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How Bay Area Italians Were Treated as 'Enemy Aliens' During WWII

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A black and white photograph from the 1940s of man, woman and child in front of a home.
Laura Gularte (middle), at 15 years old, with her parents Quinto and Elvira Neri in front of their home in Santa Cruz, California. The family was forced to abandon the coastal home temporarily during World War 2 because Quinto was an Italian citizen.  (Courtesy of Mark Gularte)

View the full episode transcript

D

uring a casual Christmas celebration with her 90-year-old grandmother last year, Becca Gularte, a self-proclaimed history buff and third-generation Californian, was rocked by a family story she had never heard before. 

In 1942, her grandma Laura Gularte, then an elementary school kid in Santa Cruz, was forced to leave her coastal home because her dad was an Italian citizen. 

Becca was taken aback. She peppered Laura with questions.

‘Why did you have to move across town? What do you mean it was because you were Italians?’” Becca remembers. “We had all heard so much about Japanese internment growing up. We were all just so surprised that this had happened to this whole other population.” 

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Becca’s husband, James King, asked Bay Curious to investigate. 

And as we found out, Becca’s great-grandfather was one of roughly 10,000 Italian citizens living in California who were forced to leave their homes during World War II. It was just one of many government measures meant to protect the West Coast from an enemy invasion that never came. 

Wartime security

Within months of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, as more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were being sent to incarceration camps, other ethnic groups also became the target of new wartime security measures. 

Italian citizens living near California’s coastline and military sites — some 10,000 of them — were forced to leave their homes and find somewhere else to live.

Laura Gularte’s father, Quinto Neri, was one of them. Neri left Tuscany in Northern Italy in 1911, eventually settling in Santa Cruz, California. He bought land on the coast and became a Brussels sprout farmer.

 Laura was just 7 years old when her family had to move from their coastal home in Santa Cruz to just across town, which was outside of an area prohibited by the U.S. military. 

“It had a big impact on my father because he was farming rented land that was in the restricted area. So he had to give up his farming,” Laura Gularte remembers.  

An elderly woman poses with six adult grandchildren at her 90th birthday party.
Laura Gularte, middle, at her 90th birthday party with all of her grandchildren. Bay Curious question-asker Becca Gularte is on the far left. (Courtesy photo)

After Italy and Germany declared war on the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt gave military commanders sweeping rights to protect the homeland.These new powers led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans as well as a slew of new rules on Italian and German citizens living in the U.S.

This war is a new kind of war,” Roosevelt says in a February 1942 speech. We shall give up conveniences and modify the routine of our lives if our country asks us to do so.  We will do it cheerfully.”

Italian citizens had to register as enemy aliens, and many were subject to an 8 p.m. curfew. They couldn’t travel more than 5 miles away from home. People’s houses were searched for “contraband,” including cameras and radios. So-called enemy aliens could be arrested if they violated the new rules.

But the new security measures were applied differently across the United States, and General John DeWitt, who oversaw security for the West Coast, was much more draconian than his counterparts elsewhere. On the East Coast, for example, Italian citizens had travel restrictions, but they weren’t subject to curfew or the mass relocation ordered by General DeWitt, historians say.  

[DeWitt] was terrified that under his watch, the West Coast was going to be invaded,” says Lawrence DiStasi, author and editor of Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II.

DiStasi says “paranoia” led General DeWitt to evict Italians from large swaths of the Pacific coast to avoid an enemy invasion. 

“It was partly hysteria, partly overkill, I think.”

Bay Area Italians in limbo

Millions of Italians came to the U.S. for a better life before World War II, many landing in urban centers like New York City. But others ventured to California, becoming fishermen, farmworkers and helping to grow the wine industry. 

Italians all around the San Francisco Bay Area were living in the newly declared prohibited zones, including thousands in the cities of Alameda, Richmond and Pittsburg. At least 1,500 Italians were relocated out of Pittsburg because of their proximity to a military site, says Vince Ferrante, president of the Pittsburg Italian American Club and historian for the Pittsburg Historical Society. 

“Some families lost their businesses, lost their livelihoods,” he says. 

To those who had to move, like Al Bruzzone, 92, in Richmond, the dividing line between what was restricted or not seemed pretty arbitrary. 

