The Myth of the American “Concentration Camp”

Michelle Malkin

From In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror by Michelle Malkin.

Close your eyes and envision a “Japanese American internment camp.” What comes to mind?

Modern American history books and media portraits have seared universal images into our collective conscience: scared children and frail elderly grandparents trapped behind barbed wire, racist armed guards bullying captives in desolate barracks, prisoners suffering from malnutrition and mistreatment. The cover of Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans depicts two young girls peering through red bars, which double as the stripes of a vertically-hung American flag. Two different books titled Behind Barbed Wire—one by Daniel S. Davis, the other by Lila Perl—share the same cover photo of a somber Japanese grandfather and two little boys wearing identification tags waiting to be evacuated.

The Philadelphia Daily News asserts that “the Japanese-Americans were treated like convicts. And if they breached the compound walls, they were shot.” An academic pamphlet on Japanese Americans and World War II claims that camp residents were threatened with “isolation, exile, forced labor, public humiliation, and even torture and death.”

Many modern critics of the World War II evacuation and relocation refer to the centers and camps as “concentration camps,” invoking the imagery of the Holocaust. One popular high school textbook describes 110,000 Japanese Americans (sic) “forcibly herded … together in concentration camps.” Author Roger Daniels, defending the comparison of American camps to Nazi concentration camps, sermonizes:

The American camps were not death camps, but they were surrounded by barbed wire and by troops whose guns were pointed at the inmates. Almost all the 1,862 Japanese Americans who died in them died of natural causes, and they were outnumbered by the 5,918 American citizens who were born in the concentration camps. But the few Japanese Americans who were killed ‘accidentally’ by their American guards were just as dead as the millions of Jews and others were who killed deliberately by their German, Soviet, or Japanese guards.

It is true that many politicians and public officials, including President Roosevelt himself, used the phrase “concentration camps” to describe the relocation centers. But it wasn’t until the liberation of the Nazi death camps beginning in 1945 that the phrase took on the popular meaning that it retains today—that is, places of barbaric cruelty and torture on the order of what the Jews and others suffered under Hitler. In no way should the real suffering of ethnic Japanese evacuees and all Axis internees be minimized. But to compare American’s internment and relocation centers to the Third Reich’s extermination camps is to recklessly distort history and to trivialize the experience of Holocaust victims. Even the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, a panel stacked with critics of the relocation centers, noted: “To use the phrase ‘concentration camps’ summons up images and ideas which are inaccurate and unfair.” By exploiting the stigma attached in the public mind to the term “concentration camp,” opponents of racial/ethnicity/nationality profiling seek to cut off the homeland security debate—rather than inform it.

The Distinction between Internment and Relocation

As discussed in Chapter 4, internment camps were set up on the mainland to detain designated enemy aliens from all Axis countries, not just Japan. Dual citizens who renounced their American citizenship were also interned, under the authority of the 1798 Alien Enemy Act, as were Latin Americans of German, Japanese, and Italian descent (see Chapter 4) and some naturalized citizens born in Axis nations whose citizenship was stripped during the war due to associations deemed subversive. Adhering to the guidelines of the Geneva Convention, the Justice Department and Army ran 46 internment and detention camps for enemy aliens, renunciants, and their families (many of whose members were American-born and entered the camps voluntarily). Enemy alien internees could not depart from the camps, although some were allowed to leave temporarily on work assignments.

By contrast, those of Japanese ancestry who were evacuated from the West Coast and could not find accommodations elsewhere were first sent to temporary assembly centers run by the U.S. military. They were then transferred to 10 relocation centers managed by the civilian War Relocation Authority, operating under the Department of Interior after 1943. Many critics argue that the difference between enemy alien “internment” camps and evacuee “relocation” facilities is meaningless because both enemy alien internees and evacuees of Japanese descent suffered devastating hardships as a result of their confinement.

