The Secretary of State to the Italian Ambassador (Colonna)

The Secretary of State presents his compliments to His Excellency the Royal Italian Ambassador and has the honor to refer to the Ambassador’s note of May 16, 1941 concerning the taking of possession and control of twenty-eight Italian merchant vessels in ports of the United States and the detention of their officers and crews.

The Department of State is in receipt of a communication from the Acting Secretary of the Treasury, dated July 8, 1941, wherein the following reply is made with respect to the four points to which the Ambassador invited the attention of the Secretary of State in his note of May 16:

“The first point suggests that it would be inaccurate to state that the Italian vessels were enjoying the hospitality and protection of the United States on the ground that they were virtually prisoners in the United States by reason of the regulations of the Secretary of the Treasury issued on June 27, 1940, with the approval of the President pursuant to section 1, title II of the Act of June 15, 1917, 40 Stat. 220 (U. S. C. title 50, sec. 191) and the President’s Proclamation of June 27, 1940. Paragraph 7 of these regulations provides that no vessel shall depart from any port or place in the United States on a voyage on which clearance by a customs officer is required, unless the principal customs officer in charge of the port of departure shall have been authorized by the Secretary of the Treasury to permit the departure. A departure without the necessary permit would be a violation of law subjecting the vessel to forfeiture, and the master, owner, agent or [Page 481] person in charge would be subject to imprisonment for not more than ten years and, in the discretion of the court, to a fine of not more than $10,000. It cannot be said, however, that these vessels were prohibited from leaving the United States by this regulation. No application for permission to depart from the United States was ever made on behalf of any of the Italian ships in question. As a matter of fact, permission was given, when requested, for the Italian ships Antonietta, Mar Glauco, and Santa Rosa to leave Norfolk for Philadelphia in July and August, 1940, and for the Pietro Campanella and the Euro to leave Norfolk for Baltimore in August, 1940.

“The damage done to the vessels was clearly a violation of the hospitality of the United States. Without notice to port officials the vessels were rendered incapable of movement under their own power, thus creating a danger to other vessels and to harbor facilities. Hulks are not granted the same dock and anchorage privileges as other vessels. The vessels were rendered incapable of combating fire which is an ever present hazard. The danger to other ships and docks from such a fire is obvious. In some cases the ships were damaged by firing dry boilers. This action in itself created a real peril of disaster.

“The second point of the Italian Ambassador’s note is that mere damage to the motive power of the vessels does not warrant the conclusion that they might subsequently be sunk or burned. The damage to the machinery of the ships can in nowise be described as ‘dismantling.’ The fact is that the machinery was smashed. As pointed out above this action created a serious menace to other ships and to harbor facilities. This deliberate disregard for the safety of other ships and harbors can only lead to the conclusion that the next step might be even more serious.

“In answer to the third point, the facts already discussed demonstrate that the deliberate damage to the vessels in question cannot be considered an ‘innocent act.’

“As a fourth point it is stated that the Italian seamen were required by their contracts and the law of nations to remain on board the ships and that to permit them to remain on board could not be considered an act of indulgence by the United States. Authority to remove the officers and members of the crew of any vessel in order to protect the vessel or any harbor or waters of the United States from damage or injury is contained in section 1, title II of the Act of June 15, 1917, cited above. Since the Italian vessels were in fact damaged by their crews, the failure to remove the crews from the ships was clearly an unwise and too trusting indulgence.”