Within a few months after December 7, 1941, more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The internments followed the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Fearing that all Japanese American men, women, and children were involved in espionage and sabotage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 allowing for the circumvention of constitutional safeguards protecting American citizens in the name of national defense. The military evacuated Japanese Americans along the West Coast, placing them in remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Two-thirds of the people interned were U.S. citizens. Japanese Americans were forced to evacuate their homes and quite their jobs, and family members were sometimes separated and placed in different camps. Some died in the camps due to insufficient medical care and emotional stress—and many Japanese Americans were killed by military guards for supposedly resisting orders. President Roosevelt himself referred to the 10 facilities “concentration camps.”
In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of President Roosevelt’s exclusion orders. Further, the United States Census Bureau provided the names and addresses of Japanese-Americans to round them up for imprisonment in internment camps. In 1988, Congress passed a bill recognizing that “a grave injustice was done” to Japanese Americans and that the U.S. government’s actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” The law mandated that each victim of internment be paid $20,000 in reparations. The reparations were delivered with a signed apology from the President of the United States. In spite of this action, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans continue to suffer from the internment. Health studies have revealed double the incidence of heart disease and premature death among former internees, compared with noninterned Japanese Americans. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II remains one of the lesser known and most shameful incidents of racial discrimination in American history.
What Was There?
Though the camps were widely varied in location, their set-up was much the same across the United States. The camps were organized into “blocks,” each block containing 14 barracks, 1 mess hall, and 1 recreation hall. The camps were wholly self contained, with areas where ironing and laundry could be done within the grounds. Camps also contained storage areas, administrative offices for the personnel charged with imprisoning the internments, schools, canteens, libraries, hospitals, post offices, religious service buildings, and dry and cold warehouses.
Though the US government more or less provided facilities for daily use—such as schools, libraries, and hospitals—the government usually relied upon the prisoners themselves to fill positions and serve the other prisoners, often paid only minimal, if any, compensation.
Voices of Children:
Read letters sent by children imprisoned in the camps to their childhood librarian, Children’s Librarian Miss Breed at the San Diego Public Library.
Learn more about children’s experiences in the camps: PBS’s Children of the Camp—The Documentary
Voices of Adults:
Check out the online collection of George Hoshida (1907–1985), who created a “visual diary” while in the Kilauea Military Camp and Sand Island when interned in Hawai’i.
For a first-hand look at life in the camps check out the diary of Stanley Hayami (1941–1944).
Photographs of Jack Iwata, consisting of photos from the Manzanar and Tule Lake camps.
For a thorough account of how Japanese Americans were systemically sweeped up by the federal government, check out the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco’s Internment of SanFrancisco Japanese page, where you can read some of the daily reports on the detainment and removal of Japanese Americans from the Bay Area.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team was one of the most decorated units during World War II. Over the course of the war approximately 14,000 served in the unit, with 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 22 Legion of Merit Medals, 4,000 Bronze Stars, 1,200 Oak Leaf Clusters, 8 Presidential Unit Citations, and 1 Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the 442nd as a unit for its service during WW2, awarded in 2010.
Though the undisputed valor of the unit ensures them a special place in US history, what is even more remarkable is that the unit was entirely composed of Nisei recruits, the Japanese word for second-generation Japanese Americans. Originally, Japanese American men were not subject to the draft—the US government formally labeled them as enemy aliens, despite being US citizens. Despite the US government’s attempts to exclude Japanese Americans from serving their country, many nevertheless petitioned the US Army for permission to serve, with Army brass ultimately approving their petition.
This first group of Nisei to serve, known as the Varsity Victory Volunteers, was composed of 1,300 Japanese Americans that were formerly members of the Hawaii National Guard. The soldiers went through training exercises in Hawaii, and then were shipped off to the mainland, ultimately ending up at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, where they completed training.
After successful training in Wisconsin, the US government formally reversed its previous order banning Japanese Americans from serving in the armed forces., and approved the creation of a Japanese-American combat unit that ultimately become the 442nd. In announcing the formation of the 442nd, President Roosevelt said:
“Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.”
Two-thirds of the unit was composed of Nisei soldiers that were Hawaiian-born, and the remaining third was composed of Nisei from the mainland US. Given the proximity of Hawaii to Japan, it is perhaps not surprising that many those that would later fill the ranks of the 442nd, were first-responders when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Empire of Japan on December 7th, 1941.
Contact With the Camps
While one-third of the Nisei soldiers had family and friends forcibly relocated to the camps, the two-thirds of the unit that hailed from Hawaii knew their families were safe back in Hawaii. Thus, a significant part of the unit had no personal contact with the camps. That all changed when Army higher-ups ordered a small group of the soldiers to visit one of the camps in Arkansas. At Camp Jerome and Camp Rowher, the soldiers from the 442nd, many of who knew no more about the camps than White Americans, were faced with the stark reality of seeing Japanese American citizens housed in roughly constructed barracks crammed together in rows with a vast expanse of barbed wire fence enclosing them, dotted throughout with guard towers manned by soldiers armed with machine guns.
Apology to US Citizens
Though the US has instituted and supported many racially discriminatory governmental programs, the internment of Japanese American citizens during World War II stands out as one of the only government driven programs to deny civil liberties to a group soley on the basis of race.
Fourty-six years after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, formally apologizing to persons of Japanese ancestry that were placed in camps. The apology resolution formally recognized the wrongs perpetrated by the US government against its own citizens on the basis of race, acknowledging that detainees were denied their livelihoods, civil liberties, lost their homes and were forced to liquidate any assets they had before being sent off to camps. The legislation was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988.
As part of the apology legislation, the federal government raised funds of 1.25 billion dollars to pay $ 20,000 to each surviving Japanese American who was forcibly relocated into an internment camp during the war. The formal letters of apology, along with the reparations checks, were first sent to survivors on October 9, 1990, just under fifty years after the government first started rounding up Japanese Americans and sent them to the internment camps.
Apology to Japanese Latin Americans
In 1998 the US government formally negotiated an apology resolution that resulted in letters of apology as well as smaller ($ 5,000) reparations checks to be awarded to the approximately 600 surviving Japanese Latin Americans who were interned in American camps during World War II.