Selective Internment of "Dangerous" Aliens

Beginning on the night of December 7, 1941, Japanese, German, and Italian aliens were arrested by the FBI. How could this happen? The U.S. had not declared war by that date.

Photo of Pietro DeLuca with his family
Pietro DeLuca with his family. DeLuca, who had fled the fascists in Italy, was interned on Ellis Island for suspected fascist sympathies.
The story actually begins in September 1939, when Britain and France declared war against the Axis nations of Germany and Italy (later to include Japan). President Roosevelt at that time asked FBI Director Hoover to compile a list a persons to be arrested in case of national emergency. Names placed on this Custodial Detention List eventually included pro-Communists, anti-fascists, pro-fascists, pro-Nazis, and even some Jewish refugees.

The authority for these arrests came from Title 50 of the U.S. Code, based on the 1798 Alien and Sedition acts, which gives the government power to detain aliens in times of emergency.

Under this authority, hundreds of Italians were arrested in the months immediately after Pearl Harbor. About 250 individuals were interned for up to two years in military camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. By June of 1942, the total reached 1,521 Italian aliens arrested by the FBI, many for curfew violations alone. Though most of the latter were released after short periods of detention, the effects on them and others in the community are not hard to imagine.

The arrest and internment procedure in San Francisco followed this pattern: FBI officers arrived at night, searched the home, and took the individual to an Immigration Service detention facility at Silver and Yale Avenues. The family was not informed why the arrest was made or what would happen.

Arrestees were sometimes moved to another facility at Sharp Park (now in the city of Pacifica) where quonset huts had been hurriedly set up on a golf course. Some were held there for as long as one year. Later, Italian prisoners of war were also held at Sharp Park.

Photo of quonset huts on the Sharp Park golf course
Quonset huts on the Sharp Park golf course used to detain enemy aliens. Internment camps were set up nationwide for the nearly 30,000 persons processed by the Immigration Service.
Most of the arrestees were then shipped by train to Fort Missoula, Montana, where over 1,000 Italian nationals had been interned since May, 1941. These Italians were merchant marines whose ships had been impounded at Atlantic ports after the European war began in 1939.

In Montana, the interned aliens were given pro forma hearings before boards consisting of military officers and lay citizens. They were not informed of the charges against them, nor were they represented by legal counsel. The information before the boards consisted entirely of FBI reports. Researchers have often noted, on examining FBI files, the many errors, the misinterpretation of innocent acts, and the lack of rumor verification -- all of which were found in these aliens' files.

Photo of internees watching a soccer game at Missoula
Italian American internees watching a soccer game at Missoula. In the center, with hat and dark sweater, is S. F. actor Guido Trento.

Photo of Lia Francesconi
Lia Francesconi continued her husband's popular Italian radio program during his internment.
Most of the San Francisco internees were members of the Ex-Combattenti, the Federation of Italian War Veterans in America. Veterans of World War I (when Italy and America were allies), they were apparently singled out because the group was on the FBI list of "dangerous" organizations. During the thirties, the veterans' main project had been collecting and distributing funds for war widows and orphans in Italy. By 1941, the State Department had decided that the receiving agencies in Italy were too "closely identified" with the Italian Government; continued disbursal of monies to the Associazione Nazionale Famiglie dei Caduti in Guerra (National Association for Families of War Dead) and various Community Welfare Funds was a violation of the 1939 U.S. Neutrality Act. The FBI then began surveillance of individual members. FBI files do not, however, reveal any illegal or "subversive" activities. In fact, some ex-combattenti who were openly anti-fascist or, at most, apolitical, were interned.

Italy's surrender on September 8, 1943 brought about the release of most of the Italian American internees by year's end. Some had been paroled months after "exoneration" by a second hearing board appealed for by their families. Nonetheless, most of the men had spent two years as prisoners, moving from camp to camp every three to four months. Neither they nor their families would ever forget it.

Photo of Nereo Francesconi
Nereo Francesconi, interned during the war, poses after the war with San Francisco mayor Christopher.
Photo of Louis Francesconi
Louis Francesconi was drafted after his father returned from internment.