Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps

Stephanie Schoppert - April 24, 2017

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
This large sign was put up the day after Pearl Harbor by the store owner who was a University of California graduate. He would later be forced to close the store and be imprisoned in an internment camp. Biography

Most of Those Interned Had Never Even Been to Japan

The hatred and fear of the Japanese did not just extend to first generation immigrants from Japan but even second and third generation immigrants. Anyone who looked like they might be from Japan was subjected to the abject racism that was growing through the country and particularly the West Coast. Arrests for first generation immigrants who had served in the Japanese military took place almost immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the weeks following the attack, immigrants from Japan and their descendants were forced to adhere to strict curfews. Arrests continued for anyone that was the least bit suspicious and eventually that grew to include anyone. Many of those who were forced from their homes and made to go to concentration camps were called Nisei. Nisei were the children of immigrants, those who were born in the United States and were American citizens. About two-thirds of those who were held in internment camps were Nisei.

For most of the Nisei they had never even been to Japan. They considered themselves to be American and had more loyalty and ties to the country they had been raised in than the country that their parents had come from. Some did not even speak Japanese. There were so many of the Nisei that did not speak Japanese that it became a focus of the schooling in the internment camps so that when the time came from the internees to be sent “back” to Japan they would be able to speak the language.

Their treatment caused many of the Nisei to feel conflicted. They wanted to support the only home they had ever known but they were realizing that they were not as welcome in their homeland as they had once thought. Even second generation Nisei, those born to parents who had never set foot in Japan were placed into camps and treated like criminals.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
A former grocery store owner working as a filing clerk in an internment camp.

Adults Could Earn $16 a Month if They Worked

Having a job in the internment camps was not necessary. Very basic needs of the people were met. They were fed and given shelter. However, many of the adults chose to get jobs because it not only helped pass the time but it gave them a sense of purpose that they were otherwise lacking in the camps. People were needed to perform basic duties around the camp and help provide for the people housed at the camp.

In the beginning those who took on jobs or roles within the internment camp were not paid at all. As time went on this changed and wages were given based upon the work being done. Skilled and technical workers could get as much as $16 a month which translates to about $213 in 2017 dollars. A mid-range wage was $12 per month and the lowest rate of pay was $8 per month.

Workers typically worked 40 hours a week and were expected to perform and show up at their job just as if it were any other job that was not in a prison camp. There was also the additional benefit that anyone with a job was given an extra $3.75 credit to use toward clothes.

The wages given to internees were far lower than what they were getting outside of the camp. Regular Caucasian workers who were brought in to work as teachers or in other positions in the camps were paid substantially higher wages. An internee teacher could make up to $213 a year, which the base pay for a Caucasian teacher at the camps was $2,000 a year.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
Fred Korematsu (center) at a press conference in 1983 after his conviction was overturned.

The Supreme Court Found the Internment Camps to be Constitutional

Today it is easy to look back and know that Japanese internment was wrong. That there was no reason to deprive more than 100,000 American citizens of their liberty for no other reason than their heritage. Most them had very little in common with the enemy that the United States was fighting and felt just as attacked as the rest of America when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which provided for the creation of military areas from which any or all American citizens might be excluded. Proclamations followed that created military areas out of much of the West Coast. Once the military areas were created it was deemed that any Japanese, German or Italian aliens or any one of Japanese descent be excluded. Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1 would be issued on May 19, 1942 and it forced Japanese Americans into relocation camps.

Fred Korematsu refused to leave the military area and even got plastic surgery in order to avoid being sent to an internment camp. He was eventually arrested and convicted. However, he argued that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The order was found to be constitutional in a 6 to 3 decision.

The court found that the need to protect the country from espionage outweighed the individual rights of Fred Korematsu and other Americans of Japanese descent. Korematsu’s conviction was eventually overturned but the Supreme Court ruling still stands. The case is now seen as so flawed that it is now used as an example of bad legal decision making and it is therefore not even considered to be precedent by most people.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
A family living in an internment camp.

The Conditions Were Akin to a Prison Camp

Internment camps were designed to house up to 18,000 people and several camps were created to house the more than 120,000 people that were forcibly detained. The camps would include schools, post offices, warehouses and hospitals. There was a communal mess hall, latrines and laundry. The entire camp would be surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

The internees were placed into barracks. Each barrack block would have a mess hall, a recreation building, a laundry area and a wash area and latrine. Each barrack would have four to six one room apartments. The apartments would range in size from 15 by 20 feet to 24 by 20 feet. Families or groups of people would be placed in each apartment with as many as 8 people in one space. There were often complaints about the lack of privacy because the partitions between apartments did not reach to the ceiling which allowed sound to travel throughout the entire barrack.

The camps were based on military style barracks which made them ill-suited for family life. They were also constructed very quickly which meant that they were poorly constructed and were missing many things necessary for families to live comfortably. The camps were often built in the desert or areas that were largely deserted. This meant that winters were bitterly cold and at times internees would bank earth against the walls of the barracks in order to try and keep out the cold. Some internees were not informed they were being sent to colder climates and therefore had no clothes to keep warm through the winter.

The government did provide food in the mess halls at a cost of 45 cents per day. Meals were often a source of complaint as there was only one option for meals and the first generation of immigrants often wanted more Japanese foods while the Nisei wanted more American foods. Additional food options were available for purchase from the stores at the camps. One of the few ways that a internee could leave was by attending college, provided they found a college willing to take them and they passed FBI background checks.