19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II

Larry Holzwarth - October 26, 2018

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
Japanese Americans bound for the Manzanar Relocation Facility prepare to board a train in Santa Fe. National Archives

8. DeWitt defended his actions in testimony to Congress

General DeWitt, as part of an ongoing campaign on his part to justify the relocation and detention of Japanese Americans, made his opinions and prejudices crystal clear. “I don’t want any of them here”, he testified. “It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese”. He added in his testimony, “But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map”. Earl Warren, then Attorney General of California and much later the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court supported DeWitt and lobbied Congress for the removal of all Japanese, regardless of citizenship. On March 24, 1942, with the support of the majority in Congress and the President, Dewitt issued the first Civilian Exclusion Order, giving the Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island until March 30 to prepare for removal.

Three days later DeWitt issued another order which forbade any Japanese Americans from leaving the island, which was designated Military Area 1. A curfew was established for the Japanese. In May, DeWitt issued another order which directed the Japanese to report to assembly areas where they were to be held until permanently relocated to internment camps. The persons affected by the orders were defined as being anyone having 1/16 Japanese ancestry, and included other Asians from Taiwan and Korea and their descendants (Taiwan and Korea were Japanese possessions at the time). The assembly centers were operated by the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), which was a military operation of the US Army. The civil service operated War Relocation Authority (WRA) was tasked with running the Relocation Centers, the official name of what became known as the internment camps.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
The San Francisco Examiner announces the pending removal of Japanese Americans in 1942. National Archives

9. The Department of Justice and the US Army had their own camps

The Department of Justice operated eight camps in the United States, which held for the most part non-citizens and their families. Of the roughly 5,500 Japanese rounded up by the FBI in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, about 3,800 of them spent the war held in the camps, which were administered by INS and guarded by the US Border Patrol (the remaining 1,700 eventually went to relocation camps). They included many of the leaders of the Hawaiian Japanese community; Buddhist priests, newspaper editors and writers (Japanese language), businessmen, and leaders of community organizations. The Department of Justice camps also held interned Germans and German-Americans (about 11,000), Italians (3,000), and additional Japanese that were deported to the United States from Latin American countries, since they claimed to have come to the respective countries from the United States.

The US Army operated several detention camps as well, also housing Germans and Italians who had been in the United States when it entered the war. The Army held these Japanese, German, and Italian detainees until 1943, when it was given jurisdiction over prisoners of war being held by Americans in May of that year. The Army transferred the civilian prisoners to the Department of Justice camps and prepared their former internment camps to become prisoner of war facilities. New Mexico’s Camp Lordsburg was the only internment camp built for the purpose of housing Japanese Americans, the rest were existing facilities converted for the use. At least three Japanese Americans were killed at Lordsburg, shot by Army guards.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
Most Japanese Americans were assembled at camps erected on West Coast racetracks and fairgrounds, with shelter in the horse barns. National Archives

10. The WCCA camps were built mostly from barns and sheds

The order for the removal of the Japanese preceded the construction of facilities to receive them, a problem the Army faced when it created the WCCA and ordered the Japanese to assemble in its facilities, to be screened for removal to relocation camps. It also faced pressure from the general public. While the majority of Americans supported the relocation of the Japanese Americans, the majority of communities did not want to see them relocated to their area. The Army needed facilities for the temporary housing of the dislocated Japanese and it needed them quickly. The majority of the Army’s WCCA assembly sites were established at existing racetracks and fairgrounds. They used the barns and sheds to house the Japanese Americans until they could be transferred to the WRA relocation centers.

Of the fifteen WCCA sites, eleven were racetracks and fairgrounds, where the barns were cleaned out and converted to spaces which held multiple families. Temporary latrines and sanitation facilities were erected on the sites. The WCCA was by definition a temporary agency – once the Japanese had all been processed through and sent to relocation camps there was no longer the need for its existence – and in an unusual step for a government agency no permanent structures to prolong its existence were erected. From March, 1942 through August of that year more than 90,000 Japanese Americans, more than half of them US citizens, were processed through the facilities. Another Army facility was erected at Poston (and at Manzanar) for the processing of Japanese Americans which were transferred to the WRA when the assembly process was completed. In March 1943 the WCCA was dissolved, its task in the relocation of the Japanese Americans complete.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
Milton Eisenhower tried to improve conditions for the internees, but after three months gave up in frustration and turned to war communication. Wikimedia

11. The WRA camps were the creation of Milton Eisenhower, among others

In 1942 the War Relocation Authority was established by Presidential executive order as the civilian operated organization responsible for the final disposition of the Japanese Americans removed from the exclusion zones. Milton S. Eisenhower, whose brother rose to command the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, was the first director. Eisenhower had served in the Department of Agriculture and was personally opposed to the forced relocation, based in part on what he perceived would be its impact on the agricultural work force in some critical areas and crops (particularly sugar beets). Eisenhower’s objections were ignored, and after three months at the helm of the WRA he resigned to work in the Office of War Information, which was widely involved in the preparation and propagation of propaganda for the United States’ war effort.

