`Alien' thoughts never entered Marchetti's mind

It was something he rarely talked about, and friends felt reluctant to introduce the subject in conversation. Now, more than a half-century later, Gino Marchetti, not offended or in any way irate, describes how it was when the government made his mother move outside the town of Antioch, Calif., restricting her movements during World War II because she was Italian-American and lacking citizenship papers.

The Marchetti family had to leave its home and find another place to live -- separated from the geographical boundaries of its then-tiny community in Northern California. Orders from federal authorities, they were told.

Son Gino, who became the most accomplished defensive end in NFL history, earning more Pro Bowl selections (11) than any other Baltimore Colt, remembers during World War II that some Italian-Americans living in California were made to leave from their residences because of a fear they would involve themselves in acts of sabotage. A wrong assumption; a decision by the government that Italians who had not completed the naturalization process were considered "enemy" aliens.

It remained that two of the Marchetti boys, Gino and his older brother, Lino, joined the army with the hope they could contribute to winning the war. Gino was in the late stages of the Battle of the Bulge, serving with the celebrated "Fighting 69th Division," 273rd Infantry, Regiment I.

The issue has been brought to the fore after all this time by two New York congressmen, Rep. Rick A. Lazio, a Long Island Republican, and Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from the Bronx. They are co-sponsoring a bill that asks the Justice Department to outline for the public the restrictions imposed upon some of those of Italian origin.

At 73 and retired in West Chester, Pa., the onetime partner in the enormously successful Ameche-Gino Foods, Inc., carries no animosity over what his family was made to endure. It was a momentous inconvenience, a personal indignity, but the Marchettis didn't protest.

"I've read stories that I played with a grudge over what happened to my mother during World War II, and that's what motivated me to have so much intensity," Gino said. "Anyone who knows me realizes I never carried a grudge. Our family loved America, and my older brother and I were ready to die in the war, like a lot of other Italian-Americans, if necessary. We accepted what happened because we believed in obeying orders."

Those of Japanese-American ancestry were incarcerated in remote work camps. The government feared Japanese and also Italians might be tempted to engage in acts of espionage. But Maria Marchetti, who spoke only a trace of English, had to move out of Antioch, where the family had settled and her husband owned a business.

"The population of Antioch was then about 3,000, and an old paper mill was all it had," Gino recalled. "It wasn't like we had steel mills or defense plants. My father and mother loved America, everything about it, and if we were told to do something like that, my father said there must be a good reason. So we did it without a word of complaint.

"You have no idea how much those immigrants, the old-timers, worshiped the U.S.A. and the chance to be in this country. We tried to boost my mom's spirits all the time, but for six months she must have cried every day. She was barred from even coming into town. We kept our house in Antioch vacant and lived in kind of a two- or three-room apartment outside of town, which we were told we had to do, all because my mother wasn't a formalized citizen."

Why Italian-Americans had to suffer the dehumanizing action was somewhat similar to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt's advisers felt had to be done with Japanese-Americans -- moved away from coastal locations, where they were considered threats to observing troop or ship movements and passing the information on as spies to hamper the U.S. war effort.

The Japanese-Americans were granted, under the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, a payment of $20,000 if they were interned, relocated or evacuated, but no such provision has been made for Italian-Americans, which seems grossly unfair.

Italian-Americans were extremely loyal to the U.S. cause, fighting with gallantry and much pride during World War II. They were hit with heavy casualty counts, but fought on in every theater of operations. Marchetti was in heavy combat, witnessed Gen. George Patton in operation and said:

"As the war wound down in Europe, we must have been taking 5,000 prisoners a week. The Germans were down to rock bottom, kind of like that Dallas Texans team I played on in 1952 before coming to Baltimore. Most of the Germans we rounded up were real young, nothing more than kids in many instances, and old men. They didn't want to be taken by the Russians. Our outfit was at the Elbe River when the war in Europe was over. We were slated to get some time off and then ship to the Pacific for more fighting."

But the atom bomb brought surrender from the Japanese, and Marchetti returned to Antioch, and ultimately a momentous career in pro football.

What does Gino think about the efforts to bring the Italian cause to the attention of America, even at this late date? "I see it as all water under the bridge. I just know how much my mother and father loved this country. America gave all of us so much we could never express our thanks."

A grateful Gino regretted what happened to his mother, but hasn't made it a cause celebre. He was fighting on the battlefields of Europe to defend democracy while Mama Marchetti was restricted in what she could do and where she could go in her adopted country of America. Bitter irony.

The town of Antioch is so impressed with Gino's achievements that it created a park and named it in his honor. Marchetti, through it all, just tried to make his mother proud.

Pub Date: 2/13/00