Just two-and-a-half months after Pearl Harbor on February 19, 1942 at the urging of major newspapers, an erroneous intelligence report and in the face of a nervous public,(and it might be added, decades of an entrenched anti-Asian prejudice,) President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 giving the U.S. Military almost-unbridled power to place people of Japanese heritage in confinement. In the following weeks and months, 120,000 men, women and children, of whom 70% were U.S. citizens and most of the others residents of 20 to 40 years, would be removed from their homes, businesses and sidewalks of the American West and transported to dozens of so-called “assembly centers” before eventually being transported to ten hurriedly-readied but primitive “relocation centers” across the country – mostly in the west. They would be permitted to carry two suitcases each. Everything left behind would become the property of the U.S. government; homes, private possessions, some of the country’s most beautiful and productive farms, ranches and orchards, bank accounts, investments and savings. Some of the hardest hit would be the industrious commercial fishermen of the Pacific coast who would have no boats – the rewards of a life-long commitment to hard work and careful saving - to return to when the war was over.
Ironically, Hawaii – the very place where Japanese sympathizers were believed to have aided the raid on Pearl Harbor with advance intelligence and secret radio signals – largely escaped the same kind of treatment as befell the mainlanders. Since they represented more than 40% of the territory’s population, it was decided that internment would be both difficult to accomplish and devastating to the local economy. (By the way, in 1943 Military Intelligence discovered that the Hawaii spies helping the Japanese attackers were in fact Nazi Germans; not Japanese Americans! In fact throughout the four years of WWII there was not a single incident of treason on the part of indigenous people with Japanese family ties.) No matter, Nisei living in Hawaii did not escape the same kind of racial prejudice and mistreatment as those residing stateside, and many did indeed suffer temporary incarceration.
Most of the Internment camps were surrounded by barbed wire and towers manned by armed guards in remote desert-like locations. Housing consisted of blocks of long narrow tarpaper-covered buildings with the internees crowded together in units consisting of small family spaces with no more privacy than hung sheets separating them from each other, usually with single open rooms for showering and latrines with no dividers; Army cots with flat pads and army blankets for sleeping. Some had small coal stoves for cold weather, but not all. Meals were eaten in common areas.
Each camp acquired a reputation of its own, from Manzanar situated in California’s Owens Valley which was especially infamous for harsh confinement measures, to Gila River southeast of Phoenix which was the least restrictive and enjoyed excellent relations with the local population. One of the most unfortunate incidents occurred in April, 1943 at Topaz near Delta, Utah, where a guard shot and killed a 65-year old internee who did no more than wander near a corner of the fenced yard. There is no record of any disciplinary action following the event. Tule Lake in northern California was the largest, with nearly 12,000 prisoners at one time, and Rohwer in Arkansas which housed only 8500, but of whom 2000 were school kids!
Not often spoken of or written about is an eleventh camp located at the old Dalton Wells CCC camp near Moab, Utah. It was selected as a place to send “troublesome” internees (meaning Isei or 1st-generation Americans, who having been born in the USA, refused to sign the insulting “loyalty pledge” at Manzanar.) Their deliberate isolation and cruel treatment is something which the Nazi Gestapo might have dreamed up! It was known by its prisoners as “a living hell.”
And let’s end this short story with an observation about euphemisms – because that is what the terms Assembly Centers, Relocation Centers and Internment Camps are; Convenient euphemisms. Historians and language experts have finally agreed that when people who have committed no crime are seized and incarcerated behind barbed wire guarded by armed soldiers, and held not because of what they have done, BUT BECAUSE OF WHO THEY ARE, those places are concentration camps. And it happens only because good people allow it to happen.
In all, 14,000 of those young Nisei volunteered to serve in combat for the country which continued to withhold the freedom of their families at home. Next week we will take a close look at the unparalleled service of those young AMERICANS.
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Reparation Act compensating internee families and apologizing for their unconstitutional treatment during WWII