Half a Century Later, Relocation Pain Persists : Internees: More than 1,800 Japanese-Americans from Orange County were held at desolate desert camp.


Fifty years ago, the dust storm was the only visitor here that was free to go where it pleased without a permit.

It came howling at 70 m.p.h. or more from the Riverside Mountains, stirring clouds of dust in its path. It sprayed hot sand against the barracks, hurling filth through inch-wide cracks in the dried pine walls, and sometimes blew the roofs right off.

Inside the flimsy barracks, residents covered their mouths with towels to keep from choking.


“Sand hit like it was coming from a fire hose, making all kinds of noise,” recalled Henry Kanegae, 75, now a retired farmer in Santa Ana. “All we saw was dust.”

It was here, at the Poston Relocation Center in this arid valley about 17 miles south of the Arizona town of Parker on the California border, that most of Orange County’s Japanese-Americans--more than 1,800 of them--lost years of opportunity and faith in American justice.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, which set the stage for the internment of 120,313 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast at 10 camps scattered across seven states. It was, many scholars now agree, one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.

Half a century later, the government has apologized for the internment and attempted to redress some of the economic losses by issuing $20,000 to each camp survivor. But for some, those lost years remain a bitter remembrance.

“America was a democracy, but we were treated as second-class citizens,” said James Kanno, 66, a Santa Ana real estate broker and former mayor of Fountain Valley who was interned at Poston with his parents and older brother. “I had grown up facing prejudice all my life. When the evacuation order came, I didn’t like it. But it wasn’t surprising.”

Rather than being mandated by military necessity, the internment was a product of “race prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership,” according to a definitive report issued in 1982 by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.


Two-thirds of those relocated to the internment camps were American citizens. The remainder had been in the country since 1924, when the United States stopped Japanese immigration. They lost homes, businesses and their constitutional rights of due process and equal protection under the law. No similar mass incarceration befell Italian-Americans or German-Americans.

“Everybody’s constitutional rights were diminished when they interned Japanese-Americans,” said Lane Hirabayashi, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a third-generation Japanese-American. “It showed that in a crisis, the United States has the right to search, seize and detain citizens without a trial.”

The drumbeat of internment tore asunder Orange County’s vibrant Japanese-American community.

Immigrants from Japan had moved into the county in 1900, 11 years after the region broke away from Los Angeles County. The first few were laborers from a railroad gang who came to the county to harvest celery. Within five years, the immigrants began sharecropping, opened a church and established a Japanese social group with 50 members.

By 1940, the 1,855 Japanese-Americans in about 400 families accounted for 1.4% of the county population. Most lived in farming communities in Anaheim, Talbert (now Fountain Valley), Newport Beach, Wintersburg (now Huntington Beach) and Santa Ana. They produced crops ranging from asparagus to chili peppers on 10,565 acres, according to the Orange County Farm Bureau.

Then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast came under increasing suspicion as possible spies and saboteurs. The FBI quickly arrested business, community and church leaders in an attempt to ferret out suspected espionage agents but determined that there was no evidence of such activity.

Nevertheless, public opinion turned rabid against Japanese-Americans, whose ability to produce 30% to 40% of California’s crops inspired economic jealousy, according to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Government bodies and newspapers, including The Times, began calling for their removal. In Orange County, for example, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on Feb. 4, 1942, calling for the removal of Japanese-Americans from the county for military reasons.

Ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the exclusion of anyone from a region of the country on the basis of military necessity. Although Japanese-Americans were not mentioned in the order, the intent was clear.

At the time, about 80% of Californians supported the internment, according to the Japanese American Research Project at UCLA.

To escape Roosevelt’s order, about 250 Japanese-Americans in Orange County voluntarily chose to move inland, but most others in the county feared such relocations would be expensive or risky. By March, 1942, however, they had no choice. On March 2, Army Gen. John L. DeWitt declared the western half of California, Oregon, Washington and southern Arizona military areas from which all persons of Japanese ancestry were to be removed.

Sadayashi (George) Fujii, 76, now a retired businessman in Garden Grove, said his parents, in preparation for the evacuation, sold their restaurant in Anaheim for a fifth of its estimated value.

Kanegae said opportunists traveled between evacuation auctions, buying up evacuees’ possessions at fire-sale prices.

Fujii remembers leaving for camp with his family via the Anaheim train station. There, Anaheim residents, many of whom were of German origin, came out and offered coffee and doughnuts to the evacuees.