But blurring the distinction between internment and evacuation obscures some important facts about the evacuees who populated the relocation centers. In truth, they were:

  • Free to move elsewhere (initially). Those excluded from the West Coast in early 1942 were initially allowed to move—and were encouraged to move—anywhere else among the 44 states in the U.S. that were not in the prescribed military areas. (Remember: People of Japanese ancestry outside the West Coast were not required to move.) Several thousand West Coast residents did move on their own. But limited resources and hostility toward evacuees by inland communities, including hostility from other Japanese-Americans, prevented more from doing so. The relocation centers provided government-provided shelter, food, health care, and education to those evacuees of Japanese descent unable to make living arrangements outside the exclusionary zones. In upholding the constitutionality of the exclusion orders, the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States ruled that no one of Japanese ancestry was compelled “either in fact or by law” to enter a relocation center.
  • Free to leave, provided they had a school or job to go to (outside the exclusion zones) and were not considered subversive. Many historians insist that relocation center residents “were not free to come and go as they wished” and assert that residents of the camps were “incarcerated.” But beginning in July 1942, approximately 4,300 students of Japanese ancestry did leave the relocation centers to attend colleges and universities outside the exclusion areas. Among them was Michi Weglyn, author of Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps, who left the Gila, Ariz., relocation center to attend Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts on a full scholarship. Kiyoaki Murata, a Japanese national who arrived in the U.S. on a student visa and was evacuated from California, departed from the Poston, Ariz., relocation center after nine months to seek educational opportunities in the Midwest. Murata recounted his experience in his World War II memoir, An Enemy Among Friends:

On May 10 [1943], I finished assembling the documents for my application for an indefinite leave. … I submitted the documents to the block manager, bracing myself for a long wait. … To my surprise, my application for indefinite leave was approved only two days later. The fact that my request was granted so quickly was solid evidence of the policy of the WRA of that time: to let the evacuees leave the camps with the utmost alacrity as long as they had a prospect for employment outside … I decided to leave on May 17.

In addition, an estimated 30,000 camp residents departed from the camps when offered work outside the exclusion zones. Jeanne Watatsuki noted in Farewell to Manzanar that her sister and her sister’s husband left the camp “to harvest sugar beets in Idaho. It was grueling work up there, but when the call came through the camp for workers to alleviate the wartime labor shortage, it sounded better than their life at Manzanar … “

  • Free to enter. Some 219 persons actually volunteered to move into the camps for their own comfort and safety. One who did so, Ralph Lazo, was a 16-year-old student of Mexican and Irish descent from Los Angeles who entered because he wanted to show support for his Japanese-American high school classmates. He stayed at the Manzanar relocation center for two and a half years. In addition, a number of ethnic Japanese who had left the West Coast before the camps were opened applied for admission to assembly centers where they had family and friends.

Historians who compare the American relocations camps to Dachau and Bergen-Belsen will be hard-pressed to find a single European Jew who willingly entered—or was given permission to leave—a Nazi death camp. Yet, today’s ethnic activists have successfully exploited the myth of the American concentration camp to assail any homeland security measure—from registration of foreign visitors to detention of illegal aliens—that takes into account nationality, ethnicity, or race. An honest debate about the World War II evacuation and relocation requires an accurate and balanced view of conditions in both the internment and relocation centers run by the Roosevelt administration. The record shows they were neither luxury resorts nor barbaric prisons nor edifices of institutional racism, but spartan facilities that for the most part were administered humanely. The worst conditions were found in the hastily-constructed assembly centers, most of which were in operation for less than six months and some of which were subsequently used to house U.S. military personnel.

Life in the Internment Camps

The Justice Department detained enemy aliens from Japan, Germany, Italy, and a small number of Eastern European countries in transit centers and internment camps across the country. International Red Cross and Swiss embassy representatives conducted regular visits to check on the treatment of internees. Ellis Island was a temporary internment center for some 350 German enemy aliens and their families. They had access to religious services, a library, movies, athletic facilities, and a reading room. At the Gloucester City, N.J., internee site, historian Arnold Krammer reported, “[m]edical care was especially good … an average dinner might be lamb roast with gravy, potatoes, green beans, cooked onions, fresh pears, bread, and coffee.” Internees received regular visitors and passed the time playing gin rummy and poker.

