FOR THE RECORD: Wednesday, July 12, 1995 CORRECTION: Bert Fraser was the chief of detention at Fort Missoula during World War II. His name was misspelled in Sunday’s In-Life.
Francesco Guastella’s long road to citizenship began at Ellis Island. Unlike most, it was at gunpoint. With Italy waging war in Europe, his Italian cargo ship was seized in New Jersey. The young Sicilian sailor was ordered to collect his things and enter Ellis Island. A month later, he and 120 others were escorted onto a train heading west.
Their long trip ended at dawn, in a valley near the mouth of the Bitterroot River, on the southwest edge of Missoula, Mont.
“It was so beautiful,” Guastella remembers. “And so cold.” The men called it Bella Vista - beautiful view.
For more than two years, Italian sailors, cruise ship captains and world-famous chefs would live behind fences at historic Fort Missoula. Instead of fighting a losing war in Europe, they would fight first boredom and then the United States’ own manpower shortage: working the railroad, fighting forest fires and harvesting sugar beets.
Decades later, some would still be working on the railroad. Others manned restaurants from Lydia’s in Butte to Louis D’s at the Davenport in Spokane. They joined the U.S. Armed Forces and merchant marine, ran California construction companies and inspected Spokane streets.
Pietro “Jim” Savalli was the son of a shipping line’s comptroller. He had every reason to return to Italy after his 1940 voyage ended. Interned at Fort Missoula, he never did.
“I don’t think there’s any question he would have gotten this shipping business out of his system and gone back home,” said his widow, Toni Savalli.
Instead, Savalli married the daughter of his mentor, raised their child and lived the rest of his life in Spokane.
This fall, a documentary film on the Italians held at Fort Missoula is expected to air on KSPS public television in Spokane. It features three Spokane men and three more in western Montana. Co-producer Kathy Witkowsky reveals a little-known story of what happened to the men and how most returned to Italy.
What she found fascinating were the ones who managed to stay.
“Some of us came,” said Frank Guastella, “and found a life.”
Eight months before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt, fearing Axis merchant ships were being sabotaged in anticipation of an Allied takeover, ordered them seized.
The crews and visiting Italians with expired visas were detained. Rounded up were Italian seamen, employees of the 1939 World’s Fair and the crew of the Conte Biancamano, an Italian luxury liner held the previous year in the Panama Canal.
Seventeen-year-old John Pelle, returning to his passenger ship from a weekend ashore, wasn’t even allowed to retrieve his things. He was told he would get them “tomorrow.”
“Fifty-four years, I’m still waiting,” he says with a laugh.
For the next two years, authorities in Italy badgered Pelle’s mother for his whereabouts. Pelle would lose two brothers during the war. His mother told the Italian authorities that if they wanted anther son, they could go and get him in Fort Missoula.
“The great irony is that for many of these men, they were safer behind fences at Fort Missoula than as free men in Italy,” says Witkowsky.
In Rome, an inflammatory newspaper reported the detained seamen “had been jailed with common criminals and herded into concentration camps. They were being watched by policemen, most of whom were Jews.”
In fact, when Guastella arrived with the first detainees at Fort Missoula in May 1941, there wasn’t even a fence. It would be weeks before one was built.
A former regional headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the camp was chosen in part because it was too far from anywhere to pose a military security risk, said Darla Bruner Wilson, education curator of Historic Fort Missoula.
Border Patrol guards from the Spokane District, Missoula police and 75 crack shots from the Missoula Rod and Gun Cub were recruited for security. The latter were never needed.
Guards in towers kept watch while three horsemen patrolled the large area outside the compound.
The chief security officer later said any of their jobs could have been done by a Boy Scout.
Discipline among the Italians was tight. The men practically governed themselves, holding elections and grievance proceedings.
No one ever was reported missing.
