Internment

"I Am an American" Sign/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_11_IAmanAmerican_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. government forcibly evacuated Japanese immigrants and their families from their homes. The owner of the Wanto Co. grocery store in Oakland, California, protested the removal by posting this large sign over the closed store that proclaimed “I am an American.”

Nearly 6,000 miles away from the bloody combat in the French and Italian countryside, Norman Y. Mineta of California, a future 11-term Member of the House, experienced a far different war.

Mineta grew up in San Jose, California, and had just turned 10 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. The same day Inouye and his father ran outside to see black smoke billowing above the naval base in Hawaii, Mineta saw his own immigrant father cry for the first time, unsure of how to process news of the destruction and the uncertain consequences to come.25

Despite the attacks having occurred in Hawaii, the bombings had vast and devastating reverberations on the mainland. Inouye, like many Hawaiians of Japanese descent, lived under strict martial law, but he was allowed to stay in Honolulu, help at the Red Cross, finish high school, and enroll in college. For Mineta and the 120,000 Japanese Americans living in California, Oregon, and Washington State, however, the rhythms of everyday life were quickly disrupted by the federal government.

Residents Awaiting Transportation to Internment Camps/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_12_AwaitBus_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Residents of Japanese ancestry gather on April 6, 1942, at the Wartime Civil Control Administration in San Francisco. Having left their homes, they piled possessions in the street and waited to be sent to internment camps.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to your mother and me,” Mineta remembers his dad telling him and his siblings. “But just remember: All of you are U.S. citizens and this is your home. There is nothing anyone can do to take this away from you.”26

On February 19, 1942, however, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized military officials in the western states to forcibly remove Japanese immigrants and their families to temporary holding facilities to protect “against espionage and against sabotage.”27 Mineta, dressed in his Cub Scout uniform, and his family were forced to abandon their home, placed on a train, and sent hundreds of miles south to an assembly area at the Santa Anita racetrack outside Los Angeles. The compound was ringed with barbed wire and bright searchlights and staffed with armed military personnel. Mineta and his family stayed in makeshift barracks at the track while the unluckiest evacuees bunked in the horse stables. After four months, the Minetas were placed on another train and sent to an internment camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, in a valley just east of Yellowstone National Park. There they found more barbed wire and more machine guns.28

Executive Order 9066/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_13_EO9066AuthorizingRelocation_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order led to the detainment of persons of Japanese descent, both foreign-born and American citizens, in internment camps in six western states and Arkansas.
The policy of internment became the pivotal event in 20th-century Asian- American history. As thousands of American sailors lay dead or injured, federal officials and many other Americans turned the issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) and nisei into enemies of the state. While the U.S. military learned to live with Japanese Hawaiians, whose large numbers helped to ensure the smooth running of the islands’ economy, it treated Japanese Americans on the mainland very differently. It suspended Japanese Americans’ civil rights wholesale and forced this smaller population from their homes and livelihoods. Internment set back progress in the Japanese-American community for at least a generation.

Within a day or so after the attacks, the FBI arrested 1,500 Japanese immigrants throughout Hawaii and the western states. Armed with lists of “enemy” aliens that had been compiled by the Office of Naval Intelligence and a host of other groups, the FBI swiftly silenced much of the community’s leadership. When federal officials turned them over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the issei were imprisoned in camps scattered across the northern Midwest. By December 8, 1941, the United States had closed its borders to “all persons of Japanese ancestry, whether citizen or alien,” and frozen the bank accounts of many Japanese Americans. Within two days, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reported that he had “practically all” suspected enemy aliens in custody.29

Heart Mountain Relocation Camp/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_14_HeartMountain_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Japanese Americans from California and Washington State were sent to War Relocation Authority camps, including Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming. Here, a man walks down one of the camp’s roads in 1942 as the mountain rises behind the rows of barracks.
The FBI’s efficiency failed to calm the fear rippling across the West Coast and the federal government that Pearl Harbor had been an inside job. “We have thousands of Japanese here,” the Los Angeles Times reminded its readers. The West Coast was now “a zone of danger” where “alert, keen-eyed civilians” now had to cope with “spies” and “saboteurs.” The cartoonist Theodor Geisel, known popularly as Dr. Seuss, stoked that fear when he drew hordes of mainland Japanese armed with explosives. A presidential commission to investigate the Japanese attacks reaffirmed the suspicion that Japanese spies living in America helped plan Pearl Harbor.30