An elderly man sitting outside.
Al Bruzzone, 92, grew up in the East Bay city of Richmond and still lives there. When his parents were forced to relocate during World War II, he temporarily stayed in an Oakland apartment with his parents. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

“If you lived west of San Pablo Avenue, you had the move. If you lived east of San Pablo Avenue, you didn’t have to worry about it,” he says.

Bruzzone grew up on his family’s 40-acre lettuce farm in Richmond. He still remembers being 11 years old when the relocation orders came. It split his family up — he and his two younger siblings moved with his parents to a rented apartment in Oakland. But his siblings who were old enough to live by themselves, and American-born, stayed in Richmond and worked the farm.

“On weekends, my brother Jim and I, we would go back. My brothers would pick us up, and we’d go back to where I was growing up,” remembers Bruzzone. 

Other Italians who didn’t have the money to rent homes when they were relocated moved in with friends or lived in substandard migrant housing. Bruzzone thought the whole ordeal was a big government mistake. 

“Most of the people came to this country because they were poor in Europe and they had a chance to accomplish something here,” he says. “They would never, never, never go fight against the country because they were doing so well here.” 

Italian fisherman

At the onset of the war, 80% of California’s fishermen were Italian. In 1942, their boats were seized by the U.S. Coast Guard, as the late historian Rose Scherini recounts in her chapter of “Una Storia Segreta.” Italian citizens were not allowed to fish on coastal waters. 

That affected Italians working on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, like Ken Borelli’s uncle  Girolamo Cantatore. He lived in San Francisco and was a crab fisherman embarking off the now-famous tourist area. 

When Cantatore lost his vessel and his ability to fish during the war, he made a wooden replica of the boat, and his nephew, Borelli, still had it. 

A man looks at a model boat on a kitchen table.
Ken Borelli and the model boat his uncle Girolamo Cantatore made after the crab fishing boat he used was seized by US forces. (Pauline Bartolone/KQED)

“He was a very meticulous person,” Borelli says as he looks at the model boat, which is about two feet wide and is detailed with several deck levels and miniature lifeboats. 

Borelli says he doesn’t know whether his uncle was ever compensated or saw his boat again (although according to Scherini, fishermen were given monthly compensation for their seized boats).

But the boat replica shows his uncle had idle hands and “a yearning to go back to sea,” Borelli says.

Italians in prison camps

Italian Americans didn’t just endure forced relocation, hundreds more were sent to prison camps too. As many as 300–400 Italians were incarcerated, DiStasi says. They were moved around from camp to camp around the country until they ultimately wound up in Fort Missoula, Montana. 

“A lot of people mistakenly assume that Japanese Americans were the only ones affected by national security fears,” says UC Santa Cruz historian Alice Yang, adding that Italians and Germans also had their civil liberties infringed upon. 

People were imprisoned for being journalists at Italian radio stations and newspapers, teaching the Italian language or simply being veterans of World War I. These activities were seen as promoting Italian pride, Yang says, and in the wartime era, that was considered subversive.

“A lot of the assumptions about whether someone might be a security threat were based on prejudicial views of ethnicity,” Yang says. “Having ethnic pride, if your pride was associated with an axis power, could land you on one of these lists.” 

To be clear, DiStasi says a good portion of Italian immigrants in the U.S. at the time were supporters of Benito Mussolini, the Nazi-allied fascist leader of Italy. They may not have been in favor of what he did, DiStasi says, but they liked that he was creating a new image for Italy. 

“They felt that he had finally put Italy on the map and gained some respect for Italy and throughout the world,” DiStasi says. “But that didn’t mean that they were going to engage in any kind of anti-American activities.”

Being “high profile” didn’t exempt Italian citizens from wartime security measures. New York-based opera singer Ezio Pinza was incarcerated without charge for three months, according to Yang. And baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio’s mother, who lived in San Francisco, was arrested. 

‘You have met the test’

Then, in October 1942, quite sharply, the American government changed its tune about Italians. Attorney General Francis Biddle gave a speech at Carnegie Hall in New York City, applauding the high number of Italian Americans currently serving in the U.S. military.

“Into the war against the Axis, they have sent their own sons,” Biddle proclaimed. “These Americans of Italian ancestry will help Italy again to become a free nation.”

By the end of the month Biddle says, the restrictions on Italian citizens would end. 

“I say tonight: You have met the test. Your loyalty to the democracy which has given you this chance, you have proved and proved well. Make the most of it. See to it that all Italians remain loyal.” 

