'I Was Supposed To Die There': 80 Years On From the Creation of Japanese-American Internment Camps

Eighty years ago today, former President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the arbitrary incarceration of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans in makeshift detention camps, throwing the lives of thousands into disarray.

"I was supposed to die there," camp survivor Paul Tomita, told Newsweek. "Executive Order 9066 is the worst thing that could have happened to Japanese Americans."

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, fear and distrust towards the Japanese community in the U.S. was at its peak, and President Roosevelt was under increasing pressure to address growing concerns of sabotage and foreign attacks.

Therefore, the president signed the executive order, which was branded as a means of ensuring national security and preventing any foreign espionage on U.S. soil.

Executive Order 9066 authorized the secretary of war to establish ill-defined 'military areas' along the West Coast and evacuate "any or all persons" within them that were deemed a threat to national security.

Although Roosevelt's order did not target a specific ethnic group, the Japanese American community quickly came to be its primary victim.

"White America selected us. Our rights were suspended, our due process was suspended, everything was suspended," Tomita added. "The executive order essentially destroyed the Japanese American community. They destroyed anything that we had worked for for these 80 years and they dumped us in these camps."

Japanese evacuation
Salinas, California, March 31, 1942: Baggage is being assembled to be taken by truck to the Salinas Assembly center where evacuees from this area awaited transfer to a War Relocation Authority center. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Clem Albers/Densho Archives

"Military areas" were imposed in states with large populations of Japanese Americans, such as California, Washington and Oregon, and pushed them to migrate in-land. However, many nearby states approached to house the migrating Japanese community had severe reservations, predominantly driven by heightened racial discrimination and distrust.

Idaho Attorney General Bert Miller demanded "all Japanese be put in concentration camps for the remainder of the war, and that no attempt should be made to provide work for them," and added: "We want to keep this a white man's country."

On March 18, 1942, Roosevelt created the War Relocation Authority (WRA). It was introduced to "take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war."

Non-compliance with Executive Order 9066 had also been made an offense punishable with a $5,000 fine and up to a year of imprisonment.

Specific measures were also taken by General John DeWitt, who was at the helm of the Western Defense Command at the time. DeWitt introduced curfews which applied only to Japanese residents of the military areas and encouraged their voluntary evacuation; roughly only seven percent of the Japanese Americans in the affected zones relocated.

On March 27, DeWitt stepped up the persecution. He introduced Public Proclamation No. 4, which prohibited "all alien Japanese and persons of Japanese ancestry" from leaving the military areas, with only a 48-hour notice.

Detainee baggage
Baggage belonging to Japanese-Americans piled in the Salinas, California, reception center. Japanese-Americans were evacuated from certain West Coast areas under US Army War Emergency Order. Corbis Historical/Getty Images

This allowed for the forced evacuation of all the Japanese Americans who were trapped in their military areas, unable to leave in time. The WRA rounded up and forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Japanese American citizens from their homes, upending their lives.

"America has a long history of racism against people who don't look white, and we were the 1940s version of that. We Japanese Americans lost everything, and even worse, we lost our dignity," Tomita said.

The forced evacuation resulted in a total property loss estimated to be roughly $3.7 billion, and a net income loss of $7.6 billion in today's dollars.

Roughly 120,000 innocent people were detained, of which almost two-thirds–70,000 people–were U.S. citizens.

"A lot of historians today would say that at the time it was often seen as this great mistake that was made by the US government, but it was less of a mistake and was instead a continuation of general, anti-Asian sentiment that goes back for many decades," Brian Niiya, content director at Densho–a non-profit dedicated to preserving the memory of the incarceration–told Newsweek.

Forced Evacuation To Detention Centers

The WRA first sent the detainees to temporary 'assembly centers', some of which were held in livestock barns and animal stables, as they waited to be transferred to makeshift detention camps known as 'relocation centers', where they would live for the remainder of the war.

Tomita was four years old when he and his family were sent to an 'assembly center' in Puyallup, Washington. They spent five months there before being relocated to their detention facility in Minidoka, southern Idaho.

The camps were built in desolate places inland, isolated from the rest of society, where several families were frequently made to live together in army-style barracks, which were often ill-equipped to deal with the harsh weather.

One word sprung to mind for Tomita when recalling his time at the camp: "dusty."

Dusty Camp
Poston, Arizona, May 10, 1942: Jim Morikawa sprinkling in an attempt to settle the dust at this War Relocation Authority center for evacuees of Japanese ancestry. Many of the camps were not well suited for the harsh weather. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Fred Clark/Densho Archives

"Minidoka was a dusty place. The wind blew every day, they put us in barracks that were framed in tar paper. The dust would come through any holes, and myself being asthmatic, I squeezed and coughed my way through it.

