Japanese Internment during WWII Part I: Bill Nishimura

A couple of year ago my wife and I attended a two-day symposium in Santa Fe about the history of Japanese Internment in the United States during WWII. The symposium was sponsored by the Museum of New Mexico and many guest speakers were in attendance. We both love history and thought the event sounded interesting. Besides, I didn’t know much about that part of American history and thought I could learn something new. We thought we might attend just one or two of the presentations, but instead we both became so captivated by it all that we attended nearly every single presentation over the two day period.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Japanese Internment, here’s a little background: On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese Empire launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The base was decimated. On the American side, two battleships were completely lost, two others were sunk (later recovered), 166 aircraft were destroyed and approximately 2,403 Americans were killed including 68 civilians, 1,178 were wounded. By comparison 64 Japanese were killed in the attack. The next day President Franklin Roosevelt publicly announced in his famous “Day of Infamy” speech that the United States had declared war on Japan.

Of course, even though the attack on Pearl Harbor caught our military off guard, the fact that Japan would declare war on the U.S. did not come as a surprise to the American leadership at all. Japan was already waging war against China and diplomatic tensions with the United States were running high at the time. In fact, the Roosevelt administration had already begun making preparations to the extent that it could in case war did break out. Intelligence gathering was part of that preparation.

The Administration had already collected much intelligence on Japanese Nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the U.S. before December 7, 1941. This is evidenced by the fact that some Japanese men in the U. S. were arrested by authorities the very same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Unlike today, when millions of undocumented aliens live and work off the record, practically all Japanese nationals in the U.S. were registered with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which made it much easier for Federal authorities to keep track of them. In addition, the Census Bureau provided data that assisted authorities with the Japanese Relocation. Wikipedia explains,

“In the 1930s the Office of Naval Intelligence, concerned by Imperial Japan’s rising military power in the East, began conducting surveillance on Japanese American communities in Hawaii. From 1936, at the behest of President Roosevelt, the ONI began compiling a “special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble” between Japan and the United States, and in 1939, again by order of the President, the ONI, Military Intelligence Division, and FBI began working together to compile a larger Custodial Detention Index.”

Franklin Roosevelt signed into law his Executive Order 9066 on February 17, 1942.

This order stated that,

“Whereas the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage to national-defense material, national-defense premises, and national-defense utilities…

“Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. The Secretary of War is hereby authorized to provide for residents of any such area who are excluded therefrom, such transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary, in the judgment of the Secretary of War or the said Military Commander, and until other arrangements are made, to accomplish the purpose of this order.”

The War Department used the President’s executive order to declare the entire West Coast of the United States a Military Zone, subject to the “Exclusion Clause” of the order. This set in motion the Federal government’s program to relocate approximately 120,000 Japanese from their communities in Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona.

Most of the Japanese living on the West Coast, of whom approximately two thirds were U. S. citizens, were given less than two weeks (some even as little as little as six days) to get their affairs in order and report to the government assembly centers. They were instructed that they would be allowed to bring only what they could carry with them.

1942 Exclusion Order Posted at the corner of First and Front Streets, San Franciso, CA. These posters  announced the removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the designated military zones on the West Coast. (National Archives)

1942 Exclusion Order Posted at the corner of First and Front Streets, San Francisco, CA. These posters announced the planned removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the designated military zones on the West Coast. (National Archives)

“Over the spring of 1942, (Karl) Bendetsen issued Western Defense Command orders for Japanese Americans to present themselves for removal. The “evacuees” were taken first to temporary assembly centers, requisitioned fairgrounds and horse racing tracks where living quarters were often converted livestock stalls. As construction on the more permanent and isolated WRA camps was completed, the population was transferred by truck or train. These accommodations consisted of tar paper-walled frame buildings in parts of the country with bitter winters and often hot summers. The camps were guarded by armed soldiers and fenced with barbed wire (security measures not shown in published photographs of the camps). Camps held up to 18,000 people, and were small cities, with medical care, food, and education provided by the government. Adults were offered “camp jobs” with wages of $12 to $19 per month, and many camp services such as medical care and education were provided by the camp inmates themselves.” –Wikipedia

Map of the Military Exclusion Zone, Assembly Centers, Relocation Centers and Internment Camps. (National Park Service)

Click to link to: Map of the Military Exclusion Zone, Assembly Centers, Relocation Centers and Internment Camps. (National Park Service)

Now is a good time to state that the purpose of this post is not to enter into a thorough discussion of the history of the Internment Camps, nor will I attempt to address the moral, ethical and Constitutional issues surrounding this history.