“I don’t know if I was angry or not,” said Fujii, who was 26 at the time. “I was surprised . . . and I kept asking myself, ‘Why?’ ”

By May, the forced exile of Japanese-Americans was well underway as they settled in at Poston or nine other camps in California, Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arkansas.

By bus or trains, the evacuees were herded en masse to camps, bringing with them only what they could carry in suitcases. Most of Orange County’s evacuees were sent to Poston I, the largest of three compounds that were nicknamed Roaston, Toaston and Duston. The three compounds housed a total of 19,534 internees, including 1,851 from Orange County, making Poston Arizona’s third-largest community during the war, according to records kept by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

Built on an Indian reservation for tribes that lived along the Colorado River, Poston tested the endurance of the internees with its intense 110-degree summers and near-freezing winters.

On arrival, Kanegae said, he reacted with disbelief as he stood in the ankle-high dust. He stuffed a cotton bag with straw to make a mattress for a cot, which was the only piece of furniture provided in the barracks.

Each family--an average of six people--lived in about 20 feet by 25 feet of space. Clotheslines with blankets strung over them or thin wooden walls were all that separated each of the four families in a 100-foot-long barrack.

There were 14 barracks in each of Poston I’s 37 blocks, and each block had a community mess hall, recreation hall and laundry room (initially, without washing machines) and ironing room. The separate communal bathrooms for men and women offered no privacy.

“Some women were so shy that they waited until everyone was at the mess hall before they took showers,” recalled Mary Yamagata-Nitta, 75, a Santa Ana resident who was a nurse at Poston. “We had no privacy.”

Internees eventually created their own police and fire departments, a newspaper called the Poston Chronicle, a theater, a library, Christian churches and Buddhist temples, baseball fields, vegetable gardens and a swimming pool sometimes shared by the desert’s rattlesnakes.

To Kanegae, Poston was more like a prison than a city. Armed guards patrolled the camp, the newspaper was censored and barbed wire partially skirted the camps. The Army worried little that the internees would escape into the snake-infested desert of mesquite brush.

Yet, the internees, battered by years of legalized discrimination and fearful that resistance would land them in jail or a cemetery, mostly chose not to resist the evacuation and internment. Shikataganai , they said--”it cannot be helped.”

The Japanese American Citizens League, a national organization formed by the Nisei, adopted a policy of cooperation to demonstrate loyalty to the United States. Critics among the internees called the policy a “collaboration” that resulted in arrests of “disloyals.”

Kanegae, who was the Orange County JACL chapter president during the war, said the organization attempted to walk the “middle road” and prove the internees were “110% American.”

“Those who criticize us for going along didn’t know what it was like,” he said. “If you didn’t go along, you might get shot.”

Under the duress of camp life, tensions emerged among the generations. Issei, the first-generation immigrants, and Kibei, who were born in the United States but were educated in Japan, often clashed with the Americanized Nisei.

Such tensions led to a major protest at Poston in November, 1942, when a reputed informant for the FBI was beaten, and camp authorities arrested two Kibei--George Fujii and Yugi Uchida, both from Orange County.

In protest, hundreds of internees went on strike and crowded around the camp’s administration buildings. They burned bonfires at night and chanted slogans on behalf of the arrested pair. The strike ended a week later with a negotiated settlement and the suspects’ release.

At the other internment camps, some surrounded by barbed wire and machine-gun towers, internees often encountered even greater tragedy. At the camp in Tule Lake, Calif., a sentry shot and killed Shoichi James Okamoto, a 30-year-old internee from Garden Grove, in a dispute at a gate in May, 1944. The sentry was court-martialed on manslaughter charges, acquitted and fined a dollar for “unauthorized use of government property.”

Determined to separate the so-called disloyals from the loyals, the government in 1943 issued written loyalty oaths for the internees to sign. Questions 27 and 28 in the oaths asked them whether they would fight for the United States and renounce loyalty to the Japanese emperor.

Those who sought to prove their loyalty to the U.S. answered yes to the two questions, and those for Japan answered no. Other internees, embittered by their internment and disturbed by the wording of questions that presupposed loyalty to Japan, also answered no to both and were subsequently sent to Tule Lake, a camp for so-called disloyals.

“It was black and white for me,” said Kanegae. “I’m an American born. Under the circumstances, I said I wouldn’t think bad about others if they went back to Japan. There were mixed feelings, and that was human nature. But there was no overt disloyalty action.”

Despite the gulf between those who signed the oaths and those who didn’t, fewer than 4% of the evacuees repatriated to Japan. On the other hand, more than 33,000 Japanese-Americans entered the U.S. military and fought overseas, in both the Pacific and European theaters.

