Angela Puleo was one of thousands of Italian immigrants stigmatized as enemy aliens by the government during World War II .
Two months after Mussolini declared war on the United States, the 51-year-old mother living in Boston’s North End was questioned, fingerprinted and photographed. Officials took her camera and made her carry a little pink ID booklet at all times.
Angelo Puleo went through all that despite having three sons — Charlie, Tony and Jack — on active duty in the military. Many Italian mothers like Angela pasted blue stars in their windows to show they had two, three or four sons fighting the war.
As many as 500,000 Italian sons of immigrants served in the armed forces during World War II. But 600,000 Italian immigrants had not become U.S. citizens. The U.S. government therefore declared them enemy aliens. About 2,000 Italians were arrested and sent to internment camps in a little-known chapter of the Second World War.
The government treated Italians on the West Coast more harshly than their counterparts in the East. Many had to move inland. East Coast Italians had it a little better because their dense neighborhoods gave them political clout. Italians, after all, helped elect Fiorella LaGuardia mayor of New York City.
But still, Italians throughout the country carried the stigma of their classification as enemy aliens. They lost jobs because of curfews. The government shut down their Italian-language newspapers, and the U.S. Navy requisitioned their fishing yawls. They had to give up cameras and short-wave radios for military reasons.
Four days later, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on the United States. LaGuardia warned President Franklin Roosevelt he’d better not try it with Italians, threatening revolution. “You’re not going to do what you did to the Japanese. The Italians of the East Coast will form into a revolutionary army and we will march on Washington,” he said.
Attorney General Francis Biddle, in his book In Brief Authority, described how he told Roosevelt about plans to intern enemy aliens.
“And you’re going to intern all of them?” said the President in a tone that suggested he approved of the idea.
“Well, not quite,” replied Biddle.
“I don’t care about the Italians,” continued Roosevelt. “They are a lot of opera singers, but the Germans are different; they may be dangerous.”
Italian-Americans, in fact, were some of the bravest fighters in the war. Thirteen Italian-Americans won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lt. Col. Henry Mucci of Bridgeport, Conn., won the Distinguished Service Medal for leading the daring rescue of American prisoners who had survived the Bataan Death March.
In Italian neighborhoods, young men rushed from street corners and taverns to enlist. Others got drafted. Italian families displayed satin flags in their windows, with blue stars for each son serving in the U.S. military. They replaced the blue star with a gold one when the son or brother died in the war. Italian mothers, like all American mothers, learned to dread the very sight of a telegram delivery boy.
Popular athletes like Rocky Marciano, Dom DiMaggio and his brother Joe enlisted in the military. The DiMaggios’ parents weren’t U.S. citizens, but the government didn’t intern them as enemy aliens. Doing so would probably have created a public outcry.
In February of 1942, Biddle issued the regulations for enemy aliens. Italians who were not U.S. citizens above the age of 14 had to go to the nearest post office to register.
Josie Patania, then living in Boston’s North End, remembered how her parents were classified as Italian enemy aliens.
I remember filling up an alien card every year for my mother and father. We were witnesses. Then we made my mother go for citizenship. We taught her how to write her name and to say George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. If she saw Mussolini, we said to shoot him. They actually asked her that question. She said, “Me boom-boom.”
Italian-Americans bent over backwards to prove their loyalty to the United States. In Milford, Mass., the Sons of Italy banned the Italian flag and the Italian language.
That didn’t stop the government from deporting or interning certain classes of Italians. According to some estimates, about 2,000 Italians were interned by the War Relocation Authority; others place the number closer to 10,000. The unlucky enemy aliens included those who ran pro-Fascist Italian-language newspapers, members of the diplomatic corps, businessmen and students from Italy.
Pasquale DeCicco, a prominent Italian-American resident of New Haven, had served as acting vice consul of the city’s Italian consulate. In May 1909, six years after his arrival in the United States, he became an American citizen. But during World War I, he enlisted in the Italian Army. The U.S. government held that against him in the Second World War, though Italy sided with America during the First.
Forty-two members of his family who had immigrated to the United States were all American citizens.
On April 24, 1942, the FBI came to the New Haven home where Pasquale DeCicco lived with his wife and daughter and arrested him. He was 63 years old. He sent letter after letter pleading his loyalty to his adopted country. The government confined him as an enemy alien in Hartford, in East Boston and then in Ft. McAlester in Oklahoma, where he lost 32 pounds. Unable to pay his mortgage, he lost his home.
Pasquale DeCicco didn’t go home until Dec. 10, 1943, after Italy surrendered.
The Italian Fishing Fleet
Fisherman in Boston and Gloucester, Mass., bore the brunt of the war as well.
The U.S. government requisitioned fishing yawls from the fishing fleet in those two cities to use as minesweepers and patrol boats. At least 200 fishermen were grounded as enemy aliens during the war. The government either bought the vessels outright or chartered them.
Josie Patania remembered,
During the war, they took my father off the fishing boat. So he went to work in the spinach plant, washing the spinach. My brothers Carmelo, Angelo, and Vincent were all in the service at this time. Carmelo and Vincent weren’t even citizens. They swore them in before they went, Vincent to Normandy and Carmelo to the Philippines.
Some fishermen could keep their boats, but they had to jump through hoops to go fishing. Frank Firicano, a Boston fisherman and secretary of his union, remembered:
They had a sub net in Boston harbor too. Because there’s the Boston Navy Yard, and there were convoys leaving night and day from Boston. Eventually, they let us go fishing. We had to have a password each day, go to the Customs House to get clearance, a pass, and then on the way out, stop at a barge off Deer Island manned by the Coast Guard, and they would check out the boat to see we weren’t taking provisions to the Germans. We were allowed provisions for seven, which was our crew. There was the steel gate–it opened, but no one could get out after 5 pm. We had radio silence too; we had locks on the radios. Only in an emergency could you use it.
On Columbus Day 1942, Attorney General Francis Biddle announced Italians living as long-term residents in the United States were removed from the list of enemy aliens. He had political reasons to do it. Italian immigrants made up an enormous voting bloc and congressional elections were coming up.
The United States was also about to invade Italy.
So the government lifted many restrictions on Italian enemy aliens. Angela Puleo could travel freely again, own a camera and throw away her little pink booklet.
She was one of the lucky ones. All three of her sons – Jack, Tony and Charlie – came home safely from the war.
This story about Italian enemy aliens was updated in 2021. Hanover Street image by By Bundesarchiv, Bild 137-047635 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5418684. With thanks to The Italian American Experience in New Haven by Anthony V. Riccio and Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II by Lawrence Distasi.