Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps

Stephanie Schoppert - April 24, 2017

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States quickly learned that the war that raged in Europe could very easily make its way across the sea. Distrust and fear of those who had attacked the United States led to many people fearing those who looked like they might be from Japan.

President Roosevelt faced tremendous pressure to do something about the fear that was radiating throughout the west coast of the United States and therefore he set forth a policy that would deprive thousands of Americans of their rights. The internment of Japanese-Americans along with German and Italian Americans has become a dark spot in the country’s history as a time when the government overstepped its bounds and gave into fear.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
Enemy Aliens Leaving Peru for the United States.

President Roosevelt Even Imported Enemy Aliens From Latin America to Intern Them

President Roosevelt was not only concerned with Axis sympathizers in the United States but in Latin America as well. In July of 1940, he authorized the FBI to station agents at U.S. embassies throughout Latin America. Their goal was to have a list of names of people within those countries that they believed could have ties to axis powers. These agents were to keep an eye on those individuals and present the list should it become necessary to detain those individuals.

In many Latin American countries, after the outbreak of World War II, people who came from countries that were part of the axis powers became targets. Because those of Japanese descent stood out, they became easy targets. In May 1940, as many as 600 homes, schools and businesses belonging to citizens of Japanese descent were burned down. With the animosity toward those of Japanese descent in their countries it was little surprise that many Latin American countries were willing to comply with American requests to monitor and potentially detain those individuals.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the fear and hatred for people of Japanese descent only grew. President Roosevelt asked a dozen different Latin American countries to arrest citizens of Japanese descent. The idea was to detain all those individuals and then use them for hostage exchanges in order to get captured Americans back. Several countries complied and more than 2,000 people were deported from their countries and sent to internment camps in the United States.

Many of those who were deported to the U.S. were angry that they were forced to leave the lives they had built for themselves in their home counties. Families were broken apart and when mothers would take their children to try and find their husbands in the U.S. they would end up detained themselves. In the internment camps the focus was on teaching everyone Japanese, German or Italian so that when they were used in a hostage exchange or deported they could speak the language.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
Eleanor Roosevelt visiting an internment camp.

Eleanor Roosevelt Was Against Internment Camps

Eleanor Roosevelt firmly believed that America was a place where people of all cultures could come together as one people and that America could create a model of fairness to people of all nationalities. She believed that all Americans deserved equal rights and that it was the duty of America to prove that humanity could leave free of anti-racial, anti-Semitic and anti-religious feelings in order to pave the way for a better a future. Just ten days after Pearl Harbor she spoke out to the American people and urged them not to give into their fear.

She gave her husband the same advice that she told the American people, that “if out of the present chaos there is ever to come a world where free people live together peacefully, in Europe, Asia or the Americas, we shall have to furnish the pattern.” Unfortunately, this was one time that President Roosevelt would not defer to the advice of his wife, but would rather succumb to the fear and the pressure of the time. FDR did sign the order that forced all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast to be placed in internment camps.

Once the order was signed Eleanor was placed in the hard position of having to publicly support her husband’s decision, regardless of what she thought privately. Her tacit acceptance of the order did not last long and she eventually found a way to do what she could to speak out against the treatment of American citizens. In 1943 she made a very public visit to the Gila River Detention Center in Arizona. She made sure that she was photographed in the presence of the internees in the hopes that it would help combat racism.

She also pushed her husband to meet with the director of the War Relocation Authority who was calling for the release of the detainees. After her visit, she gave an interview with the Los Angeles Times in which she stated that the sooner the camps were closed the better. Despite her efforts and those who supported her, the camps remained open until December 1944.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
A woman showing just how welcome Japanese Americans were in the country they were expected to fight for. WordPress

Those Sent to Internment Camps Were Given a Loyalty Questionnaire

In 1943, War Relocation Authority officials wanted to determine if any of the Nisei (someone born in the U.S. to Japanese parents) men that they had interned would be suitable for military duty. The questionnaire was at first given only to men who qualified for military service but it was later revised and given to all interned adults. The questionnaire had two questions at the very end that were supposed to determine the loyalty and potential of someone to join the armed forces.

