.

On Columbus Day in 1942, U.S. Atty. Gen. Francis Biddle announced the good news in a speech laden with references to Dante, Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci.

“We found,” he said, “that 600,000 enemy aliens were, in fact, not enemies.”