President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1934. In 1942, with an eye to a planned invasion of Italy, and to the upcoming elections (for which FDR needed the Italian vote), the government chose Columbus Day to announce that Italian Americans would no longer be considered enemies of the United States.
After Italy declared war on the United States in 1941, the government had placed restrictions on Italians living in the United States whether they were citizens or not, whether they had been born there or not. In addition to restricting alien Italians from coastal areas, all American Italians were no longer permitted to fish. The large Italian fishing fleets of Monterey and San Francisco lost their livelihoods, resulting in the closing of the fish canneries. The Navy then “requested” the boats of the fishing fleet to help guard the coast. Most of the boat captains and crews volunteered to stay with the boats under the command of the Navy, but the Navy refused them in large part because of a report compiled in 1940 in anticipation of the war. It read:
“The majority of Italians are not good seamen, good fishermen, nor good navigators. They are not over-intelligent, do not know the Rules of the Road, and, in general, appear to have the characteristics of big overgrown children.” It went on to say that “Italians, in addition to being volatile and excitable, are not energetic, would rather tie up to the dock than fish, and, as a rule, do not have the courage to prosecute an energetic naval task independently.”
In the following excerpt from In the Shadow of Lies, a sardine fisherman tells his brother, a farmer, and his brother’s friends about delivering his beloved boat to the Navy.
Bennie Fiori pushed through the door of the café with a man who had to be his brother, the sardine fisherman from Monterey. He nodded to Oliver, then joined Harry at the table by the fire.
Bennie introduced his brother. “Jack is going to be staying with me for a while.”
Jack looked exhausted. Worse, as if his soul were exhausted.
“How are things in Monterey? What is happening along the coast? With the fishing fleet?” Bruno hadn’t let Jack sit down before he had peppered him with questions. Jack looked at Bennie, as if asking what he should say.
“Tell them about last night. It might help.” He shrugged. “It can’t hurt.”
Jack settled in his chair and drank the espresso the waitress had brought him. He nodded a few times, then leaned toward the men, who, in turn, leaned in toward him.
“Last night, we brought our boats to Treasure Island. It was like we were sailing inside a bottle of ink. We were running without lights through the black night, past the dark lighthouses, and then the ocean began to glow. We saw shapes flickering against the shimmering water. The curve of a bow, the reflection off a hull.” He shuddered. “ We looked like a ghostly funeral procession, sailing through the night from Monterey to San Francisco.”
The ever-practical Bruno interrupted Jack’s lyrical description of the voyage. “With the war, we need canned fish more than ever. Why did they take your boats?”
“Eh. The Navy knocked on our doors before we even knew if our sons and brothers had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. They said they needed our boats to help defend the coast. Most of us volunteered to stay with the boats and work with the Navy, but the Navy said no. It didn’t need us. Just our boats. What could we do?”
“The government didn’t trust you. It took the boats because Italy had declared war on the US,” Bruno whispered.
Jack nodded. “It broke my heart to see the schools of sardines glowing in the water. The sardine runs this year have been better than any of us ever could remember. It should have been a year for paying off debts, putting something away for leaner times. Instead the fishing is over and our boats are gone.”
“What about your crews?”
“They don’t know what will happen next. My friend Carmen insisted on going with me to deliver the boat to the Navy, even though Japanese subs had been seen off the coast. We didn’t ask our crews to come. It should be enough to give up the boat you loved, your livelihood, the future of your sons; you shouldn’t have to risk the life of your crew delivering her. But some men, like Carmen, showed up anyway.”
“What will you do now?” Harry knew fishermen. They were lost on land.
“Without fishing and the canneries, there’s nothing left for Italians in Monterey.” Jack’s smile reminded Harry of mothers watching their sons leave for war. The fisherman seemed to realize how defeated he sounded. He looked toward the window. When he looked back, it was as if he had put his regrets behind him. “I’m too old to join the Navy, so I said good-bye to the Stella Maris and came to see if I could learn to catch vegetables.”
Bennie put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. Harry thought the brothers carried the war’s burdens with grace. But this was only the beginning.