A five-year-old sat on a train with his family. He was on an adventure, not understanding why the people around him were crying. As far as he knew his family was on a vacation to a place called Arkansas. Being on an adventure, he didn’t worry when his family arrived at the barbed wire fenced-in camp. The sentry towers with armed guards didn’t phase him in the least. But unbeknownst to him, he and his family were to spend the next three years locked away from the world, not knowing when or if they would get out. He now lived in a Japanese internment camp.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor definitively brought the United States into World War II in December, 1941. Barely two months later, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order #9066, which effectively required the incarceration of all people of Japanese ancestry in the United States. The vast majority of the more than 110,000 people detained were American citizens; it didn’t matter whether they had just arrived on a boat from Japan or if they were third- or fourth-generation Americans. Those imprisoned included Japanese Americans of all backgrounds – mechanics, nurses, Sunday school teachers, photographers, and even soldiers.
Those who were ordered to evacuate the West Coast were sent to one of ten “relocation camps.” The ten camps were spread across seven states from the blazing desert of Arizona to the swamps of Arkansas, the abandoned lands in Wyoming, and the most desolate parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah. After receiving a relocation notice, families had mere weeks to prepare for their departure. This meant that they had to quickly sell their homes and belongings, often selling for much lower than their value. They also could take very little with them, so some families persuaded their friends to hold their belongings for safekeeping until their return.
When it was their turn to go, families would head to an Assembly Center, a sort of pre-internment camp. As Bess Chin tells in her story, she and her mother and sister were put in a room with her stepfather’s family, nine people to one room. She felt almost relieved to actually arrive at the camp and have a room just for her and her mother and sister. The living quarters in the camps consisted of cheaply-built barracks with one family to a room. Little to no privacy could be found as the walls did not extend to the ceiling. The prisoners ate mass-produced, army-style food in communal mess halls. The children did attend school while there, and although the government had hoped that the camps could become self-sufficient through farming, the rough terrain of the camps proved too difficult.
Life in the camp was no picnic. The prisoners worked menial jobs for almost no pay. Many farmed the hard land trying to take from it what they could. Only the Nisei, the American-born Japanese, were allowed to hold positions of authority in the camps. Others joined the war efforts; in fact, two Nisei army regiments formed, and eventually proved their loyalty in battle. Despite efforts to make the camps not seem like prison, that is ultimately what they were. Those interned knew that should they attempt to escape they could be shot on sight.
It took President Roosevelt nearly three years to rescind Executive Order 9066. On January 2, 1945, he relented, but only after securing his re-election in November 1944. From there, the prisoners slowly began emerging from the camps, most with no money and nowhere to go. Some returned to where they had come from, yet they still faced discrimination. Actor and activist George Takei, the five-year-old boy mentioned earlier, said that his father and others could only find work from other Asians. Some people gave up on the West Coast altogether and turned to the East Coast. Regardless of where they headed, they faced poverty and difficulty.
The fight to get recognition of the wrongs committed against Japanese Americans took decades. From President Ford, who was the first to publicly comment that the internment was wrong, to President George H.W. Bush offering a formal apology on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, to Congress making retribution payments available to those who suffered. Many brave Americans fought and died for our freedom in World War II, but let us not forget also those who suffered discrimination, loss, and wrongful imprisonment within the U.S. borders.