Italian Immigrants and World War II
When millions of Italians immigrated to the Unites States, they endured hardships and discrimination they could have never imagined. As a result, they often gave up their ethnic names, their primary language, and more. But they never gave up on their dreams of becoming a true American.
Then World War II happened and Italy found itself on the wrong side of the war initially. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, already not a fan of Italian immigrants, signed Executive Order 9066. It granted the secretary of war and his commanders the power “to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded.”
This wide-sweeping directive allowed the government to round up thousands of Italian, Japanese, and German immigrants at will. They lost their property, their personal belongings, their businesses, and were shamed and shunned by the greater American population. Many wound up in camps, far from their homes. They were investigated, fingerprinted, questioned, and given ID cards they were to carry with them at all times. One of which was my great-grandmother, Concetta Zinna Cammarato. She was required to register as an Alien of Enemy Nationality, as she was not a United States citizen. Her son and my great-uncle, Anthony, went with her to complete her paperwork, as it appears she was illiterate. Each form was signed with a cross and “witnessed by” her son Anthony. Next to each cross was the notation “her mark.” She was ultimately investigated twice. The first time for not being an American citizen when WWII broke out; the second time because she moved without notifying the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service of the planned move. It is worth mentioning she moved from Newark to… Newark. Just a few blocks away from her original home. My illiterate sixty-something year old great-grandmother; public enemy number one.
Her story, sadly, is not unusual.
However, when the war broke out, Italian immigrants lined up to fight on the side of their new homeland; against their country of origin.
My Uncles joined the military along with the 1.5 million other Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent during World War II, making up 10% of the total fighting force, eager to prove their loyalty to their new home country. While they were off fighting against their homeland, however, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants in America were subject to curfews, forced from their homes, and lived in military camps without trials.
It was their way of proving their loyalty to America. Many served heroically. Even more lost their lives.
Enter John Basilone from Raritan, New Jersey. One of 10 children, Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916 and grew up in Raritan. At age 15 he dropped out of school to work locally for a short time before joining the military. He first served in the Army. After his discharge he enlisted again. This time as a Marine.
Basilone was initially assigned to the 16th Infantry at Fort Jay, New York, before being discharged for a day, reenlisting, and being assigned to the 31st Infantry.
After his discharge from the Army, he wanted to return to Manilla and serve once again, so he reenlisted; this time as a Marine.
He went to recruit training at Parris Island, followed by training at Marine Corps Base Quantico and New River. The Marines sent him to Guantánamo Bay for his next assignment and then to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. He was reassigned back in America, but asked to return to combat to continue to serve his country.
Basilone was then assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire.
His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.
He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in World War II. Two United States Navy destroyers bear his name.
So this Veteran’s Day I ask you to remember the countless men and women of Italian descent like John Basilone. They served with honor. And we owe them everything.