In March 1942, FDR issued Executive Order 9102, which created a new agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA), to carry out the removal.31 Within weeks, the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command (WDC) had instituted curfews throughout the western states and ordered Japanese Americans to abide by the military’s authority.32

In the spring of 1942, the government sent all Japanese Americans, regardless of citizenship, living on the West Coast to 17 hastily created assembly centers. Evacuees, whom the WRA called the “incarcerated people,” could bring only what they could carry and had little ability to dispose of their other possessions or property. From there they were transported to WRA camps.33[Table 2]

Table 2: The War Relocation Authority Camps, 1942–1946

Name and LocationOpenedClosed
Poston, in Yuma County, AZ8 May 194228 November 1945 
Tule Lake, in Modoc County, CA27 May 194220 March 1946
Manzanar, in Inyo County, CA1 June 194221 November 1945
Gila River, in Pinal County, AZ20 July 194210 November 1945
Minidoka, in Jerome County, ID10 August 194228 October 1945
Heart Mountain, in Park County, WY12 August 194210 November 1945
Granada, in Prowers County, CO27 August 194215 October 1945
Topaz, in Millard County, UT11 September 194231 October 1945
Rohwer, in Desha County, AR18 September 194230 November 1945
Jerome, in Drew & Chicot Counties, AR6 October 194230 June 1944

U.S. Army, Western Defense Command, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast 1942 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1943): 256; Brian Niiya, ed., Encyclopedia of Japanese American History (New York: Checkmark Books, 2001): 174–175, 179, 190, 231–232, 266–267, 276, 337, 350–351, 390, 394–395.

FDR’s first choice to run the WRA was Milton S. Eisenhower, the younger brother of future President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Milton had accepted the job reluctantly, writing in April 1942, “I feel most deeply that when the war is over and we consider calmly this unprecedented migration of 120,000 people, we as Americans are going to regret the unavoidable injustices that may have been done.” One western governor cautioned him, “If you bring the Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree.” Milton Eisenhower resigned two and a half months later.34

Milton S. Eisenhower/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_15_MiltonEisenhower_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Milton S. Eisenhower as the first director of the War Relocation Authority in 1942. Eisenhower, however, did not support the policy of removal and internment and resigned less than three months later.
The capacities of the WRA camps varied from 7,500 to 18,000 inmates. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, the housing blocks were laid out in a grid pattern and surrounded by barbed-wire fences and guard towers. Each block contained 14 barracks made of wood and tar paper, 20 feet by 120 feet, divided into “apartments” of varying sizes. Unmarried adults had the smallest rooms. The largest rooms were reserved for families of six or more individuals. The apartments had no running water, no electricity initially, and no kitchen facilities.35 One internee recalled finding “a pot-bellied stove, a single electric light hanging from the ceiling, an Army cot for each person and a blanket for the bed.”36 Other buildings housed a central mess hall, communal bathrooms, school, and medical facilities. The bathrooms, one for each gender, had sinks, showers, and toilets, but lacked any measure of privacy.37

“We did not know where we were,” one internee recalled. “No houses were in sight, no trees or anything green—only scrubby sagebrush and an occasional low cactus, and mostly dry, baked earth.”38

Most adult internees worked for meager government salaries. They raised crops, cleaned the communal areas, cooked, provided clerical assistance, and transported goods. Unskilled laborers took home $12 per month, skilled workers earned $16, and professionals made $19. The Works Progress Administration also arranged for internees to work outside the camps. In the beginning, inmates helped during local harvests for a day or two. Later, the government authorized longer furloughs in midwestern cities to free up labor for defense work. Other Japanese Americans had indefinite leave to set up permanent resettlements outside the defense area as long as the internee could support him- or herself and reported any changes in address.39

