Teaching and Learning History - 082316
The History File
From Camps to Prisons:
The Untold Story of the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II
By Sam K. Mihara
Visiting Lecturer at UC Berkeley, UCLA and USC
In my talks throughout the country, I have learned that surprisingly few people have heard about the World War II prison camps for people of Japanese ancestry. The United States government incarcerated 120,000 of us for three years at remote camps in desolate parts of the United States. As a 9-year-old boy, I was one of the incarcerated. Entire families, including mine, were forcibly removed from our homes and taken to one of ten camps. My camp was located at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The government had originally planned for the camps to be temporary staging areas, from where the incarcerated would be urged to resettle in the eastern United States. The initial plan was not to create prisons. However, the untold story is that local people and state leaders convinced the federal government to change the camps to prisons. Thus, we became prisoners and the locals wanted to prevent the escape of prisoners.
For me, the story begins with how my family immigrated and why they came to the U.S. My grandparents were not wealthy – they were caught in the unskilled, working class of Japan until a future generation could break into a higher social class. So my grandparents sent their son, my father, to a very good college in Tokyo to learn English. After graduation in 1920, my father easily found a job as a bilingual newspaper editor in San Francisco. That led to his bringing the rest of the family to the states and to starting his own family. I was born in 1933 in San Francisco and was a U.S. citizen by birth.
Photo of the Mihara family, c. 1940.
The author is on the right end, age 7
Photo courtesy of Mihara Family Collection.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racial hatred against Asians, and Japanese immigrants in particular, was strong. This hatred was exemplified by the Exclusion Acts of 1882 and 1924, which limited the number of Asian immigrants to the country, and the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which prohibited land ownership by first generation Asians in California.
The Forced Removal
When the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, the degree of hatred in the U.S. rapidly increased. The public hysteria, supported by the media proclaiming we were spies, resulted in demands for our removal from the western states of California, Oregon, Washington and a part of Arizona.
The family prisoners are in front of the train at camp and heavily guarded by armed military.
Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley.
In early 1942, a young Army major, Karl Bendetsen, came up with the idea that President Franklin D. Roosevelt should approve an executive order authorizing that the military could remove anyone from their homes. That authority was delegated to the military district commander without specifically naming the Japanese. The idea was forwarded through the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to the White House. This order, called Executive Order 9066, was signed on February 19, 1942. The military commander for the West Coast, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, announced that the chosen people were all persons of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens. All of us would be required to move out of our homes and away from the western states. The move would be forced under armed guards. The order stated nothing about where we would be sent and the conditions at the new locations.
Normally, the Justice Department would have been responsible for managing the relocation and incarceration. But it complained that it could not handle such a large operation. So President Roosevelt created a new department, called the War Relocation Authority. The WRA was given the authority and budget to create and manage the new locations to hold all the Japanese. The WRA was headed by Milton S. Eisenhower, the younger brother of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Under Milton Eisenhower, the WRA decided to create 10 camps called “Relocation Centers” that would each hold an average of 12,000 incarcerees.
The Untold Story
Many residents near the planned camp locations became concerned about their own safety. In Wyoming, Senator Alan K. Simpson, who was a teenager during World War II, recalled that the locals feared that Japanese would easily escape from the camp, descend upon Cody, with a population of only 2,000, and kill everyone. In Cody and nearby Powell, Wyoming, the media heightened the hysteria by publishing headlines of the alarming number of “Japs” coming to town.
The newspaper is the Cody Enterprise, dated May 21, 1942.
Photo courtesy of the Cody Library, Cody, Wyoming.
(For the uninformed, the use of the abbreviation “Japs” instead of Japanese is considered highly derogatory and insulting by people of Japanese ancestry. The J-word is somewhat in the same category as using the N-word in casual, non-historical context.)
Milton Eisenhower was concerned about the public’s hostility toward having the Relocation Centers in their states. So he called a conference with all governors of the states where the centers were planned to be located. The meeting was called the “Salt Lake City Conference of Governors” and was held on April 7, 1942.