Living in prefabricated barracks, the men performed all camp work. Pelle remembers they had their own priest, shoemaker, barbers and “the best cooks.” In the kitchen was chef Orlando Figini, who managed the Italian Village restaurant at the New York World’s Fair.
“We also had the best thieves,” Guastella said with a laugh over the co-worker who filched raisins from the bakery to make wine.
“I was in the good bunch, he was in the bad one,” Pelle explained.
“We been together since 1940,” Guastella said with a sidelong look at Pelle. “I got a brother I don’t know as well.”
“Yeah, well I should claim you as a dependent on my income tax,” Pelle responded.
The friendship stretches between the two like a bloodline, through crisis and fortune and loss. Pelle once waged a mini-strike against the Forest Service to ensure Frank stayed with his crew. Looking at 54-year-old photographs from Fort Missoula, they pull names from the decades like this morning’s news.
They remember when the first of 1,000 Japanese Americans began arriving in December 1941. The two groups, though within shouting distance, stayed separate. The newcomers, Americans of Japanese ancestry, were viewed by other Americans as enemy aliens. The foreign-born Italians, detained before the war began, were perceived as far less threatening.
The Japanese Americans were at Missoula before being moved to other camps, as were about 200 Italian Americans viewed as dangerous. (Non-military German sailors were sent to Bismarck, N.D., and Fort Stanton, N.M.)
To pass the interminable hours, the Italians played soccer, built model ships and walked endlessly. They formed a choir, orchestra and staged plays. A string quartet performed for 1,000 Missoulians. They went to Mass. John Pelle was confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church while there.
Witkowsky, a former Spokesman-Review reporter, based her film on the cultural life they nurtured.
“The story becomes how people turn to culture to keep themselves sane, to keep themselves human,” she said. “It was really through their Italian culture that they hung on. And, that’s what made the camp different from other internment camps in the country.”
But the hours of inactivity and years of separation from their families began to take their toll. In December 1942, after 18 months of captivity, the medical officer stated “if the men are not furnished more work and liberties, I dread conditions a year from now.”
That tension, coupled with the manpower shortage, set the Italians to work. They established a leatherwork shop and serviced Missoula autos, according to Bruner-Wilson.
Work crews went to town to paint, others to cook and clean at the Florence Hotel and hospital in Missoula.
Guastella and Pelle cultivated sugar beets around Stevensville and Victor.
Pelle well remembers the kindness of the farm family, the camp doctors and the U.S. Border Patrol’s Bert Frazier, chief of detention. Frazier used to take Pelle and his friends into town for ice cream.
“When we were in Missoula, those people in charge were the greatest people on earth,” he said.
Frazier, in fact, was among the major supporters of the Italians, helping to smooth their way into the community.
In a December 1943 speech to the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, Frazier announced the Italians were being paroled to work for the Forest Service and at hotels and hospitals in Spokane.
“The Italians made good firefighters,” he said. They’d worked for months on the railroads and “many were Fascists who had had their eyes opened and now want to live in this country.”
Frazier also defended the Japanese Americans he had encountered in the camps, saying he was convinced of their loyalty.
As the war changed, so did the internment. After the Allied liberation of southern Italy in the autumn of 1943, immigration officials tried to return some of the men to Italy. According to the education curator at Fort Missoula, it failed. The Italians sent to New York refused to board ships for home, fearing their Fascist or anti-Facist views would cause retaliation for their families. Meanwhile, businesses in the West were crying for employees.
Guastella and Pelle were among 82 of the internees who worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad, laying ties for 54 cents an hour, 10 hours a day. It was so cold that spring, the sweat froze on their clothing.
By April 1944, Fort Missoula was empty.
In Spokane, internees were working in hospitals, restaurants and hotels.
Every Sunday afternoon, the renowned Spokane Hotel chef, Joe Durante, opened his home to the young Italians.
“My dad dragged them all home and my mother fed them,” Toni Durante Savalli remembers. “The Italian community at that time really took those fellas in.”