Eisenhower’s efforts to assist the Japanese during his brief tenure at the WRA included lobbying the Federal Reserve Bank to protect the property assets of the Japanese which were placed at jeopardy from the forced relocation. He also instituted programs to allow Japanese Americans to leave the camps under supervision to assist with agricultural harvests when labor shortages threatened them (and which led to an influx of Mexican laborers). Eisenhower was frustrated by the intransigence of several states which refused to allow the Japanese to relocate within their borders, and the opposition to his programs which would allow Japanese American college students to leave the camps in order to return to school. Eisenhower nonetheless participated in the production of a propaganda film which explained the relocation to the public, calling it a program accomplished, “with real consideration for the people involved.”

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
The Kooskia Relocation Center in Idaho was built on the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and was used to house Japanese men designated as enemy aliens. National Archives

12. The relocation camps were often located on Indian Reservations

The WRA placed many of its camps on lands which belonged, by treaty, to various American Indian Tribes, promising compensation for the use of their land. The camps were built quickly, as cheaply as possible, and offered little in the way of protection against the harsh climate of the region in which they were established. In 1943 the United States Secretary of the Interior, who also held ultimate authority for Indian Affairs, commented that the conditions in many of the camps were bad and deteriorating badly. Conditions at each camp were dependent on the region in which it was located and the competence of its administrator, often influenced by his personal view of the Japanese and Japanese Americans. All of the camps were patrolled by armed guards.

The camps were not intended to be permanent housing, instead the stated intention of the relocation program was to give the Japanese Americans temporary and secure quarters while they arranged their relocation in the United States. The political pressures which surrounded their creation ensured that they were located in remote areas, far removed from urban centers or areas offering employment opportunities for the internees. About 25% of the Japanese Americans sent to the camps were able to find a new place to live outside of the exclusion zones. The rest remained in the custody of the United States government. Some volunteered for and were accepted into the United Stated armed forces, and served with distinction in Europe after the US Army began accepting Japanese American volunteers in 1943. Later they were included in the draft.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
Japanese Americans arriving at an assembly center, from which after processing they were sent to a relocation camp. National Archives

13. Life in the camps was dependent on the individual camp leaders

Although the camps were operated by a government bureaucracy, daily life for what the government called internees, who were in fact prisoners, varied depending on their location. Some camps became notorious for the difficulties encountered by the Japanese Americans held within. Gila River War Relocation Center was a complex of detention camps established on the Gila River Indian Reservation, located south and east of Phoenix, Arizona. When it opened in the summer of 1942 it was intended to hold no more than 10,000, it eventually housed more than 13,000, including the mother of the woman known to history as Tokyo Rose, Iva Toguri. Gila River was built on land owned by the Gila River Indians, who were offered payment for its use. Despite strenuous objections on the part of the Indians, the land was taken and used anyway. The Gila Indians had to wait until the 1980s to receive compensation from the federal government.

The Gila River camps were considered to be one of the more comfortable camps of the WRA system, though there were continuous shortages of fresh water, and the buildings offered little relief from the desert heat. Its administrators stressed both education for children and recreation for all, and its residents, most of whom were relocated from Fresno and the Los Angeles region, created baseball leagues, with teams playing in a 6,000 seat ballpark. Though the baseball teams were well supplied the schools were not, textbooks were scarce, all classes were conducted in English, and classes which presented Japanese history and culture were banned. Among the residents interned at Gila River was Pat Morita, who later earned fame as an actor on the television series Happy Days and the Karate Kid motion pictures.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
A Japanese American family awaits the “evacuation” bus which will take them into captivity in California in 1942. National Archives

14. Manzanar was the most widely known of the internment camps

The most widely known of the internment camps was established on the site of an American Indian village, bore a Spanish name, and used by Americans to incarcerate Japanese. Manzanar means apple orchard in Spanish. A former home of the Paiute, it was purchased by the City of Los Angeles as part of the watershed for the region. Manzanar was the first WRA camp, originally established as an assembly center under the auspices of the Army, and transferred to the WRA in June 1942, officially designated as a relocation camp. The first Japanese Americans to be sent to the camp, then under Army control, were used to build it. The camp’s buildings were constructed from pine wood and covered with tar paper for insulation and protection from the weather. The buildings were far from adequate protection from the harsh extremes of the regional climate, which was hot and arid in the summer months and frigid in the winter.