The two-day long symposium had a great effect on me and as I looked around the auditorium I concluded that I was probably not the only one to feel that way. Incredible emotions welled up inside of me. I found the stories amazing, the history gripping.

One man who shared his experiences, Bill Nishimura, was a young, twenty-something, second generation Japanese living on the West Coast when the war broke out. Mr. Nishimura was confined behind the barb wire right here in Santa Fe. This camp was different from most because it did not house Japanese families, but only men who were considered “high risk,” or the “most dangerous.” It was run by the U.S. Justice Department.

Mr. Nishimura was sent to Santa Fe because he refused to fill out the U.S. government’s loyalty questionnaire. He said to his government interrogator, “I will not answer your questions until you restore my civil rights.” For his defiance, he was considered to be dangerous and thus was sent to the detention camp at Santa Fe. Bill Nishimura was an American citizen, he was not charged with any crime, yet like thousands of other Japanese-Americans his rights had been taken away.

Bill remembered the “friendly atmosphere” at the camp in Santa Fe. It’s there that he learned to share his time and devote his actions to help others. Life was not all that bad for him in the camps. Ironically, he said that he had certain freedoms that he did not enjoy back home. For example, he related that his parents, being Issei (first generation) were very strict. But when he entered the internment camp system he was able to do things that otherwise he would not have the opportunity to do while under the watchful eyes of his parents – at camp he finally learned how to dance! You should have seen the twinkle in his eye when he told us this.

This Wooden Panel was carved by モリタ (Morita), an unidentified Japanese man. It was carved to help pass away time while he was confined in a U. S. internment camp.

This Wooden Panel was carved by モリタ (Morita), an unidentified Japanese man. It was carved to help pass away time while he was confined in a U. S. internment camp. (Private collection)

It seems camp life brought a lot of firsts to Bill. For instance, he met an uncle from Hawaii for the first time who also happened to be incarcerated at Santa Fe.

The internees at Santa Fe had a short wave radio (probably against camp rules) and so could stay connected to world and war news. And if I heard this correctly, Bill knew a Japanese doctor in camp who kept him informed of events on the outside.

Bill said he was “thankful” that the U.S. gov’t allowed him to stay in the country – he was worried that he might be deported to Japan. It’s understandable that some of the internees remained bitter towards the United States, but what Bill told us amazed me – After the war he advised his children while they were growing up to always do their best by America. When Bill told us this I literally began to cry! I guess part of the reason I cried is that for all of its faults, I love America; not enough people express their love for her, not enough seem to appreciate her, too many speak ill of her. So when I come across someone who publicly pronounces their love for America I get very emotional.

One of Bill’s greatest regrets was that he never thanked the Japanese cooks at camp. They were volunteers and used to get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to get the meals going for the day. There was one man in camp (I think his doctor friend) who used to save two raw eggs per week and on Fridays he would make Bill and other inmates Japanese noodles. You could feel Bill’s gratitude when he told us “Oh! – that was really something – we really looked forward to those noodles.” The doctor did this to repay his friends for all they did for him and the others in camp.

This marker, which was dedicated in 2002, commemorates the Internment Camp at Santa Fe, New Mexico where over 4,500 men of Japanese heritage were detained during WWII. The memorial sits atop  a hill that once overlooked the camp.

This marker, which was dedicated in 2002, commemorates the Internment Camp at Santa Fe, New Mexico where over 4,500 men of Japanese heritage were detained during WWII. The memorial sits atop a hill that once overlooked the camp.

Bill remembered that some of the Japanese ladies at Thule Lake and Poston camps would joke that they were on a “nice vacation.” After all, they had janitors, hot running water, and could take three showers a day if they wanted. There were dishwashers, electricity. Bill noted that the internees with this light attitude fared much better than the ladies who dwelled on what had happened to them, who cried all day long that they had lost everything. Bill said he really felt sorry for the older Issei; it was much harder for them; the Nisei (second generation) had a much easier time and were able to bounce back after camp life “like me!” he exclaimed.

We thought Bill was great and his insights into internment camp life simply amazing. One thing I know for sure is that this man, Bill Nishimura, who was once labeled an “alien enemy” by the U.S. Government, is nothing short of a Great American.

In the next post I’ll explain how the Japanese Internment Symposium changed my life; how it started me on a great adventure, thirsting for knowledge about this amazing period of American history and the people who lived through it.

Frotho

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