The “permanent” internment camps did indeed feature armed guards, barbed wire, floodlights, and watchtowers. Some, such as Fort Stanton, N.M., and Fort Lincoln, N.D., were converted Civilian Conservation Corps camps. The Seagoville, Texas, internment camp was a converted women’s reformatory. At the Santa Fe, N.M., site, Japanese enemy alien internees actually demanded that the barbed wire fence surrounding the compound be made at least a foot taller after the camp received threats from an outside mob angered by a spring 1942 defeat by the Japanese in the Philippines. Antagonism was “so great,” according to historian Richard Melzer, “that most internees believed they were much safer within their fenced-off compound.” Inside, Santa Fe internees built a small golf course, two tennis courts and four baseball diamonds. The Santa Fe-shisha Tanka Poetry Club met regularly and camp residents attended Kabuki performances held in an outdoor theater.

Fort Missoula, Montana, was surrounded by 2,400 feet of chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. Inside, the camp held barracks, a hospital, school, library, bakery, two-winged mess hall, and a recreation hall built of lodgepole pine that seated more than 800. Italian internees, many of them seamen and entertainers from an Italian luxury liner seized in the Panama Canal, nicknamed the camp “Bella Vista” after the individual flower gardens they had planted on the grounds. Internee musicians held concerts that outside Missoula residents were permitted to attend for a small admission fee. Hundreds of internees received work paroles allowing them to take farming and forest-fighting jobs. Others found outside jobs at St. Patrick’s Hospital, the Great Western Railroad and the Garden City Floral Company.

According to author and scholar Jerre Mangione, who reported on the experience of Italian seamen at Fort Missoula, “none questioned the American government’s right to intern them for the duration of the war … Some were openly pro-American. One seaman told me he was grateful to the American government for interning him, for otherwise he would be risking his life in the war for a philosophy of government he despised. He and several others wanted to know what steps they could take to become permanent American residents after the war.”

Weather conditions were harsh in many camps; internees and their families often endured cramped, leaky living quarters and chronic lack of privacy. Tension and hatred between pro-Nazi militants and other enemy aliens (including Jewish refugees) often resulted in threats and violence.

Some troublemakers griped about more esoteric concerns. At Ellis Island, Japanese internees complained that they were not allowed enough outdoor exercise and were not being served Japanese-style meals. At Crystal City, Japanese internees complained that too few Japanese were being transferred to the camp, and too many Germans. At Seagoville, a pro-Nazi German enemy alien protested because the camp did not provide internees with “fresh figs, celery, and rhubarb.” The camp did, however, feature a library with 3,000 books, open-air evening concerts and songfests, a weaving room, a dressmaking factory, and a trained dietitian on staff. At Fort Lincoln, one enemy alien complained to visiting Attorney General Francis Biddle about not getting enough butter. Biddle noted that American citizens outside the camps were subject to strict rationing, and that internees were receiving more butter than that allotted to citizens.

“But that’s not the point Mr. Attorney General,” the internee argued. “Under the Geneva Convention we are entitled to as much butter as the American troops—and we are not getting it!”

The Relocation Experience

The first stop for the vast majority of West Coast evacuees of Japanese descent who could not relocate outside the exclusion zones was an “assembly center.” Among these emergency Army-run facilities, nine were at fairgrounds, two were at horse racetracks (Santa Anita and Tanforan, California), two were at migrant workers camps (Marysville and Sacramento, California), one was at a livestock exposition hall (Portland, Oregon), one was at a mill site (Pinedale, California), and one was at an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp (Mayer, Arizona). In addition, staging areas under construction near Parker Dam in Arizona (Poston) and in the Owens Valley of eastern California (Manzanar), originally set up to expedite the voluntary evacuation, were also used as assembly centers. Both would later be designated relocation centers.

