On Feb. 19, 1942, just two months after the Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The executive of war and his commanders were to have complete control over strategic military zones if there was a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. It also gave them the authority to remove whoever they deemed a threat without consent from the Attorney General. The Western Defense Command decided they were going to move Americans of Japanese ancestry out of the western US to camps due to the fear of espionage on the West Coast in the event of a Japanese amphibious invasion.
Two months prior on Dec. 7, the Japanese Imperial Navy had attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During the attack 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were wounded. Although Pearl Harbor was clearly a military target, all Americans killed were considered non-combatants; at the time there had been no official declaration of war. This marked the beginning of American involvement in the Second World War.
On Feb. 14, 1942, Western Defense Command sent a memorandum to Secretary of War Henry Stimson recommending that “Japanese and other subversive elements” be removed, prompting President Roosevelt to issue Executive order 9066. The document Roosevelt signed for the Western Defense Command did not specify any one race of people but the Japanese were singled out for detainment. Records show that there were more than 120,000 Japanese taken to the long term camps and 75 percent were born and raised in America. These were people who owned businesses and homes. They were US-born citizens who were imprisoned without cause.
The Japanese Americans were first taken to “assembly centers”, which were empty cattle barns and unused race track horse stables, while the U.S. Army prepared permanent housing. There were ten permanent camps constructed in the harsh deserts of the Western United States, so living conditions were brutal. Only the personal effects that they could carry with them were allowed, and most left with only blankets and bed sheets. Some Japanese stayed at the assembly centers for as long as four months before they were moved to their permanent locations.
After the camps were completed they were moved from the assembly centers, tagged, loaded into trucks and shipped out to the long term detainment facilities. The main camps: Gila River, Granada, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Manzanar, Minidoka, Poston, Rohwer, Topaz, are in some of the harshest climate conditions North America has to offer. The internment camp sites were in desert wilderness regions, with extremely hot summers and freezing cold temperatures during winter.
Life in the camps was a culture shock for Japanese that had been born and raised as American citizens, “It all seems so futile, struggling, trying to live our old lives under this useless, regimented life. The senselessness of all the inactive manpower. Electricians, plumbers, draftsmen, mechanics, carpenters, painters, farmers every trade men who are able and willing to do all they can to lick the Axis. Thousands of men and women in these camps, energetic, quick, alert, eager for hard, constructive work, waiting for the army to do something for us, an army that won’t give us butter,” stated Ted Nakashima, author of “Concentration Camp U.S. Style” an opinion piece in “The New Republic” volume 106, no. 24, June 15, 1942. Nakashima was a United States born, Japanese American, who was interned at “Camp Harmony” assembly center and the “Minidoka” camp in Idaho until his release.
The Japanese Americans kept their dignity during the internment years. Ironically, in 1944 they gave some Japanese men the choice to serve in the 442nd Combat Team, activated in February 1943. The 442nd was composed entirely of Americans of Japanese ancestry. For safety reasons, they fought in the European Theatre rather than the South Pacific Island atolls. Regardless of being treated like traitors at home, these men were determined to show their loyalty to their country.
On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 a.m. the US dropped the first of the two atomic bombs over Hiroshima Japan, swiftly ending the war. The Japanese formally surrendered on September 2, 1945. They started clearing the camps in 1944, but not all the detainees were released until 1946. Most Japanese Americans had lost everything; homes, businesses and personal effects. When they returned to their lives they had to start over. The guarantee they were given to store their belongings had been a fallacy. In the end, the United States Government found no evidence of Japanese espionage or spy activity.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation as to whether the internment had been a just action. It was found that the cause was racism and war-time hysteria. In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, apologized to the Japanese Americans and authorized a payment of $20,000 to each internment camp survivor.