Connecticut’s Italian immigrants fought with U.S. in World War I

By Emily Plavcan, SCSU Journalism student

Emily Plavcan, a journalism student at Southern Connecticut State University, reported this story as part of Journalism Capstone coursework on World War I.

After 25 years into his life in New Haven, Conn., Italian native James G. Ceriani packed up his small cafe, and shipped off to World War I.

Ceriani fought in New Haven with the Italian Machine Gun Co., according to Christopher Sterba, who detailed Ceriani’s immigration and service in the journal article, “Your Country Wants You: New Haven’s Italian Machine Gun Company Enters World War I.”

Ceriani was among the 20 percent of foreign-born Americans to serve in the war for his new country, wrote Sterba. Connecticut, and New Haven in particular, had a growing Italian immigrant population.

In 1917, 35,000 of New Haven’s 160,000 residents were of Italian descent. More than half of those 35,000 were born in America, according to Sterba.

In 1917, Italian immigrants were one of the top percentage of immigrants that immigrated to America, according to the “U.S. Immigration Statistics: Immigration Station at Ellis Island, NY.”

Sterba details how Ceriani came to New Haven, Connecticut, working at a restaurant until he was able to open his own.

“He worked for several years as a waiter before raising enough money to buy his own restaurant. One of the few immigrant entrepreneurs to leave the confines of the Italian colony, or colonia, he located his Cafe Mellone near the city green,” Sterba wrote.

“Nearly 20 percent of the four million men who served in the American armed forces during World War I had not been born in the United States, but the complexity of their loyalties and the strength of their commitment have been grossly under examined in histories of World War I,” wrote Sterba.

Italians were the majority in the immigrant population, according to an academic paper written by David Laskin called “Italian- Americans in the Great War.”

“Immigration was at an all-time high when the United States entered the conflict in April 1917, and Italians accounted for the largest number of new arrivals. When Congress authorized a draft in June 1917,” wrote Laskin, “immigrants were deemed eligible for service so long as they had taken out their ‘first papers’ declaring their intention become U.S. citizens. Tens of thousands of Italians from all over the country were swept into the armed forces and shipped out to the trenches of France.”

Carl Antonucci Jr., director of library services at Central Connecticut State University, and Kenneth DiMaggio, professor of humanities at Capital Community College in Hartford, spoke about Italian Immigrants fighting in the war at a presentation at Central titled “Cross-Culture: Connecticut’s response to WWI.”

Antonucci said that there was a debate about which side Italian immigrants would fight for in World War I.

“There was a lot of conflict, what side, when America entered, which side would would you sign up to fight for. And Italy at the time, they needed to have men sign up because most of the, alot of their people came to the United States, a lot of them male,” said Antonucci.

Antonucci referenced a Bridgeport Evening Farmer article that talked about how Italians should be ready to go back to Italy and fight in the war on Italy’s side.

“But not many of them wanted to go back,” said Antonucci. “Many were involved here in their own lives in the United States and they were struggling to make ends meet and it would bring tremendous suffering to their relatives if the support of the family shot in the war. There was a lot of conflicting views on this. Should people go back? Should they stay in the united states at this time.”

DiMaggio said the Italians wanted to fight for America and it was a matter of showing America where their loyalty lied.

“One of the things Italians hoped to prove was, they were Americans,” said Dimaggio. “One way to show their loyalty to America was to fight in the war.”

Laskin wrote that the Italian immigrants chose to fight on the American side even though most were given the chance to fight for their home country.

“Italian-Americans had the choice of returning to fight with the Italian Army or staying and serving with their new country,” wrote Laskin. “The overwhelming majority chose the latter. They might be pick-and-shovel men in the subway tunnels of New York or laborers in the vineyards of California, but most Italian-Americans were proud to go to war for their adopted country.”