According to the minutes of the meeting, Eisenhower began by presenting the plan for the centers. They were to be temporary homes, or staging areas, for the Japanese Americans. The incarcerees would not stay long and would be encouraged to permanently move east. Therefore, the centers were not prisons and would not require armed guards to prevent escape. The reaction by the governors was immediate and hostile. The governors stated that the Japanese could easily escape and local residents would be threatened. Idaho Governor Chase A. Clark stated, “They must be placed under guard in concentration camps.” The governor of Wyoming, Nels H. Smith, predicted, “Japs hanging from every pine tree.” The governors urged Eisenhower to change the design and make all such centers prisons with barbed-wire fences, guard towers and armed guards. Eisenhower relented and changed the design to prisons. So while the federal government was responsible for the forced removal from our homes, the local leadership, primarily the governors, should be recognized as causing the design change from unguarded camps to prisons.
Heart Mountain Wyoming prison camp with barracks on the left, Heart Mountain in the background and the barbed wire fence, guard tower and floodlights on the right.
Photo courtesy of Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation.
However, not everyone in the local communities held such hatred against us. For example, while we were incarcerated, all the imprisoned children received Christmas presents from outsiders who felt compassion and concern for our well-being. Every Christmas, Heart Mountain received over 5,000 presents for the children from people throughout the U.S., including from Cody.
In mid-1945, we were allowed to leave the prisons and were free to return to our homes on the West Coast. Many camps were closed and converted to homesteads for agricultural development. By this time, many former prisoners were in financial difficulty. Some had lost homes and property and faced severe racial hatred in their former neighborhoods. For example, in Imperial County, California, a law was passed that forbade Japanese from returning to conduct farming, so several former farmers had to find new careers to continue their livelihood. As a result, it took many years to recover from the economic hardships.
After a 43-year-long campaign by several concerned former incarcerees, attorneys and the “Nikkei” leadership (people of Japanese ancestry), legislation by the U.S. Congress was passed and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on August 10, 1988. The “Civil Liberties Act of 1988” specified that an apology be given to all former prisoners and it provided funds to compensate for the damages suffered during that time. In October 1990, I received a personal letter of “sincere apology” from President George H. W. Bush along with a check to compensate for damages. The letters and money were provided only to those who were imprisoned and were still living on the date when the president approved the bill. The families of those people who had passed away during that interval of 43 years did not receive the letters and money. So about 60,000 of us, or one-half of the former prisoners, received the apology.
President Ronald Reagan signing the bill the approved sending an apology to all former prisoners, dated August 10, 1988, and called “The Civil Liberties Act of 1988”.
Photo courtesy of the Reagan Presidential Library.
I take great pleasure in telling this story, highlighted by my photo and video collection, at schools and universities and to civic groups throughout the country. I believe the unconstitutional mass imprisonment and injustice could happen again, to anyone, and that history matters – both the good and the bad. This motivates me to educate as many people as I can.
For a future appointment, I can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and / or telephone: (714) 813-6291. Also, a list of my currently scheduled appearances can be found on my website: www.sammihara.com.
The Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, of which I am on the board, manages the Heart Mountain World War II Japanese American Confinement Site on the original site of the former prison. Today, it is a national Historic Landmark site that includes an Interpretive Center with award-winning museum, gallery and archive. The site also includes a World War II memorial, walking trail and original camp structures. See www.heartmountain.org for more information.
References and Credits –
Cody Enterprise, years 1940, 1941, 1942, Cody, Wyoming.
Daniels, Roger, Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II. 1971, Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Herzig-Yoshinaga, Aiko and Marjorie Lee, Speaking Out for Personal Justice from CWRIC. 2011, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press. Los Angeles.
Irons, Peter. Justice at War, The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. 1983. University of California Press. Berkeley, California.
Maki, Mitchell, Harry Kitano, Megan Berthold, Achieving the Impossible Dream, How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress.1999, University of Illinois Press.
Mihara Family photo collection, www.sammihara.com
Wartime photos of Japanese imprisonment, University of California, Berkeley, The Bancroft Library.
Weglyn, Michi, Years of Infamy, The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. 1976. Morrow Quill Paperbacks, New York.
Donahue, Raechel, Heart Mountain: An All American Town, Wyoming’s WWII Japanese Internment Camp, 2011. Big Stagecoach Production. www.amazon.com.
Mihara, Sam, Memories of Heart Mountain, January 2014, Huntington Beach, CA, www.sammihara.com
Ono, David and Jeff MacIntyre, The Legacy of Heart Mountain, 2013, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Powell WY, www.shopheartmountain.org.