"I did not like it there. I wanted to go home. I didn't like sucking up dust every day of my life. I remember telling my mom: 'I don't like it here, how come we can't go home?'," he told Newsweek.

The camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences and surveilled by armed guards in sentry towers, who were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to escape. Seven people were shot and killed by sentries while the camps were in operation. Each individual camp resident was forced to wear numbered identification tags.

A total of 10 such detention camps were built between 1942 and 1945 in places such as Tule Lake, California; Manzanar, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Topaz, Utah; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Poston, Arizona; Granada, Colorado; Jerome, Arkansas; and Rohwer, Arkansas.

None of those detained in the camps were ever charged with anything, nor did they have access to legal means through which they could appeal their loss of property and civil liberties.

"It was a concentration camp," Tomita said. " The white administration controlled everything we did. They controlled when we got up, when we could go to bed, and when we could eat. They controlled our life."

Manzanar camp
Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California, April 2, 1942. A street scene and view of quarters for evacuees of Japanese ancestry at the detention center with the High Sierra mountains in the background. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Clem Albers/Densho Archives

Life In The Camps

Despite the conditions, those held at the camps attempted to build a life with a semblance of normality. They established schools, churches, hospitals, shops, and post offices, as well as farmland for crops and livestock. Detainees used shared bathroom and laundry facilities, though access to hot water was limited.

"We didn't have an appeals court, we didn't have anything. So essentially we made the best we could. We started our own schools, we started our own governments. Knowing the situation as it was, we made the best we could of it," Tomita explained.

Regular work was also available for the camp residents, who could work as mechanics, carpenters, doctors, teachers or laborers. However, they came with a meager salary that ranged between $12-$19 a month.

Distrust in the Japanese community remained widespread throughout the duration of the war, and in 1943 the WRA asked all adult detainees to declare their loyalty to the U.S.

Many American citizens at the camp rejected out of protest and anger, and approximately 8,500 of them were labeled 'disloyal' and transferred to a camp for dissidents in Tule Lake, California.

life in camp
Women playing volleyball at one of the detention centers, with the one-story barracks and mountains in the background. Ansel Adams/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Camp Closure and Reparations

By 1944, the continued existence of the detention camps was getting harder to justify for the Roosevelt administration, and distaste towards the camps was growing within certain, albeit limited, political circles.

Not to mention, a number of detainees themselves had taken the issue to the courts. Two particular cases eventually determined the fate of the camps and those residing in them.

On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court issued final decisions on two cases. The first, Korematsu v. The United States, upheld the decision that the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast in the name of military need was constitutional.

On the other hand, a separate case–Ex parte Endo–unanimously found that the detention of loyal U.S. citizens without a justifiable cause was illegal. This decision allowed for the release of the camp's detainees to be set in motion.

The Roosevelt administration had been made privy to these decisions before they were made public, and therefore issued Public Proclamation No. 21 on December 17, 1944. The declaration put an end to the enforced detention and exclusion of the Japanese American detainees and allowed them to return to their homes the following month.

Camp guard
Manzanar, California, 1942: View of the 'Alien Reception Center' under construction, in Manzanar, California, nestled in Owens Valley. Bettmann/Getty Images

Upon their release, Japanese-American inmates were given $25 and a train ticket back to their original home.

However, a return to normality and their pre-war life was not guaranteed. Many who had been evacuated and detained consequently lost their homes, jobs, savings, businesses and possessions, and had little option but to start their life again from scratch.

Nine of the ten wartime camps were closed down by the end of 1945, though the camp in Tule Lake, California, remained open until March 1946 as it housed 'renunciants' –those who had chosen to renounce their U.S. citizenship–as they awaited deportation to Japan.

Little was done by the U.S. government in the immediate aftermath. The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act was the first instance of redressal, it was first introduced in 1948 and was amended in 1951 and 1965 though only provided token payments for a limited number of property losses.

The drive for reparations came mostly from within the Japanese American community, Niiya explained.

"Japanese Americans recognise that because of this experience, we have a platform and we feel like it's part of our duty on that platform to talk about history. You do want the government to do these things as well, but we have to be the ones pushing for that to happen."

It was not until the 1980s that the issue of reparations was more seriously approached by the government. Investigations into the camps were undertaken by the congressionally created Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians which resulted in the passing of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

The Act issued a formal state apology to all those incarcerated as well as a $20,000 compensation to over 80,000 surviving Japanese Americans who had endured detention.

Today the experience continues to impact the community.

"For Japanese Americans it's such a central part of our history." Niiya concluded. "The shape of the community and the shape of individual families was just irreparably changed by the events of the war, for good and for bad. In our community, this is always going to be a concern, and always going to be something so central to telling our story."