In the Tanforan Barracks/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_16_TanforanBarracks_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration At the Tanforan temporary detention facility in San Bruno, California, a woman looks out through the doorway of a barracks built specifically to house a family. Photographer Dorothea Lange captured this scene at the War Relocation Authority camp in 1942.
On the whole, however, the demand on their time in the camps was light. Handicrafts helped pass the time. Internees built furniture out of spare lumber and set up bonsai gardens outside their apartments. The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council helped college-aged internees enroll in certain midwestern colleges and universities. In other cases, institutions of higher education simply barred the nisei.40

Parents and elders tried to create as normal an atmosphere as possible for young internees. “In camp we started getting organized because we knew we’d be there for a long time,” Mineta later remembered. “There were schools, theaters with candy counters; movies were a dime. So the life was probably typical of what it might have been in any community anywhere, except you had barbed wire, armed guards, the sentries and the search lights.”41

Such conditions eventually bred generational and cultural transformations. Before the camps, male issei heads of family held a significant amount of power. In the camps that status eroded. The Justice Department housed many of the patriarchs in separate facilities, forcing some out of communal activities because of their age or language abilities. Others suffered from depression. As a result, women and children performed much of the labor. They sat on organizations that communicated with the administrators and went out beyond the camps on work-release programs. The WRA banned Japanese-language instruction and outlawed Shinto ceremonies while the camp schools, taught by white teachers, stressed American patriotism. Rather than eating as a family unit, children and teenagers sat with their peer groups in the mess halls. Indeed, most social activities, from movies to sports, separated the young from their elders.42

Internees of Tule Lake Camp/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_17_TuleLakeWorkers_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Internees of Tule Lake camp in California plant celery. War Relocation Authority internees raised crops, cleaned, and performed other tasks for small salaries.
Life in the camps and the stresses of being wrenched away from home also revealed divisions among the internees. Each camp had two extremes. Among the issei, who never had the chance to become U.S. citizens, pride in Japan and its culture remained strong. The kibei, their U.S.-born children who had been educated in Japan and had come back to the States, shared their parents’ resentment that internment destroyed what they had built in America. At the other extreme were the hyperpatriotic nisei who belonged to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). They had cooperated with federal authorities before the war, identifying people in the Japanese-American community they saw as dangerous. The JACL claimed to speak for all nisei and saw relocation as an opportunity to prove their loyalty by cooperating with the program. The League opposed legal efforts to challenge internment and tried to stifle dissent or resistance within the camps.43

When the War Department began organizing the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the WRA tried to identify inmates who would be willing to fight for the same government that imprisoned their families. But in order to qualify for military service, the nisei had to prove their loyalty by answering a lengthy questionnaire.44

Internees Waiting to Board Buses/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_18_EvacueesJACL_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Internees wait outside the Japanese American Citizens League in Centerville, California, before boarding buses headed to the Tanforan Assembly Center on May 9, 1942.
The loyalty survey took questions from the normal draft registration, but, for Japanese immigrants who had been prevented by law from ever becoming U.S. citizens, the survey came as another insult. One question in particular, question 28, asked respondents if they maintained allegiance to the Japanese emperor. For noncitizens, the loyalty questionnaire essentially asked them to become stateless, not Japanese, but not fully American either.45

Much of the Japanese-American community had gone to the camps reluctantly, but quietly. For some, it was a way to assist the war effort and prove their loyalty. But over time, opposition within the camps took several forms. Internees criticized the loyalty survey and protested conditions in the camps. Some incidents turned violent. Eventually, the internees challenged the very legality of internment. Perhaps predictably, relatively few of them volunteered for military service. Unlike the high volunteer rates of Japanese Hawaiians who were not subject to imprisonment, by early 1944, only 1,200 mainland nisei had signed up.46

In a Barrack at Minidoka Camp/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_19_MinidokaEvacueeApartment_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration A member of the Nishi family sits in a barrack, furnished with scrap materials and items purchased by mail order, at Minidoka Camp in Idaho in 1942. Minidoka Camp administration officials worked with internees to improve living conditions.
The WRA, under its wartime head Dillon Myer, struggled with meager resources to make the camps tolerable. The more enlightened administrations, such as the one running the Minidoka camp, worked with the internees to improve living conditions. Other camp officials saw their responsibilities as protecting the country from potential danger. Unsurprisingly, where camps treated inmates with contempt, resistance to internment grew. At Wyoming’s Heart Mountain camp, inmates formed the Fair Play Committee and refused to participate in the draft until the government recognized nisei citizenship. Most were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison until President Harry S. Truman issued a mass pardon for nisei draft objectors in December 1947. Though Heart Mountain was located far outside the military evacuation zone, camp administrators clamped down on dissent, going so far as to ask the U.S. Office of Alien Property Custodian to shut down the Rocky Shimpo, a Japanese-American newspaper published by a small nisei community in Denver, Colorado, hundreds of miles away.47

