Sept. 23, 2004
by BOB DORAN
IT'S A CHAPTER IN AMERICAN HISTORY MOST OF US ARE not aware of, a period at the beginning of World War II when 600,000 Italian American immigrants were deemed enemy aliens. Many were relocated and even sent to internment camps, simply because of where they were born -- including a fair number here in Humboldt County.
"They called it `the secret story' -- `una storia segreta,'" said Marino Sichi, an Arcata resident who was among those sent to an internment camp. "The Italians considered it a secret. They were ashamed that this had happened to them. They don't like to talk about it."
[California Internment Camp, photo courtesy prisonersamongus.com]
Sichi was among those interviewed for Prisoners Among Us, a feature length documentary by director Michael Angelo DiLauro exploring the experience of Italian immigrants from their arrival at the end of the 19th century until the 1940s, using archival footage and interviews with those who lived through it.
In a call from his home in Pennsylvania, DiLauro noted that his interest in the Italian-American experience during the war stemmed from a conversation with one of his aunts. She told of visiting an Italian cousin at Camp Perry in Ohio, which served as one of 23 American POW camps housing 50,000 Italian soldiers captured overseas. As he looked back at that history, he learned about Italian-Americans who were held during the war as enemy aliens.
"In order to tell this complex story, of the enemy alien experience and the POWs, and I might add, the Italian Americans who fought in Italy during World War II, I started with [our] immigration and assimilation," he said.
"The Italian mass migration didn't really begin until after the turn of the century. Because it came so late, their opportunity for assimilation was small, so by the time 1941 rolled around, they were still living in Italian enclaves and most still spoke the Italian language. Many hadn't bothered to become [American] citizens."
As a result, after war was declared, 600,000 Italians living in the United States were deemed "enemy aliens" and around 10,000 ended up in internment camps. "There were not as many as there were Japanese [interned], but it was no less tragic. And nobody knows about it," said DiLauro.
In research for the film DiLauro drew on the work of Stephen Fox, a Humboldt State University history professor who wrote a book on the subject: The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans During World War II.
Among those interviewed for the book and the film was Sichi, age 84, who came to Humboldt County from Bagani di Lucca, Italy in 1922 when he was 2 years old. When World War II broke out, Marino was 21 and the Sichi family was living in Arcata's Sunset district.
Under wartime regulations, "We had to be inside the house at 8 o'clock at night and couldn't leave until 6 in the morning," he recalled. "We couldn't travel more than a few miles from home. We couldn't cross to the west side of G Street in Arcata or Fourth Street in Eureka" since that was Highway 101 at the time. "I guess they thought we might blow up the place," Sichi added with a chuckle. "That stupid General De Witt thought we shouldn't be there," he continued, referring to Lieutenant General John L. De Witt, commander of the Fourth Army and Western Defense Command in San Francisco.
When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, thousands of non-naturalized Italians, Germans and Japanese, were deemed potential enemy aliens, and De Witt, fearful of "fifth column" spies, ordered all that were 14 years of age and older be removed from areas near the West Coast.
Since the Sichi family's chicken ranch was on the west side of the highway, the side towards the presumably vulnerable coastline, the family was forced to move.
While the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans continued through the war years, the laws regarding activities of the Italian population were short-lived, lasting less than a year.
"There was always a large Italian population in Humboldt County, and a lot of Italians in the United States," Sichi noted. "Finally Roosevelt came to his senses and realized that, if he had to guard every Italian in the U.S., it would take the whole Army to do it. They let us go home on Columbus Day ."
But before that happened Sichi was sent to an internment camp. His crime? Curfew violation. "I was out courting at night and my wife-to-be's next door neighbor took offense. Here was a dirty little wop, out after 8 at night. He called the FBI. I woke up in the county jail. A week later they shipped me to a concentration camp, a prison camp in Sharp Park, in Pacifica," he said. "It was a general internment camp where they put everybody that the immigration service had picked up, while they were deciding what to do with us."
While his anger is mostly focused on "that son-of-a-bitch De Witt," Sichi admits some lingering bitterness. "I had done nothing. You know, I left Italy when I was 2. I knew nothing about Mussolini or anything like that."
In November 2000, President Clinton signed a formal apology for injustices suffered by Italian Americans who were relocated, arrested or held in internment camps.
DiLauro felt it was time to tell "the secret story," in part because of things he sees happening today. "You can draw a parallel. I try not to make it heavy-handed, but the film alludes to the question: Are we tolerant of people that are new to this country? Are we tolerant of people with a different look and ethnic background? Time and again we prove that we are not."
Michael DiLauro will speak at a local screening of Prisoners Among Us at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 27, at the Eureka High School Auditorium, 1915 J St. Admission is $3.50. For more information, call 826-5161. For more on the film, go to www.prisonersamongus.com.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.