World War II Internment Camps

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Description

Arizona's desert was once the site of two internment or prison camps. During World War II, thousands of Americans were forced to leave their homes and businesses and held captive in a world of barbed wire fences and armed guards, simply because of their Japanese ancestry. Today, the sites of the former Poston and Gila River internment camps are rarely visited. But they are not forgotten.

Video

Transcript

Narrator:
This stretch of desert 50 miles southeast of Phoenix was once the site of one of Arizona 's largest communities. For it was here, along with a patch of land miles to the east on the banks of the Colorado River , that thousands of Japanese Americans were held captive during World War II. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, killed more than 2,400 American soldiers. America was at war. To calm America 's overwhelming fear of espionage and sabotage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed United States Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, requiring all Japanese Americans to be arrested and interned.

Mas Inoshita:
If you read the document like 9066 really carefully, it says that we will take to the camp all immigrants, aliens, and non-aliens. We discovered for the first time those of us who were born in the United States were now put in a class that's non-aliens. "Non-aliens" doesn't mean that you were a citizen of the United States , which they were. But they put us in a special classification which took our civilian rights away.

Narrator:
The order paved the way for the design and construction of internment camps throughout the U.S. In Arizona , the U.S. government hired Del Webb to build thousands of structures. The Poston Relocation Center opened near the Arizona-California border on May 8, 1942. Months later, the gates opened at the Gila River War Relocation Center south of Phoenix .

Hiro Nomura:
Airplane came across the top. Everybody looked and wondered what's going on. We were all standing there. And then they announced that, "Pack up, we're going to Poston."

Narrator:
Completed in less than three weeks, Poston was divided into three separate camps. camps one, two, and three were soon nicknamed by the internees Roasten, Toasten, and Dustin because of their desert locations. Divided into barracks, each had their respective cafeteria, bathroom, laundry room, and recreation hall, all maintained by the internees. Despite these amenities, the internees were constantly reminded of their captivity by the barbed wire fence and guards that surrounded them. Gila River Center was completed in just over two months. It was divided into two camps, Canal and Butte , and boasted more than 1,200 buildings with nearly 600 barracks. And like the Poston barracks, each had its own facilities. Unlike the Poston site, the Gila Center was considered one of the least oppressive camps, with no barbed wire fence and just one lookout tower.

Mas Inoshita:
When we got the call that we had to go and we didn't even know where we were going, but by train we came to Arizona and we were the first ones in Butte Camp, the second camp.

Narrator:
The majority of the internees were from California . They were transported by train and then by bus. Most were "Niseis," second generation born in America , The rest "Isseis," Japanese immigrants. Although many worked in various jobs in the camps, most internees were farmers. All of the camp's produce was grown on site. By 1943, Arizona 's camps were the most productive farms of the nation's internment facilities. The Gila Relocation Center had the most extensive agricultural program, farming enough produce to ship to other camps. For entertainment, they enjoyed camp-organized league baseball games, touch football, and dances at the social halls. Poston confined more than 17,000 Japanese Americans. The Gila River Center was designed for 10,000 internees but held more than 13,000 residents, making these two sites the largest internment camps in the U.S. Ironically, the U.S. government viewed this as an opportunity to recruit American soldiers who could read, write, and speak Japanese.

Hiro Nomura:
Some of them, they just sat down and said, "We're not moving." And others went.

Narrator:
The men who served saw it as an opportunity to prove their American loyalty and patriotism.

Mas Inoshita:
They came to Gila River and they started to recruit, and there was 29 dummies who volunteered. One of those dummies was me. I said, "Maybe if I volunteered and tried to prove that I'm as good as any white" -- and I used the bad word in those days -- "I will be treated equally right."

Narrator:
More than 1,100 citizens from the Gila Center served in the U.S. armed forces. Twenty-three of them never made it home. And out of more than 1,200 soldiers who served from the Poston Center , 24 were killed in action.

Mas Inoshita:
After I left for the service, they let my father come home. Where was he? He had been put behind barbed wires in a place called Tuna Canyon near Los Angeles .

Narrator:
On November 10, 1945, the Gila River Center was closed. Eighteen days later, the Poston Center also shut down. decades passed with little thought to the plight of the Americans held against their will. In 1980, a commission under President Jimmy Carter issued a report condemning the internment as unjust and motivated by racism rather than real military necessity. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed an act that provided redress of $20,000 to each surviving internee. And in 1992, President George H.W. Bush issued a formal apology from the United States government.

Mas Inoshita:
It hurt so bad that I wanted to learn more. I wanted to know why and who and where. And in that search, I began to find out there's a lot of mistakes made by a lot of people.

Hiro Nomura:
They don't know how lucky... Don't you feel that way? You feel lucky that you weren't in our place?

Narrator:
Today the sites of the former Poston and Gila River Internment Camps are rarely visited. But they are not forgotten. To some, this landscape may seem desolate, empty. But for those who lived here, it is full of memories. It remains a part of their lives and a part of Arizona 's history.