[Chapter 12] Behind Barbed Wire: World War II Removal and Incarceration

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ManzanarManzanarOn March 18, 1942, the Roosevelt administration created a civilian agency, the War Relocation Authority (WRA), to administer the ten long-term camps constructed in desolate areas of California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arkansas, and Idaho. Once again, the government forced Japanese Americans to move.

Military Reasoning

The government claimed that this unprecedented action was a military necessity: the military reasoned that some Japanese would be likely to engage in sabotage, and there was no time to distinguish loyal Japanese Americans from the disloyal. The military also argued that detention was necessary to protect Japanese from vigilante violence.

California's Concentration Camps

The WRA constructed two camps in California: Tule Lake, near the Oregon border in an arid, high-desert valley, and Manzanar, north of the town of Lone Pine in the haunting Owens Valley, on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. Built at the foot of Mount Whitney, the highest point in California, Manzanar was home to more than ten thousand Japanese Americans, mainly from southern and central California. Like the other nine WRA camps, Manzanar was surrounded by barbed wire. From elevated watchtowers, armed guards surveyed the one-square-mile camp, which was composed of thirty-six blocks. Typically, each block had fourteen barracks built of wood and tarpaper. Each barrack was divided into four small apartments. Every block had a mess hall, separate latrines for men and women, and laundry rooms. Yuri Tateishi, a Riverside-born Nisei, recalled arriving at Manzanar at night:

"The floors were boarded, but they were about a quarter to a half inch apart, and the next morning you could see the ground below. What hurt the most…was seeing those hay mattresses. We were used to a regular home atmosphere, and seeing those hay mattresses--so makeshift, with hay sticking out--a barren room with nothing but those hay mattresses. It was depressing, such a primitive feeling...You felt like a prisoner."

Twenty-three-year-old Tom Watanabe was living in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles when he and his family were sent to Manzanar He remembered:

"They assigned us to a barracks with three other families...people I never met in my life. Four families in one room. No partition or nothing. The room was twenty by twenty. In that particular room there was my wife, my two sisters, myself, the other families, almost twelve people. All we had was room enough to walk by. Up in Manzanar it's 100 degrees during the day, but at night it's cold as hell. And we had to use our blankets for partitions, to divide off privacy for our family."

A Fence Around Our Spirit

Farm Workers at Tule LakeFarm Workers at Tule LakeConditions at the Tule Lake camp, in the shadow of a bluff called Castle Rock, were similar. Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a Nisei who grew up in the rural towns of Loomis and Penryn, east of Sacramento, was nineteen when he arrived at Tule Lake with his mother, younger brother, and younger sister. His father languished in a distant sanatorium, ill with tuberculosis. 

Kashiwagi recalled:

"Tule Lake...it was a prison. Physically there were the barbed wire fence and the guard towers manned by MPs with rifles and machine guns; many of the soldiers were in the South Pacific and were still quite nervous. We didn't dare go near the fence for fear of being shot at, and there were instances of that. But in addition to the physical confinement, there was the fence around our spirit, and this imprisonment of the spirit was the most ravaging part of the evacuation experience."

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