At Manzanar a relocated family occupied an “apartment” of twenty by twenty-five feet. There was no running water in the apartments, instead the internees shared communal latrines, bathing facilities, and washrooms. The apartments were located within residential blocks and were simply partitioned sections, without individual ceilings, similar to office cubicles. Privacy was non-existent. Showers were in open areas rather than individual stalls. Japanese Americans were employed to run the camp (and in a facility to manufacture camouflage netting for the military) and were paid by the US government. Unskilled laborers were paid $8 dollars per month. Professionals such as doctors were at the upper end of the pay scale, receiving $19 each month.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
Tule Lake Relocation Center included a poultry farm which provided work for the internees and food for the war effort. National Archives

15. The Tule Lake Segregation Center housed “undesirables” from other camps

Tule Lake became both the largest and the most controversial of the internment camps after it was designated as the facility to which Japanese Americans considered to be problematic or disloyal were to be sent. It was considered a maximum security facility and eventually held just under 20,000 internees. Japanese Americans could be sent to Tule Lake based on their answers in loyalty questionnaires, which the WRA began giving to its internees in 1943. The questionnaire was presented to men of draft age, and asked among other things whether the internee, a prisoner of the United States government behind barbed wire, was willing to serve in the combat forces of the United States. If an internee gave an answer other than an unqualified yes (for example, stating that they would be willing to serve after their family was freed from custody) they were considered problematic.

In November 1943 the United States Army placed the Tule Lake facility under martial law, a condition which remained in effect through January 1944. In July of that year the Congress passed the Renunciation Act of 1944, which allowed those Japanese who held American citizenship to renounce it, absolving them of the requirement to be loyal to the American government, but if they chose to renounce citizenship placing them in the legal status of enemy aliens. Just over 5,500 Japanese Americans chose to renounce American citizenship. When the war ended most of the internment camps closed quickly. Tule Lake remained in operation, detaining the Japanese Americans who had chosen to cede their American citizenship, until mid-1946. Most were designated for deportation before legal activists stepped in. Many former citizens (Nisei) were able to remain in the United States, though for decades the status of citizenship was denied.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
A class in advanced English being taught for adults at the Heart Mountain Relocation Facility in Wyoming in 1943. National Archives

16. The resistance to the draft at Heart Mountain

Though the United States relocated the Nisei from the exclusion zones into internment camps it did not consider Nisei men of draft age too dangerous to be conscripted into the US Army. Those who indicated on their questionnaires they would be willing to serve were drafted (if they were physically qualified), those who did not were designated disloyal and sent to Tule Lake. The Heart Mountain War Relocation Center became known as the center of an attempt to make public and resist this obvious injustice on the part of the federal government. At Heart Mountain, located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming, 85 men of draft age and seven members of a committee who encouraged Nisei to resist the draft until their rights as American citizens were restored were arrested and convicted, sentenced to imprisonment if the federal prison system.

Despite the resistance by some, more than 800 Nisei from Heart Mountain accepted the draft and joined the United States Army. Two Nisei men from Heart Mountain were awarded the Medal of Honor, both of them posthumously. Near the end of 1944 Roosevelt rescinded the executive order which created the exclusion zones and the Japanese Americans were free to leave the camps and return to their homes, if they were still there, in early 1945. They also had the option of relocating elsewhere if they wished. Those who had been convicted of draft evasion remained in prison, in many cases for several years. Those who left the camps to return home received train transportation and a voucher for $25. Those with nowhere else to go remained in the camps while the government tried to decide what to do with them.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
Students from Heart Mountain High School, which was constructed of wood and tar paper, the same materials of which their homes were built. National Archives

17. Living in the camps under government largesse

The WRA decided early in the internment process that the Japanese Americans detained in the camps should be allowed to make a living, but that under no circumstances should they be paid more than the lowest salary paid to Americans serving in the military, $19 per month. Thus doctors and dentists were allowed to practice their profession in the camps, compensated by the federal government at the same rate as an Army private. The camps employed detainees in hospitals and clinics, food services, schools, and in some cases shops which manufactured goods for sale in the camp and outside it as well. Americans frequently worked alongside them, for example Army nurses staffed hospitals and clinics, paid more than eight times what the doctors whose orders they followed were paid. Japanese teachers were allowed to conduct classes in camp schools, as long as they were conducted in English, using a prescribed curriculum.

