Evacuation

Evacuation From Prohibited Zones--
February 24, 1942


Photo of newspaper headline
For enemy aliens, February was the "cruelest month." Fears of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast ran wild. After a Japanese submarine apparently landed some torpedoes in Santa Barbara, the pressure to move the Japanese population soared. Italians and Germans, feeling the hysteria and reading news reports about the planned removal of all aliens to inland camps, feared the worst.

They were not far off. The order to evacuate "prohibited" zones along the California coast no later than February 24 was directed at all enemy aliens. Italian aliens, along with their Japanese and German counterparts, began the wrenching task of finding a place to live and leaving those they loved.

Photo of Frances Aiello
Frances Aiello in February 24, 1942, the day she had to evacuate from Pittsburg, CA.
The total numbers who had to leave their homes are still unknown, but in places like Monterey, Pittsburg, and Santa Cruz, thousands had to move. In some cases, the new house might only be a block away; in others, it might require a trip of ten, fifteen, or fifty miles. Without cars or freeways, such gaps between families seemed unbridgeable. For some it was unbearable. Among the several suicides reported in the newspapers was that of 65-year-old Martini Battistessa of Richmond, who threw himself in front of a train on February 21, 1942.

Even aliens with sons or grandsons in the Armed Forces were not exempt from the move. One San Francisco resident who had to leave his home near Fisherman's Wharf was the father of a serviceman killed at Pearl Harbor. In Santa Cruz, Steve Ghio came home on leave from the Navy to find the houses in his neighborhood boarded up. He could not find his parents or relatives until he learned of their forced move and obtained a new address from the local police.

The immediate personal and economic effects of this evacuation were vivid enough. California's fishing fleet was decimated. Ninety-seven-year-old Placido Abono was moved from his Pittsburg home to Oakley, ten miles away, on a stretcher.

Photo of Buccellato and Cardinalli families
Members of the Buccellato and Cardinalli families, like many others from Pittsburg, found housing at migrant worker bungalows in Oakley.
By July, when the invasion scare had subsided and the entire Japanese American population had been interned, the Army rescinded its order of evacuation. But many Italian aliens -- some who could not read Italian, let alone English -- remained in the dark about this change too: the notices that they could go home were simply posted in local post offices.


Additional ironies abound. Italian Americans were the largest immigrant group in the nation; they were also the largest group in the Armed Forces. Nevertheless, parents and grandparents were compelled to move from the homes where they had raised those now serving their country.

Another is that at a time when all human and food resources were needed for the war effort, many men and women had to give up their jobs because they were located in prohibited zones. Thus, when large numbers of coastal fishermen could no longer fish, the government post, "Fish Is Fighting Food . . . We need more," encouraged Americans to increase consumption of that which its own policies had caused to be scarce.

Such ironies may evoke a smile now. At the time, the smile was likely to be tinged with disbelief: did the left hand know what the right was doing?

Photo of government poster urging fish consumption
This government poster urges people to eat more fish at the same time that the restrictions on Italian fishermen decreased supplies.