Several internees challenged the constitutionality of the internment. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the relocation order in two rulings in 1943. However, in a ruling in December, 1944, the court said the government could no longer cite military necessity in preventing loyal Japanese-Americans from returning to the West Coast.

The following year, nearly three years after the evacuation, the government began closing down the camps and dispersing the internees.

Poston was closed on Nov. 28, 1945.

“When we left, we thought our folks were so old, but my mother wasn’t even 50 years old,” said Kanegae.

Japanese-Americans faced hostility when they returned to the West Coast. Throughout California, there were reports of burnings, beatings and sometimes killings when the internees attempted to reclaim their property.

In Orange County, returning Japanese-Americans found some sympathetic neighbors. But the overall population rejected them. Some white farmers tried to intimidate them into moving elsewhere, said Yamagata-Nitta, the former camp nurse and one of the first to return to the county.

Some found that they had nothing left when they arrived home. Because 92% of the acreage farmed by Japanese-Americans before the war was leased, many could not continue making land payments while interned and were forced to start over from scratch.

By 1950, Orange County’s population of Japanese-Americans was 1,186, down by a third from the prewar period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Disillusioned and unable to recover their homes and farms, they sought refuge elsewhere, said Art Hansen, director of the Oral History Project at Cal State Fullerton.

Quietly, the former internees rebuilt their lives. They had lost $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars as a result of lost income and property from the internment, according to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.

“None of that really figures in the personal possessions or trauma of relocation,” said Roger Daniels, a historian at the University of Cincinnati who has studied the internment for more than 30 years. “Nobody really knows how much the community lost.”

In 1988, after a 20-year campaign for redress by Japanese-Americans, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that formally apologized for the internment and gave $20,000 to each camp survivor as compensation. About a third of the original internees, or almost all of the first-generation immigrants, had died by then.

For all of its cathartic effects and its symbolic restoration of justice, redress compensation has done little to ease the memories of heartbreak and hardship that some internees have harbored for decades.

“I finally felt like something was being done,” Kanno said. “But it was a token gesture, so late in coming that its impact was diluted. Those who deserved it most, the older ones, didn’t live to get it.”

An Order for Evacuation

This sign was posted in public areas throughout the western United States to begin assembling and evacuating persons of Japanese ancestry to internment camps.

What They Had to Give Up

* Real estate

* Businesses, equipment

* Cars, household goods

* Livestock

* Pets

What They Had To Take With Them

* Bedding and linens

* Toiletries

* Extra clothing

* Cutlery and dishes

* Personal effects

Source: War Relocation Authority


* Issei: (pronounced E-say) First-generation Japanese immigrants, many of whom arrived in the United States in the early 1900s.

* Kibei: Born in the United States but sent to Japan for education.

* Nisei: Second generation, born in the United States. They made up the majority of those interned during World War II.

* Sansei: Third generation. Many were influenced by the social activism of the 1960s and ‘70s.


On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set into motion the relocation of 120,313 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast to 10 internment camps in seven states. More than 1,800 evacuees from Orange County, or most of its Japanese-American population, were interned at Poston.

Poston Center

Capacity: 20,000

When built: March 27, 1942

Cost per capita: $470

When closed: Nov. 28, 1945

Where the Camps Were

* Assembly Centers: Where people of Japanese ancestry were gathered before being sent to camps.

* Justice Department Internment Camps: For evacuees arrested by the FBI for being “suspicious.”

* Citizen Isolation Camps: Where “unruly” internees were sent.

* Relocation Centers: Internment camps.

Housing Barracks

Children referred to them as “black houses” because they were lined with tar paper. Rows of these barracks stretched across the alkaline dust of the desert.

Building Materials

The barracks, made of pine boards, had electricity, but lacked kitchen sinks, toilets, showers, and insulation.

Typical Block

There were 13 barracks, most of them divided into four separate units. Other buildings were used for communal facilities.

Sources: Art Hansen, director of Cal State Fullerton Oral History Project; Yugi Ichioka, research associate at Asian American Studies Center, UCLA; Cornell University Archives; National Archives; War Relocation Authority; Japanese American National Museum; “Poston Through Innocent Eyes,” by Lane Hirabayashi, director of Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race, University of Colorado, Boulder; “Executive Order 9066: The Internment of Japanese Americans,” by Maisie and Richard Conrat; TecCom Productions; Asian American Studies Center, UCLA.

Researched by DEAN TAKAHASHI / Los Angeles Times