Evacuation and Internment
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese war planes attacked Pearl Harbor. As a stunned nation listened to President Roosevelt speak of "a day that will live in infamy", Japanese Americans and their immigrant parents felt deep apprehension.
Immediately after the attack the FBI descended on the Japanese communities and rounded up the leaders: prominent businessmen, community leaders, Buddhist priests, etc. These men were taken away and placed in special camps for enemy aliens. This action left many families without a breadwinner.
The funds of Issei were frozen, leaving families without financial resources. Under a blanket authorization from the U.S. Attorney General thousands of families were subject to search at any time. On these raids guns, cameras and short-wave radios were seized as contraband. In panic families destroyed diaries, letters and books-anything written in Japanese-and photographs of relatives in Japan. Treasured swords inherited from samurai forbears were taken to the fields and buried.
In the beginning Japanese Americans and their parents were assured that as long as they were loyal to the United States they had nothing to fear.
As news of Japan's initial military successes reached the U.S., fears of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast mounted. Rumors of sabotage by resident Japanese in Hawaii, which were later proved to be completely false, added to these fears.
The historically anti-Japanese groups began to urge the removal of all Japanese from the coastal areas to guard against the possibility of sabotage. Bowing to political pressure, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. This order gave the Army blanket authority to move selected classes of civilians out of the Western Defense Command. Congress passed Public Law 503, which made it a federal crime to disobey orders of the military commander.
Under the authority of EO 9066 Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense Command, prepared to remove all persons of Japanese ancestry from western California, Oregon and Washington and southern Arizona.
The Army established a curfew between 8 P.M. and 6 A.M. for all enemy aliens and "non-aliens" of Japanese ancestry. Travel was limited to five miles from places of residence. The Nisei were suddenly thrust into a leadership role when community leaders were taken by the FBI. JACL members, meeting in emergency session, decided their only alternative was cooperation with the U.S. Government. They pledged their full support in carrying out the evacuation orders.
At first voluntary evacuation was encouraged. Almost 10,000 Japanese tried to find new homes outside the restricted zones. It soon became obvious that voluntary evacuation was a failure as opposition developed in the areas to which the people relocated.
Temporary Assembly Centers were readied, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers, where the evacuees were to be held while more permanent centers were being built in isolated areas in the interior. Race tracks and fair grounds, capable of accommodating large numbers of people, were chosen: Tanforan and Santa Anita Race Tracks, Puyallup Fair Grounds, etc. Horse stalls were converted to living quarters and army style barracks were built on open ground.
The Army designated 108 "Exclusion Areas". Orders were tacked up on utility poles about a week before the date set for evacuating an area. Instructions were specific: Bring bedding, extra clothing and other personal items, but only what can be carried. Everything else had to be sold, leased or placed in storage. This included farms, stores, automobiles, equipment of various kinds, furniture and personal items. "Evacuation sales" were held where refrigerators were sold for $5.00 and almost-new automobiles went for $200.00. At least one woman destroyed her possessions rather than let them go for a pittance.
Area by area, the Japanese were ordered to report to designated locations where they boarded Army buses and were transported under armed guard to Assembly Centers. Anyone with at least 1/16 Japanese blood was subject to removal. Only those too ill to be moved were left behind.
At the Assembly Centers families were issued numbers and assigned to sleeping quarters. These were the only private quarters. Everything else was communal: mess halls (three shifts for each meal), latrine, laundry and bathing facilities.
Three young men, Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu, felt their rights as Americans were being violated and refused to obey the curfew and report for evacuation. They were arrested and convicted in the federal courts. Eventually their cases came before the U.S. Supreme Court, where, on very narrow grounds, the majority upheld their convictions. The supremacy of the military in time of war was sustained.
Once the Japanese had been removed from their homes and placed into Assembly Centers the Army turned jurisdiction for their charges over to a civilian agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA).
The WRA built ten semi-permanent communities in seven western states. All but the two in Arkansas were on federally owned, sparsely populated desert or semi-desert land. Each camp was built to house 8,000 to 12,000 people.
By late May, trainloads of Japanese Americans, approximately 500 per train, were leaving the Assembly Centers almost daily for the camps in the interior. Guarded by armed soldiers, the trains crept slowly along with shades drawn at night under blackout conditions. The trip took from three to five days. What greeted the evacuee family as it moved into its "apartment" is described in a WRA report, "Impounded People."
As families and individuals completed the process of being unloaded with their baggage from the buses, registered and signed the forms of induction, they ultimately found themselves in bare rooms about 20 feet square or in unpartitioned barracks. There was nothing in the rooms but Army cots and blankets, no other furniture, no running water, nothing with which to prepare food or a baby's bottle ...
In a typical camp designed to hold 10,000 evacuees, barracks buildings were clustered into 36 blocks, 12 barracks to the block. A mess hall and a combination toilet-bath-laundry building served each block. Everywhere the people were confronted with dust.
The entire camp, about one mile square in area, was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed sentries in watch towers equipped with searchlights. Gradually the people settled in and tried to create some semblance of a community. Furniture and decorative objects were made from scrap lumber when it could be obtained. Trees were planted to adorn the barren landscape. Schools, churches and hospitals were established and farms for fresh vegetables and flowers. The residents produced camp newspapers to keep the community informed.
Internees who were professionals were paid $19 a month for working in the camps; skilled workers, $16.00 a month. Unskilled labor received $12.00 a month. Even though they were imprisoned, the evacuees helped the war effort by making camouflage nets and rolling bandages. The Army Quartermaster Corps supplied food rations of 45 cents per day per individual. Most of the individuals had lived all their lives in the mild climate of the coastal states. They were unprepared for the bitter cold and searing heat of the and interior.
Almost from the beginning the WRA authorities realized that irreparable harm would result from keeping the Japanese Americans interned for any length of time. Among the first persons allowed to leave were young men who went out for seasonal agricultural work. Educators and others realized the tragedy of interrupting the education of the brightest of the Nisei. The National Student Relocation Council was formed to help the Nisei resume their studies at colleges and universities outside the prohibited areas.
As the tide of war changed in favor of the United States, officials at the highest levels of the Government urged speedy resettlement of all the internees. WRA field offices were established in Eastern and Midwestern cities to help find jobs for both Issei and Nisei. By the end of the resettlement program some 35,000 Japanese Americans had been scattered to various parts of the United States.