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiances to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or other foreign government, power or organization?

The questions were simple enough but there were numerous interpretations of their implication. Most people answered yes to both questions, knowing that was the answer they were expected to give. But 17% of respondents and 20% of Nisei men gave negative responses. The reason for the negative responses was not a matter of lacking loyalty to the U.S. but fear and confusion over what a “yes” answer might mean.

Some assumed that answering “yes” to question 27 would be taken as an agreement to volunteer for military service. Others were offended at the idea that the country that had imprisoned them and their families was now asking them to risk their lives to fight for it. Question 28 also had its own problems even for those who held no loyalty or ties to any country other than the United States. Many of those in the camps believed that they were just waiting to be deported to Japan and if this was the case they did not want to cause problems for themselves by denouncing the Emperor of the country they would soon be living in. Whatever the reasons those who answered “no” were labeled “disloyal” and sent to the maximum-security Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
President Ronald Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

In 1988, Congress Ordered Restitution for Internment Camp Survivors

In 1948, internees were given some compensation for the loss of their property due to internment but it was never enough to completely cover what they had lost. Therefore, campaigns began in the 1960s and 1970s to seek reparations for the way Japanese Americans had been treated during the war. The Japanese American Citizens League put forth a resolution that sought individual reparations at its conference in 1970. In 1979, the National Council for Japanese American Redress filed a class action lawsuit against the United States federal government on behalf of former camp inmates.

More progress was made in 1980 when Congress appointed a committee to study the effects internment and whether or not redress was necessary. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians heard testimony from over 750 individuals regarding their experiences during and after the war. In 1983, the Commission recommended that reparations be made. Four years later in 1987, a bill that issued a formal apology and provided reparations made it Congress. It faced heavy opposition both from congressional Republicans and the President Ronald Reagan but with a Democratic majority it was able to pass.

On August 10th, 1988, the bill was signed into law. It would take two years for the first reparations checked to be dispersed. On October 9th, 1990, the first nine checks were dispersed as part of a formal ceremony. President George H. W. Bush presented each of the nine former internees with a check for $20,000 and a signed letter of apology. Payments continued through the Office of Redress Administration until 1993.

A second part of the Civil Liberties Act called for an effort to educate the public about the internment to ensure it does not happen again. Initially the amount put forth for the education program was $50 million but it was put on hold until 1994. When the money was finally released and allowed to be used to fund education programs, the amount had been reduced to $5 million.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
This large sign was put up the day after Pearl Harbor by the store owner who was a University of California graduate. He would later be forced to close the store and be imprisoned in an internment camp. Biography

Most of Those Interned Had Never Even Been to Japan

The hatred and fear of the Japanese did not just extend to first generation immigrants from Japan but even second and third generation immigrants. Anyone who looked like they might be from Japan was subjected to the abject racism that was growing through the country and particularly the West Coast. Arrests for first generation immigrants who had served in the Japanese military took place almost immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the weeks following the attack, immigrants from Japan and their descendants were forced to adhere to strict curfews. Arrests continued for anyone that was the least bit suspicious and eventually that grew to include anyone. Many of those who were forced from their homes and made to go to concentration camps were called Nisei. Nisei were the children of immigrants, those who were born in the United States and were American citizens. About two-thirds of those who were held in internment camps were Nisei.

For most of the Nisei they had never even been to Japan. They considered themselves to be American and had more loyalty and ties to the country they had been raised in than the country that their parents had come from. Some did not even speak Japanese. There were so many of the Nisei that did not speak Japanese that it became a focus of the schooling in the internment camps so that when the time came from the internees to be sent “back” to Japan they would be able to speak the language.

Their treatment caused many of the Nisei to feel conflicted. They wanted to support the only home they had ever known but they were realizing that they were not as welcome in their homeland as they had once thought. Even second generation Nisei, those born to parents who had never set foot in Japan were placed into camps and treated like criminals.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
A former grocery store owner working as a filing clerk in an internment camp.