The Italians who were imprisoned stayed in camps until 1943, but the relocated Italian Americans in California, like Al Bruzzone and Laura Gularte, got to go home. In total, they’d endured five months of a relocation order and about eight months of curfews and travel restrictions.  

“Somebody finally realized they made a mistake,” Bruzzone says, pointing out the irony of Italian citizens in California being forced to move away from their homes while their children were being drafted to fight in the war.  

Laura Gularte, who now lives in Salinas, says it was hard for her dad to restart his Brussels sprouts farm after restrictions were lifted, so he went to work for others in the agricultural industry. 

She says her parents didn’t discuss their hardships with her, but she knows it was difficult for her father. At the same time, she says, “We were much luckier than the Japanese, who were encamped and lost everything.”

Ferrante, of Pittsburg, says many elders in the Italian American community didn’t pass these stories down, and that’s why second and third-generation families don’t know much about this history.  

“There’s a stigma attached to it,” explained Ferrante, whose great-grandmother was relocated during World War II. The sentiment among them was, “‘We’re tax-paying citizens, we’re productive in our community, we work here, so what happened, what did we do wrong?’” 

But Historian Alice Yang says there are important reasons to remember this history. For the government: Not to use ethnicity to determine who is dangerous and not to let wartime fears subvert civil rights. 

Now that she knows more about what her great-grandfather went through, our question-asker, Becca Gularte, says, “It makes you realize … it’s a hard thing to be an immigrant.”

This story has been updated to reflect the fact that war time restrictions on Italians were issued through more than one government proclamation, not just Executive Order 9066.

Episode Transcript

Olivia Allen-Price: Around the holidays, family stories sometimes surface at the dinner table. Remember Grandma Joyce? She rode a motorcycle. Or Great Gran-Daddy Willie? He scrimped and saved long after the Depression was over.

Then there are tales like Becca Gularte recently heard from her grandma … about how her family was forced from their California home during World War 2. She hadn’t heard that one before. 

Becca Gularte: It was, it was sort of with that, wait, why did you have to move across town kind of thing? And then she said, Oh, it was because we were Italians. And then we kept prompting her with questions to say, What do you mean It was because you were Italians?

Olivia Allen-Price: In the early 1940s, as more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were being sent to incarceration camps, other ethnic groups were also being targeted. Italian citizens living in California — some 10,000 of them — were forced to relocate.

Becca Gularte: We had all heard so much about Japanese internment growing up and and just really that being sort of the story, especially in California. And I think we were all just so surprised that this had happened to this whole other population of people. 

Olivia Allen-Price: Becca and her husband wanted to know more, so they wrote to Bay Curious to find out how this bit of family history fits into California textbooks. 

Becca Gularte: What types of restrictions like this were placed on Italian Americans during World War Two and why don’t more people know about it? 

Olivia Allen-Price: Today on Bay Curious, we’re doing a deep dive into what Italians experienced in California during World War II and how it was different here from the rest of the country. I’m Olivia Allen-Price. 

Producer Pauline Bartolone picks up the story from here. 

Pauline Bartolone: To start investigating this question about how Italians were treated in California during World War two,  we went straight to the source. Grandma… Our question-asker Becca Gularte’s grandma that is. 

Laura Gularte: My name is Laura Neri Gularte. I’m 90 years old. I was born and grew up in Santa Cruz, California.

Pauline Bartolone: Laura Gularte now lives in Salinas. It was her father, Quinto Neri, who came to California in 1911 from Tuscany in Northern Italy. He was one of millions of Italians who came to the U.S. for a better life. Many stayed in urban centers like New York City, but others ventured farther to California, becoming fishermen, working in agriculture and the wine industry. 

Laura Gularte: He came at age 17 because they were starving. It was a large family. And he knew some people in San Francisco who sponsored him. And so he went to work in Half Moon Bay.

Pauline Bartolone: Laura’s dad farmed Brussels sprouts and built a life for himself. He bought some land and a house. But then … the second World War hit and Italy declared war on the United States. Suddenly, Laura’s dad went from starting to achieve a middle-class life to being labeled ‘enemy alien.’

Archival audio of President Franklin Roosevelt: This war is a new kind of war. It is different from all other wars of the past…

Pauline Bartolone: The President of the United States at the time, Franklin Roosevelt gave military commanders sweeping rights to protect the homeland after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. That’s what led to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. But since Italy and Germany had also declared war on the US, new restrictions applied to their citizens living here. 

