“They swore us in and gave us our citizenship papers. They couldn't have an enemy alien in the Army, so we had to be citizens.”
The current immigration debate needs to be viewed in the long range contexts of our shared American experience.
A significant number of Italian-Americans found themselves without citizenship status when Mussolini declared war on the U.S. on Dec. 11, 1941. They became enemy aliens.
Their story has been recorded by Stephen Fox in “The Unknown Internment: An Oral History of the Relocation of Italian Americans during World War II,” published in 1990.
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Several of the histories impact Camp Roberts.
Joe Nieri’s father was born in Brazil, but went to Italy where Joe was born. The family moved to Humboldt County in the 1920s. When the war came, there was no problem for Joe’s father since he was born in a country allied with the US. But young Joe and his brother, who were technically enemy aliens, were ordered to move east of G Street in Arcata, the Old Highway 101, and stay there.
The family had to rent a house on 9th Street. Joe’s high school was west of G Street, so he couldn’t go. Ultimately, Joe was permitted to graduate a year late, in 1943, something that brought back old memories when it came time for class reunions. Joe says, “You kind of forgive, but you can’t forget.”
Joe recalls other deprivations:
“I couldn't get a job; all the jobs were on the west side of the highway. All we could do was sit around the house. We used to love to go clam digging, but that was too far for us to travel . . . The Japanese were in concentration camps; I really felt sorry for them. But we were just like in a concentration camp, too, but for a short time. We couldn't go out on dates or anything.
“They made us go in the Army. We had to register for the draft, even being enemy aliens, which I could not comprehend.
“We registered anyway, and got a notice to report to San Francisco. But we didn't go. We were that bitter. So they sent a sergeant or somebody and the local police. They came over to our house and gave us an ultimatum: ‘You will go down for a physical and if you pass you're going to go in the Army or you're going to prison.’
“So we didn't have too much of a choice. We talked it over and thought about it, and decided we didn't want to dirty the family's reputation.
“We went in the Army (on May 3, 1944). At first we were in the artillery down at Camp Roberts. About two months later they took all the aliens — mostly Mexicans — over to the county seat at San Luis Obispo. They swore us in and gave us our citizenship papers. They couldn't have an enemy alien in the Army, so we had to be citizens.
“Later . . . of all the places, we were sent to Italy! And we got into the fighting there, just above Rome.
“Yeah, it wasn't very pleasant, but it was the last two weeks of the war. Still, when those bullets buzz over your head, and you don't know if your name is on it, it's terrible.
“When the Germans made a final push up there by Milan, I got hit in the back with mortar shrapnel.”
Joe’s brother was also hit. They were in the same foxhole.
Of all places, Joe and his brother were sent to a field hospital in Lucca, their ancestral town.
The brothers talked to a civilian who happened to know their uncle. When the uncle heard about the brothers, relatives came to visit them.
“That's how we got to know where they were” in Italy. Joe said.