Outside of the schools, which provided some sense of stability to children, most of the camps provided recreational facilities which included baseball and football fields, martial arts classes conducted by the Japanese Americans, basketball, a library in a few of the camps (though books were scarce), craft circles, social clubs and scheduled events such as tea dances. At Heart Mountain, the camp high school fielded football and baseball teams that scheduled games against other schools outside the camp. Its team traveled to away games escorted by armed military guards. Food was prepared under the nutritional guidelines of the US Army, though at some camps internees were allowed to create their own gardens and keep the produce for their own use. At other camps gardening was mandatory and the produce was provided to the communal kitchens for consumption.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
A child plays on a swing at Heart Mountain, oblivious to the problems facing many Japanese Americans, rendered homeless when the camps were closed. National Archives

18. Closing the camps created a new bunch of problems

After the creation of the exclusion zones and the removal of the Japanese Americans several states and local governments enacted laws which confiscated the property and businesses of the Japanese. Homes, farms, and businesses were seized under eminent domain and disposed to other entities. Many of the Japanese, who were under law allowed to leave the camps in early 1945, thus had nowhere to go, their homes having been sold, their farms confiscated, and their businesses closed. By the summer of 1945 some of the returning Japanese were veterans of the European war who had been drafted or who had enlisted out of the camps, only to find that the home which they had lived in in 1941 was now the property of someone else. They also found an American society in which anti-Japanese sentiment raged unabated, fed by government propaganda and the American press.

As early as December, 1942, the Los Angeles Times opined in its editorial page, “The Japs in these centers in the United States have been afforded the very best of treatment, together with food and living quarters far better than many of them ever knew before, and a minimum amount of restraint”. Seven Japanese Americans were shot and killed by sentries while under what the Times called “a minimum amount of restraint.” In 1948 Congress passed legislation to allow Japanese Americans to establish claims for recompense for losses, but the difficulty of proving financial loss kept most of the Nisei from being compensated. Out of more than $148 million in claims, only about $37 million was distributed. Not until the 1980s would serious attempts by the Congress to redress the grievous treatment of Japanese American citizens during the Second World War be undertaken.

19 Facts About the Internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II
Work in the poster shop at Heart Mountain – as with all work in the camps – was paid at a rate of less than what a US Army private received, mandated by the WRA. National Archives

19. The aftermath of the Japanese American internment during the Second World War

Thomas C. Clark, a Texan who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1949 to 1967, wrote in 1992, in the book Executive Order 9066: The Internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans, “The truth is – as this deplorable experience proves – that constitutions and laws are not sufficient of themselves”. Clark had been responsible for representing the United States Department of Justice during the relocation. He continued, “Despite the unequivocal language of the Constitution of the United States that the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, and despite the Fifth Amendment’s command that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, both of these constitutional safeguards were denied by military action under Executive Order 9066”.

Since the 1990s it has become commonplace to drop references to the camps as being internment centers, relocation centers, or detention camps and refer to them as what they were, which was concentration camps. Some Americans can’t reconcile themselves to the fact that America operated concentration camps, though they had done so previously during the Philippine-American War. The camps were created for the purpose of incarcerating Americans of Japanese descent during a time of fear of the Japanese and loathing of them as a race, against the backdrop of barbaric atrocities committed by troops of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific. It remains a little studied episode of the American experience, and deserves greater scrutiny as an example of what can happen when the rule of law is swept aside by passion, however that passion is created.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Immigration Bill Passes Senate by Vote of 62 to 6”. The New York Times. April 19, 1924

“How the Japanese Did It”. Robert J. Hanyok, Naval History Magazine. December 2009

“How Pearl Harbor created a climate of fear”. Daniel Greene, CNN News Online. December 7, 2016

“Executive Order 9066, dated 19 February 1942, in which President Franklin D. Roosevelt Authorizes the Secretary of WJar to Prescribe Military Areas”. National Archives of the United States. February 19, 1942. Online

“Confirmed: The U.S. Census Bureau Gave Up Names of Japanese-Americans in WWII”. J. R. Minkel, Scientific American. March 30, 2007

“December 7, 1941: The Day the Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor”. Gordon W. Prange. 1989

“Guarding the United States and its Outposts”. Stetson Conn, Rose C. Engelman, Byron Fairchild, Center of Military History. 1964. Online

“Bainbridge Island Breaks Ground for Japanese-American Internment Memorial”. Vanessa Ho, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. March 29, 2009

“Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast 1942”. Lieutenant General J. L. DeWitt, US Army. June 5, 1943. Online

“Milton S. Eisenhower, Educational Statesman”. Stephen E. Ambrose, Richard H. Immerman. 2009

“Bad Landmark: Righting a Racial Wrong”. TIME Magazine, November 21, 1983

“The Truth about World War II Internment”. The Los Angeles Times. May 27, 2011

“Childhood Lost: The Orphans of Manzanar”. Renee Tawa, The Los Angeles Times. March 11, 1997

“For Incarcerated Japanese-Americans, Baseball was Wearing the American Flag”. Michael Beschloss, The New York Times. June 20, 2014

“Personal Justice Denied”. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, United States Department of Justice. 1982

“Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II”. Roger Daniels. 1993

“Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps”. Michi Weglyn. 1996

“A More Perfect Union”. Online Exhibition of the National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian Institution.