Archival audio of President Franklin Roosevelt: We shall give up conveniences and modify the routine of our lives if our country asks us to do so.  We will do it cheerfully.

Pauline Bartolone: Italian citizens had to register as enemy aliens, and many were subject to an 8 p.m. curfew. They couldn’t travel more than 5 miles away from home. People’s houses were searched for so-called contraband, things like cameras and radios. People who violated the new rules could be arrested.

Archival audio of President Franklin Roosevelt: …remembering that the common enemy seeks to destroy every home and every freedom in every part of our land.

Pauline Bartolone: Italians on the West Coast were hit hardest by the new restrictions…  The military forced Italian citizens, mostly living on the Pacific coastline, to find new homes. Defense commanders wanted to protect the Western U.S. from an enemy invasion so they created ‘prohibited zones’ where enemy aliens could not live or work… It included a sliver of land along the Pacific Ocean and some inland areas around military bases. Laura’s father had to relocate. 

Laura Gularte: It had a big impact on my father because he was farming rented land that was in the restricted area. So he had to give up his farming. The fact that…he felt that he would not do anything against the United States and still had to be evacuated was hard. 

Pauline Bartolone: Laura’s family found a new place to rent, ironically, on the other side of town that was not within the prohibited zone. Her mom was born in Argentina, so she was able to travel freely, but her dad was stuck at home. Laura was only seven years old at the time, so she didn’t understand much about the stresses her parents were feeling.

Laura Gularte: Parents did not discuss a lot of things with their children. I know they were upset because they had to leave their home. But they didn’t talk about it.

Lawrence DiStasi: They thought that Mussolini’s Navy might attack the West Coast. Of course, Mussolini didn’t have much of a Navy.

Pauline Bartolone: Author Lawrence DiStasi helped write a book on Italian Americans during World War 2. He says the West Coast General, John DeWitt, used his military powers in a much more draconian way than generals in other parts of the nation. It was DeWitt who commanded the incarceration of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and the relocation of Italians on the West Coast. On the east coast Italians did have travel restrictions, but they weren’t subject to curfew or mass relocation, says DiStasi. 

Lawrence DiStasi: The paranoia exhibited by the West Coast General, General John DeWitt…he was terrified that under his watch, the West Coast was going to be invaded. It never was, of course. It was partly hysteria, partly overkill.

Pauline Bartolone: Because of DeWitt’s relocation orders, Italians all around the Bay Area were in limbo — including thousands in the city of Alameda and Pittsburg. To those who had to move, the dividing line between what was restricted or not seemed pretty arbitrary. 

Al Bruzzone: If you lived west of San Pablo Avenue, you had the move. If you lived east of San Pablo Avenue, you didn’t have to worry about it.

Pauline Bartolone: Al Bruzzone grew up in Richmond on a 40-acre lettuce farm. He’s 92 now but still remembers being 11 years old when the relocation orders came. It split his family up — he and his two younger siblings moved with his parents to Oakland. But his siblings, who were old enough to live by themselves and American-born, stayed in Richmond and worked the farm.

Al Bruzzone: On weekends, my brother Jim and I, we would go back. My brothers would pick us up, and we’d go back to where I was growing up. 

Pauline Bartolone: Other Italians didn’t have the money to rent homes nearby after being forced to relocate. Many moved in with friends or lived in substandard migrant housing.  Bruzzone thought the whole ordeal was a big government mistake. 

Al Bruzzone: Most of the people came to this country because they were poor in Europe and they had a chance to accomplish something here. /// And they would never, never, never go fight against the country because they were doing so well here. 

Pauline Bartolone: Italians who worked on the coast also suffered.. Eighty percent of California’s fishermen were Italian… and in 1942, their boats were seized by the coast guard. They were not allowed to fish on coastal waters. 

Sound of papers rustling

Pauline Bartolone: That is a story that Ken Borelli knows personally. It happened to his uncle, Girolamo Cantatore. 

Ken Borelli: We called him Uncle Jim, but his name was Girolamo. And he lived in San Francisco and was a crab fisherman. And they would fish out of Fisherman’s Wharf and go all up and down northern California. 

Pauline Bartolone: After losing access to his vessel and the water during the war, Borelli’s uncle made a wooden replica of the boat. And Borelli still has it. 

