A re-examination of the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II

In April 1942, Japanese Americans transfer from a train to a bus in Lone Pine, California, heading for the Manzanar Relocation Center. Photo by Clem Albers, U.S. War Relocation Authority / Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information Collection / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-44093 

“Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II” by Richard Reeves (Henry Holt and Co., 2015, $32)

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

Within hours of the startling news of the surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, the West Coast of the United States had become a dangerous place to be for anyone of Japanese heritage, even if they were American-born.

FBI agents and other law enforcement officials suddenly showed up at Japanese American homes, and often removed the senior male members of the family (and sometimes female, too). Where these unsuspecting residents went and when they would return wasn’t shared with the frightened and bewildered people left behind.

That due process of law was totally ignored wasn’t an accident. Appalling statements such as “… the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me,” attributed to Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, previously a lawyer in civilian life, indicated the mindset of some at the most senior levels of government.

Legal rights were secondary, they thought; America was now at war, a direct result of the Empire of Japan’s military action in the Pacific.

What soon followed — the forced relocation of a large group of people based solely on their heritage — is one of the darkest and most troubling chapters in American history.

In 1941, there were more than 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in California, Oregon and Washington State. More than 150,000 lived in Hawaii, a U.S. territory, but their experience generally was different. Some were interned but not evacuated as on the mainland. A large-scale relocation of the better-integrated Japanese American population would have collapsed the Hawaiian economy.

Individuals of Japanese ancestry fell into three categories: Issei, immigrants born in Japan but who were ineligible for American citizenship according to the laws at the time; Nisei, the second generation who were born in America (they numbered about 70,000); and Kibei, American-born people of Japanese heritage who went to the Land of the Rising Sun for education, and then came back to the United States.

The distinctions meant little to some politicians and newspapers (with radio, the dominant media of the time). Vitriolic editorials and disparaging news stories were frequent. They fueled hysteria and racial hatred, especially around the coastal areas, where Japanese Americans were wrongly accused of being spies or saboteurs, i.e. lying in wait to signal Imperial Japanese forces for additional Pearl Harbor-like attacks.

Civilian Exclusion Order No. 5 (document on right) was posted at First and Front streets in San Francisco, advising persons of Japanese ancestry of the procedures to leave the city by April 7, 1942. Photo attributed to Dorothea Lange / Farm Security Administration and U.S. War Relocation Authority  Collection / Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-34565

Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, authorizing the designation of military zones in states on the Pacific Coast (and a small part of Arizona), effectively allowing the displacement of the Japanese and Japanese American population, while at the same time claiming to protect them from anti-Japanese sentiment from other Americans.

Those affected had little time to prepare. They were restricted to bringing only “what they could carry.” Most were forced to sell their homes, possessions and businesses for a fraction of what they were worth. Especially hard hit were boat-owning fishermen, and farmers, who had cultivated land that others had scorned and made a successful go at growing fruits, vegetables and flowers.

There were instances of devoted friends stepping in to keep the operations running and returning profits at the end of the war, but they were few and far between. More commonly, greedy scavengers and unscrupulous secondhand dealers were lurking to capitalize on the evacuees’ misfortune.

Facing unfounded rumors of disloyalty, American Japanese nonetheless reported in orderly fashion to city staging sites and were taken away to assembly centers. These included, among many others, Santa Anita Racetrack, in Los Angeles County, where  families were forced to live in horse stalls while they waited for their new lodgings to be built in desolate, hard-to-reach places.

Most internees ended up at one of 10 remote relocation centers (sometimes referred to as concentration camps, but obviously not in the Nazi Germany sense), all situated inland in the western U.S., except for two centers in Arkansas. Among the best-known centers were northern California’s Tule Lake (where agitators later ended up; there were factions that fought against internment and also physically attacked internees that they thought were collaborating with the government), and Manzanar, in southern California. (Manzanar is now a National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service.)

In 1943, famed photographer Ansel Adams visited the Manzanar Relocation Center. He found internees putting their best foot forward, such as the Yonimetsu family: Son Michael (from left), father Francis and daughter Lucy in their sparsely furnished living room. Ansel Adams / Library of Congress, LC-A351-T01-3-M-3

Most internees tried to normalize their situation as best they could. Housed in drafty, hastily constructed tarpaper barracks, they set about making furniture from whatever scraps they could find, planted gardens, ran businesses, and organized activities for the children, from Scout troops to that most all-American of games, baseball.

Kids attended school, went to dances and celebrated graduations. But even the most positive of outlooks could not ignore that the camps were surrounded by barbed wire and overseen by armed guards in towers, whose weapons were pointed inward.

9781250081681Author Richard Reeves quotes at length from published memoirs, and from letters written by students to a San Diego city librarian named Clara Breed. She had befriended countless young readers, who sent her what little money they had earned from jobs around the relocation centers so that she could buy them necessities and sometimes toys. The letters appear in “Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference” by Joanne Oppenheimer.

Despite their treatment, many loyal Japanese Americans responded to the call to serve. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which absorbed the 100th Infantry Battalion — originally a National Guard unit comprised of many Japanese Americans from Hawaii — fought valiantly in the European theater, becoming the most highly decorated unit of WWII.

Others were in the Military Intelligence Service — formed in secret before the United States even entered the war — serving as translators and interpreters, often in the Pacific Theater.

As the war was winding down in late 1944,  American brass was ready to rescind the “military necessity” of the relocation centers. In early 1945, the evacuation order officially ended, with more than 90,000 still in the camps (over the years, some had been allowed to leave to go to college, join the military or take jobs as long as they weren’t on the West Coast).

Slowly, they disbursed around the country. Many internees, soured by the whole experience, elected to move to the Midwest and farther east. Some who returned home were confronted by lingering anti-Japanese sentiment and, unable to regain their property, had to start all over again.

It took Congress decades to right the wrong of this distasteful episode. In Public Law 100-383, passed in 1988, the internment was acknowledged as an injustice, an apology was issued and each former internee received $20,000.

From military officers to politicians, many players in this drama come off badly, though there were, of course, heroes, too. Reeves saves his particular wrath for Lt. Gen. John DeWitt and Col. Karl Bendetsen, calling the former a “fool” and the latter a “pathological liar.” Both Army men of the Western Defense Command were instrumental in developing and implementing the relocation scheme.

Those interested in an in-depth examination of what day-to-day life was like in the relocation centers will want to read further elsewhere. “Infamy” is a well-documented examination, extremely relevant 75 years after Pearl Harbor, of the far-reaching consequences of lies, misinformation, racism and xenophobia on American society.


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