Adults Could Earn $16 a Month if They Worked

Having a job in the internment camps was not necessary. Very basic needs of the people were met. They were fed and given shelter. However, many of the adults chose to get jobs because it not only helped pass the time but it gave them a sense of purpose that they were otherwise lacking in the camps. People were needed to perform basic duties around the camp and help provide for the people housed at the camp.

In the beginning those who took on jobs or roles within the internment camp were not paid at all. As time went on this changed and wages were given based upon the work being done. Skilled and technical workers could get as much as $16 a month which translates to about $213 in 2017 dollars. A mid-range wage was $12 per month and the lowest rate of pay was $8 per month.

Workers typically worked 40 hours a week and were expected to perform and show up at their job just as if it were any other job that was not in a prison camp. There was also the additional benefit that anyone with a job was given an extra $3.75 credit to use toward clothes.

The wages given to internees were far lower than what they were getting outside of the camp. Regular Caucasian workers who were brought in to work as teachers or in other positions in the camps were paid substantially higher wages. An internee teacher could make up to $213 a year, which the base pay for a Caucasian teacher at the camps was $2,000 a year.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
Fred Korematsu (center) at a press conference in 1983 after his conviction was overturned.

The Supreme Court Found the Internment Camps to be Constitutional

Today it is easy to look back and know that Japanese internment was wrong. That there was no reason to deprive more than 100,000 American citizens of their liberty for no other reason than their heritage. Most them had very little in common with the enemy that the United States was fighting and felt just as attacked as the rest of America when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which provided for the creation of military areas from which any or all American citizens might be excluded. Proclamations followed that created military areas out of much of the West Coast. Once the military areas were created it was deemed that any Japanese, German or Italian aliens or any one of Japanese descent be excluded. Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1 would be issued on May 19, 1942 and it forced Japanese Americans into relocation camps.

Fred Korematsu refused to leave the military area and even got plastic surgery in order to avoid being sent to an internment camp. He was eventually arrested and convicted. However, he argued that Executive Order 9066 was unconstitutional and his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The order was found to be constitutional in a 6 to 3 decision.

The court found that the need to protect the country from espionage outweighed the individual rights of Fred Korematsu and other Americans of Japanese descent. Korematsu’s conviction was eventually overturned but the Supreme Court ruling still stands. The case is now seen as so flawed that it is now used as an example of bad legal decision making and it is therefore not even considered to be precedent by most people.

Prisoners of Their Time: 8 Incredible Facts About World War II Internment Camps
A family living in an internment camp.

The Conditions Were Akin to a Prison Camp

Internment camps were designed to house up to 18,000 people and several camps were created to house the more than 120,000 people that were forcibly detained. The camps would include schools, post offices, warehouses and hospitals. There was a communal mess hall, latrines and laundry. The entire camp would be surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.

The internees were placed into barracks. Each barrack block would have a mess hall, a recreation building, a laundry area and a wash area and latrine. Each barrack would have four to six one room apartments. The apartments would range in size from 15 by 20 feet to 24 by 20 feet. Families or groups of people would be placed in each apartment with as many as 8 people in one space. There were often complaints about the lack of privacy because the partitions between apartments did not reach to the ceiling which allowed sound to travel throughout the entire barrack.

The camps were based on military style barracks which made them ill-suited for family life. They were also constructed very quickly which meant that they were poorly constructed and were missing many things necessary for families to live comfortably. The camps were often built in the desert or areas that were largely deserted. This meant that winters were bitterly cold and at times internees would bank earth against the walls of the barracks in order to try and keep out the cold. Some internees were not informed they were being sent to colder climates and therefore had no clothes to keep warm through the winter.

The government did provide food in the mess halls at a cost of 45 cents per day. Meals were often a source of complaint as there was only one option for meals and the first generation of immigrants often wanted more Japanese foods while the Nisei wanted more American foods. Additional food options were available for purchase from the stores at the camps. One of the few ways that a internee could leave was by attending college, provided they found a college willing to take them and they passed FBI background checks.