Ken Borelli: It’s called the Teresa. You can see this back here… he wrote that….

Pauline Bartolone: He shows me the 2-foot-long model boat, it’s super detailed, there are even lifeboats. 

Ken Borelli: He was a very meticulous person.

Pauline Bartolone: Borelli wishes he could have asked his uncle how he felt back then. His family never told him the details about whether his uncle was compensated or saw the boat again.  But Borelli says the boat replica shows his uncle had idle hands and a mind that needed to be occupied.  

Ken Borelli: it was a yearning, as a yearning to go back to sea.  

Pauline Bartolone: Italian Americans didn’t just endure forced relocation and lose property, hundreds more were sent to prison camps too. There, some slept in makeshift shelters like tents and were held with Japanese and German detainees, 

Alice Yang: A lot of people mistakenly assume that Japanese Americans were the only ones affected by national security fears.

Pauline Bartolone: UC Santa Cruz historian Alice Yang says Italians and Germans living in the US also had their civil liberties infringed upon. People were imprisoned for being Italian journalists, teaching the Italian language or simply being veterans of World War 1.

Alice Yang: A lot of the assumptions about, you know, whether someone might be a security threat were based on prejudicial views of ethnicity…People who were part of organizations that were seen as promoting Italian pride. So in the pre-war period, that wasn’t considered dangerous or subversive, but in the wartime era. Right. Having ethnic pride, if your pride was associated with an axis power could land you on one of these lists.  

Pauline Bartolone: To be clear, DiStasi says a good portion of Italian immigrants in the US at the time were supporters of Benito Mussolini, the Nazi-allied fascist leader of Italy. They may not have been in favor of what he did, but they liked that he was creating a new image for Italy. 

Lawrence DiStasi: They felt that he had finally put Italy on the map and gained some respect for Italy and throughout the world….But that didn’t mean that they were going to engage in any kind of anti-American activities.

music of Ezio Pinza

Pauline Bartolone: High-profile Italian immigrants were prey to the wartime security measures. New York-based opera singer Ezio Pinza was incarcerated without charge for 3 months. Baseball Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio’s mother, who lived in San Francisco, was arrested. 

Imprisoned Italians were moved from camp to camp around the country, many winding up in Fort Missoula Montana. 

Pauline Bartolone: Then, quite sharply, the American government changed its tune about Italians. In October 1942, Attorney General Francis Biddle gave a speech touting the contributions of Italians in the United States Army. 

Voice actor for Attorney General Francis Biddle: Into the war against the Axis they have sent their own sons. These Americans of Italian ancestry will help Italy again to become a free nation. In each division of the United States Army; nearly five hundred soldiers, on the average, are the sons of Italian immigrants to America.”

Pauline Bartolone: By the end of the month, the restrictions on Italian citizens would end. 

Voice actor for Attorney General Francis Biddle: To those who are affected by this change, ‘I say tonight:’You have met the test. Your loyalty to the democracy which has given you this chance, you have proved and proved well. Make the most of it. See to it that all Italians remain loyal. 

Pauline Bartolone: Italians who were already in U.S. prisons stayed in camps for another year, but the relocated families in California, like Al Bruzzone and Laura Gularte — they got to go home. In total, they’d endured five months of a relocation order and about 8 months of curfews and travel restrictions.  

Al Bruzzone: Somebody finally realized they made a mistake and they sent everybody home because … the parents had to move away and they were drafting all their children.  

Pauline Bartolone: Laura Gularte says her dad lost his Brussels sprout farm near Santa Cruz. And it was hard to start all over again. 

Laura Gularte: After they were able to go home, he never did go back to the farm. and he went to work for others in the agricultural industry…As I look back. I think that we were much luckier than the Japanese. Who were encamped and lost everything. 

Pauline Bartolone: Many Italian immigrants in California were like Laura Gularte’s parents… They didn’t feel a need to talk about hardships imposed on them to their kids or grandkids.   But Historian Alice Yang says there are important things to learn from this history. For one,  not to judge whether someone’s dangerous based on their ethnicity.

Alice Yang: And that especially when people are afraid. It is very easy for them to have irrational fears of entire groups based on race, religion, ethnicity.

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Pauline Bartolone: Americans let wartime fears subvert civil rights during World War II, Yang says. And that’s a lesson to learn from — and never repeat.

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