Rocky Shimpo Newspaper/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_20_RockyShimpo_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A nisei community in Denver, Colorado, began publishing the Rocky Shimpo newspaper during World War II. Hundreds of miles away, administrators of the Heart Mountain relocation camp asked the U.S. Office of Alien Property Custodian to shut down the newspaper in a bid to silence dissent.
Violent outbreaks recurred at a handful of camps. In December 1942, at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, two internees were killed and another 10 were wounded when military police fired tear gas and live ammunition into a crowd of internees who had gathered to protest conditions in the camp. Administrators deported protest leaders to a Justice Department facility and moved 65 internees to another camp as the army tightened security. In April 1943, at the Topaz War Relocation Center, an elderly internee, James Hatsuki Wakasa, was shot to death by a watchtower sentry who claimed that Wakasa had tried to crawl through the fence. Though an initial army inquiry indicated a cover-up (Wakasa had been shot in the chest), a court-martial acquitted the sentry of murder. Later that year, at the Tule Lake Segregation Center, the army declared martial law after internees protested deadly working conditions and the WRA’s decision to pay outside farm laborers higher wages than internees. Inmates went on a brief hunger strike as 300 other prisoners were sent to a separate Justice Department facility. The protest slowly dwindled away.48

Because many of the internees were American citizens, legal challenges to internment soon appeared before federal judges, and four cases made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.49 The Supreme Court decided the first two cases, Hirabayashi v. United States and Yasui v. United States, in June 1943 (Gordon Hirabayashi of Seattle, Washington, and Minoru Yasui of Portland, Oregon, had separately challenged the WDC curfew). But the Justices unanimously sided with the government and stated that the curfew order fell within the “power to wage war successfully,” even if that meant singling out a group of people because of their ancestry.50 One Justice initially dissented and compared the experience of Japanese Americans to Jews in Europe under Nazi Germany, but his opinion was later edited to support the court’s consensus that the internment program went “to the very brink” of constitutional authority.51

Gordon Hirabayashi’s Draft Card/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_21_HirabayashiDraftCard_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Gordon Hirabayashi’s draft card lists his name, address, birthplace, and other personal details. “I am a conscientious objector,” Hirabayashi wrote neatly in blue ink in the left margin.
The Supreme Court also ruled on additional cases in late 1944, long after the perceived threat of a Japanese military invasion had passed. In Korematsu v. United States, Fred Korematsu of San Francisco challenged the constitutionality of the exclusion and detention orders. Writing the Korematsu opinion for the Court (the final tally was a 6 to 3 majority), Justice Hugo Black argued that, because it was impossible to distinguish between loyal and disloyal Japanese Americans, the military had cause to imprison “all citizens of Japanese ancestry.” As before, “military urgency” outweighed questions of race and ethnicity in his reasoning. Justices Owen Roberts, Frank Murphy, and Robert Jackson forcefully dissented. Murphy, who questioned the lack of due process, also sneered at the military’s professed urgency and noted it took months to implement the full policy. The entire exclusion program, he argued, was a “legalization of racism.” For Justice Jackson, Korematsu set a risky precedent and validated “the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure and of transplanting American citizens.”52

Posted Exclusion Orders/tiles/non-collection/A/APA_essay2_22_PostedExclusionOrder_NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration The Western Defense Command posted exclusion orders at First and Front Streets in San Francisco to notify passersby about the evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry. “All Japanese persons, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated … by 12:00 o’clock noon Tuesday, April 7, 1942.”
In Ex parte Endo, also decided in December 1944, Mitsuye Endo of Sacramento, California, a nisei, applied for a writ of habeas corpus from detention at Tule Lake. In this instance, a unanimous court granted Endo her freedom. Justices Roberts and Murphy found the court’s majority opinion too facile, and each filed a concurrence denying the constitutionality of internment. “For the Government to suggest under these circumstances,” Murphy concluded, “that the presence of Japanese blood in a loyal American citizen might be enough to warrant her exclusion from a place where she would otherwise have a right to go is a position I cannot sanction.”53

