The American Internment Camps

Following America's entry into the war, thousands of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans were rounded up and placed in internment camps, ostensibly to ensure that they did nothing to help the Axis.

The fear of traitorous acts by Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans was not a new concept. As early as the 1930s, as Japan began to flex its military might in the Pacific, the military expressed concern about such a possibility. The fear was particularly strong in Hawaii, where military intelligence officers created secret lists of potential espionage suspects among the territory's sizable population of Japanese descent.

Hatred toward Japanese aliens and Americans of Japanese ancestry ignited immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Suspicion ran especially deep in Hawaii, where everyone with Asian features was instantly viewed as the enemy. Newspapers fueled this hysteria with headlines such as “Caps on Japanese Tomato Plants Point to Air Base.” As a result, every Japanese fraternal and business organization was suspected of anti-American activity.

Figure 3-4 Young Japanese girl on her way to an American internment camp.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (210-G-2A-6)

Panic Sweeps the Nation

A similar panic quickly swept the mainland, and on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued an executive order identifying specific military areas in the United States that were immediately off limits to Japanese, German, and Italian aliens and Japanese Americans.

On March 18, the War Relocation Authority was established as part of the Office of Emergency Management. Its goal, according to a report to President Roosevelt, was to “take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”

An estimated 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent were rounded up on the West Coast and taken to ten relocation centers in isolated areas of several states, including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Nearly two-thirds of those forced from their homes were American citizens, and more than one-fourth were children under 15.

Not all Japanese Americans went willingly to relocation centers. Gordon Hirabayashi fought his internment all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with the claim that the army had violated his rights as an American. However, the court ruled that the threat of invasion and sabotage gave the military the right to restrict the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans.

The internees were divided into three groups: Nisei (those who had been born in the United States of immigrant Japanese parents and therefore were United States citizens), Issei (Japanese immigrants), and Kibei (Nisei who had been educated primarily in Japan).

Life in an internment camp was hard and demeaning. Internees ate in mess halls, used communal bathrooms, and lived in tar-paper barracks with a 20-by-25-foot room allowed for each family. Razors, scissors, and radios were banned. Barbed wire surrounded the camps, and armed soldiers patrolled them. Children went to schools operated by the War Relocation Authority and were routinely indoctrinated with “patriotic” assignments such as writing essays on why they were proud to be Americans.

The camps were, for the most part, quiet and peaceful. The only serious problems occurred at the Tule Lake Relocation Center at the California-Oregon border. In June 1943, Tule Lake was designated a “segregation center” for Japanese Americans who had proclaimed their loyalty to Japan or whom the Department of Justice considered disloyal to the United States. Frequent strikes and demonstrations at the Tule Lake center forced the army to tighten control.

Approximately 2,000 people of German and Italian ancestry were placed in American relocation camps in addition to the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry.

Japanese American Reactions, Results

Japanese Americans were prevented from entering the service until 1943. When the ban was finally lifted, 9,500 Japanese Americans in Hawaii volunteered for military duty, and 2,700 were accepted. In total, more than 17,000 Japanese Americans fought for the United States in World War II, many of them distinguishing themselves with remarkable bravery.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, whose soldiers were born in America of Japanese ancestry, fought in the Italian campaign and became the most decorated military unit in U.S. history. By the end of the war, members of the unit had received 4,667 medals, awards, and citations, including a Medal of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 560 Silver Stars.

In 1990 — 45 years after the end of the war — the United States government finally apologized to the 60,000 survivors of internment camps and their heirs. Each received $20,000 in reparations.

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