Of all the men who came to eat and politely visit, it was former internee Jim Savalli who caught the eye of Durante’s daughter.
“He was terribly good looking,” recalls Toni Savalli, now deputy director of the Spokane Library. “And my mother loved him.”
Gary Bartole, a Spokane County bailiff, said his father, Bruno, wowed his future Washington in-laws with his Italian ways.
The matches seem particularly romantic even now: as though the men had come halfway around the world for these wives.
Pelle married a young Spokane woman he had met at a dance here. They were just starting their life in the postwar years when the news came: The Italians were now considered to have overstayed their visas. They would be deported.
Pelle left to try and re-enter the country at Vancouver, British Columbia. “We didn’t know if he’d be gone a week or a year,” his wife, Frances, remembers.
It was less than a week.
Others, like Bartole, joined the U.S. Armed Forces and American merchant marine. But most apparently returned to Italy, including Guastella.
Broken-hearted, he resumed his marine career and within a few months was on an Italian ship docked in Baltimore.
U.S. immigration officials demanded that he be locked up while in port, since he was not supposed to re-enter the country for at least a year.
At dinner one night, while a guard was retrieving the salt shaker, Guastella fled. Running down the stairs, his shoe caught on the gangplank. He kicked off the other.
Shots were fired as Guastella ran - barefoot - to freedom. He hitched a ride to a shoe store, then caught the first bus to Spokane.
“It was rough going for a while,” he remembered later. “I never made much money, we lived payday to payday. I thank God for the woman who helped see me through” - his wife, Josephine.
Each family has its story: of the struggle to learn English, overcome a lack of formal education, establish friendships and hard, hard work.
Pelle eventually joined the city of Spokane and retired as inspector for the street department. Guastella also retired from the street department. Jim Savalli became a well-known waiter and banquet manager at the Ridpath and later at Louis D’s.
Fewer than two dozen of the internees are believed to have stayed, posting addresses from Florida to St. Louis to California. In Italy, there have been reunions among internees. Not here.
For years after the camp was dismantled, the story remained untold. When Witkowsky began her queries, even the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Justice and Defense departments acted surprised to hear of it. Witkowsky and co-producer Lori Hudak, both of Missoula, hope their film remedies that. They plan a study guide to accompany the video to schools.
The film “Bella Vista: A View of World War II from Montana” features Pelle, Guastella and Athos Menneto, a retired telephone company employee from Spokane.
The land the men called Bella Vista is empty now. But it is hardly quiet.
Turned over to the University of Montana and sold to developers, it has been the site of a bitter fight over plans to build houses and condominiums on the internment camp foundations.
On June 20, the Montana Supreme Court essentially shelved the developers’ plans, ruling that Missoula voters had acted legally when they overturned zoning for the project last year.
Among the leading opponents is Carole Incoronato Toppins, whose father, Don, was interned at Fort Missoula. Much of Montana’s history and wildlife is on those 83 acres, she says. Her roots are there, as well.
“My father really saw Fort Missoula as an opportunity,” said Toppins.
He was not alone. Despite being held for years against their will, the surviving internees who elected to stay bear remarkably little bitterness.
Jim Savalli used to say he regretted his best years were not completely his own, but in fact, they probably saved his life.
“It turned out for the best,” said John Pelle. “Really, we were blessed.”
As a child in Italy, Pelle dreamed of two things: seeing San Francisco and building his own home.
He saw San Francisco. In 1959, working two jobs in order to pay for it, he built his own home.
Today, across the street from that Spokane house, Russian immigrants work 15 hours a day refurbishing a fixer-upper.
“They work so hard, they remind me of him,” says Frances Pelle.
You can catch Pelle wandering over there, hoisting a cold 12-pack, offering a lawn mower, saying in his soft accent, “Sit down, take a fiver.” He knows, he says, what they’re up against.
“Those kinds of people,” he says with approval, “that’s what makes this country go.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (1 color)
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