By the fall of 1944, the Roosevelt administration and the WRA had begun phasing out the camp system and freeing prisoners it deemed “loyal,” that is, those who had answered affirmatively to the loyalty questionnaire. When America declared victory over Japan in August 1945, however, the camps still held 44,000 detainees.54

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Footnotes

25Johanna Neuman, “Profile: Norm Mineta; What Moves Him?,” 25 April 2005, Los Angeles Times: B2.

26Ken Ringle, “The Patriot: Norman Mineta Was Interned by His Country, but Still He Loved It. Then He Changed It,” 21 August 2000, Washington Post: C1.

27“Executive Order 9066,” National Archives and Records Administration, accessed 6 October 2017, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/5730250.

28Ringle, “The Patriot”; Berkley Hudson, “‘The Hurt is Still There,’ Reparations Evoke Painful Recollections,” 25 August 1998, Los Angeles Times: 10; Michael E. Myers, “As Japanese- Americans, He and His Family Were Interned During War,” 22 May 1988, Los Angeles Times: 2.

29Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988): 202, 205–206; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 386.

30Daniels, Asian America: 199–200; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 380; Chan, Asian Americans: 124–125.

31Roger Daniels, The Japanese American Cases: The Rule of Law in Time of War (Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, 2013): 23–24.

32Roger Daniels, Prisoners without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

33Daniels, Asian America: 231, 225.

34Stephen E. Ambrose and Richard H. Immerman, Milton S. Eisenhower: Educational Statesman (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Daniels, Asian America: 226–227. In his letter, Eisenhower estimated that 4 in 5 nisei were loyal with 50 percent of issei “passively loyal.”

35Chan, Asian Americans: 127; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 395; Daniels, Asian America: 231–232.

36Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 395; Chan, Asian Americans: 127.

37Chan, Asian Americans: 128.

38Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 395.

39Ibid., 396; Chan, Asian Americans: 128.

40Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 395; Chan, Asian Americans: 128.

41Betty Cuniberti, “Internment: Personal Voices, Powerful Choices,” 4 October 1987, Los Angeles Times: 1. See also Irvin Molotsky, “Washington Talk: Friendships, The Heat of War Welds a Bond That Endures Across Aisles and Years,” 26 April 1988, New York Times: A22; Frank Davies, “Mineta, Ex-Senator Forged Ties at Internment Camp,” 2 May 2008, San Jose Mercury News: n.p.

42Chan, Asian Americans: 128; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 396.

43Chan, Asian Americans: 129; Daniels, Asian America: 221–222.

44While the initial call to fill the ranks of the segregated battalion would be filled by transfers and volunteers, the draft-registration information eased processing of new recruits. Daniels, Asian America: 251n97.

45The wording of the WRA form for question 27 was “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” And the wording for question 28 was “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attacks by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign power or organization?” Daniels, Asian America: 261; Chan, Asian Americans: 130; Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015): 239.

46Daniels, Asian America: 220; Chan, Asian Americans: 133.

47Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 398; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 243; Chan, Asian Americans: 134.

48Chan, Asian Americans: 129–130, 132–133; Daniels, Asian America: 228–230.

49Peter Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Daniels, Japanese American Cases.

50Paul Finkelman, “Hirabayashi v. United States,” in The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, 2nd ed., ed. Kermit L. Hall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 430–431.

51Finkelman, “Hirabayashi v. United States.”

52Paul Finkelman, “Korematsu v. United States,” in The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court, 2nd ed., ed. Kermit L. Hall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 561–562. The Korematsu decision has never been overturned. See Adam Liptak, “A Discredited Supreme Court Ruling That Still, Technically, Stands,” 27 January 2014, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/28/us/time-for-supreme-court-to-overrule-korematsu-verdict.html (accessed 24 August 2016).

53Irons, Justice at War: 343; Daniels, Japanese American Cases: 77–78.

54Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 404–505; Chan, Asian Americans: 139.