Conditions at the government’s 17 assembly centers, which were erected in less than a month’s time, were often unpleasant and sometimes miserable. The “use of facilities of this character is not highly desirable,” the Army readily acknowledged. Barracks were hastily constructed; privacy was nil. And because of delays in constructing the relocation centers, evacuees stayed weeks and often months longer at the assembly centers than federal officials had planned. Families set up makeshift apartments in horsestalls and under grandstands. “In 1941,” author David Fremon observed, many Japanese Americans “had gone to these places as customers. Now they were entering as prisoners.” The evacuees slept on straw-filled mattresses and waited in long lines to use latrines. Diarrhea outbreaks were common. Most of the assembly centers were operative for only a few months; all were shut down by the end of October 1942.

Citizens of Japanese ancestry weren’t the only ones who inhabited these sites. The Pinedale assembly center was taken over by the Fourth Air Force. The Sacramento assembly center was converted to a signal corps training school. Members of the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps moved into the Santa Anita racetrack in November 1942 and stayed for two years. The racetrack had housed some 13,000 residents of Japanese ancestry for six months before they were sent to relocation centers. “Much has been written about Santa Anita being an assembly center for Japanese Americans immediately after Pearl Harbor and how they were billeted in 12×12-foot horse stalls during their six-month internment before going to permanent camps,” Los Angeles Times sportswriter Shav Glick noted. “Rarely mentioned is that as soon as they left, those stalls were filled by GIs.”

The Army’s task in building and organizing the assembly sites was not an easy one. Some centers were overcrowded. Some guards were too harsh. Some mess halls weren’t as clean as they could have been. But overall, the evacuation and assembly process went as smoothly as could be expected given wartime conditions—and even earned praise from relocation critic and civil liberties crusader Carey McWilliams, who wrote for Harpers that:

In effecting this vast movement of people in such a brief allotment of time, the conduct of the Army has been wholly admirable. Both officers and troops behaved, at all times, with the utmost tact, good judgment, and consideration. There were, to be sure, minor flaws in the planning, but as a whole the evacuation went through on schedule without a hitch … it must be credited as a major feat for the Army.

The Red Cross concurred:

Generally, the sites selected were satisfactory with the possible exception of Puyallup, where lack of adequate drainage and sewage disposal facilities created a serious problem … In studying the housing facilities in these centers, it is necessary to keep in mind that the job was without precedent, and that the sites were selected and buildings completed in record-breaking time in the face of such handicaps as material and labor shortages and transportation difficulties.

So did Saburo Kido, national president of the Japanese American Citizens League:

While many evacuees hold no great love for General DeWitt for his part in the evacuation, the great majority of us feel that he was doing his duty … The fact that evacuation was carried out in an orderly manner, without a single incident, speaks well of the military’s efficiency as well as the cooperation of the evacuees.

 

JACL leaders were, in fact, instrumental volunteers in the initial planning, construction, and administration of the assembly centers—a role which they considered a “civic responsibility,” but which bred resentment and hostility among other evacuees.

By the fall of 1942, as war raged on, some 112,000 evacuees had been moved from the assembly centers (as well as institutions and home communities) into 10 relocation centers. “Each of the ten sites was relatively isolated,” reported University of California, Berkeley, researchers Dorothy Swaine Thomas and Richard Nishimoto. “The six western projects were wind and dust swept. Tule Lake, Mindoka, and Heart Mountain were subject to severe winters. Poston and Gila, both in the Arizona desert, had temperatures well above 100 degrees for lengthy periods, and Rohwer and Jerome experienced the excessive humidity and mosquito infestations of swampy delta land.”

The camps were located in isolated areas for good reason. Army engineers were required to situate the camps away from strategic areas. They needed large tracts of federal land to accommodate thousands of evacuees. Desert outposts such as Poston and Gila were logical choices. Military planners and camp residents did the best they could to turn desolate areas into decent, self-sustaining communities. Camp residents could enlist in the Work Corps, serving in paid jobs related to agriculture, irrigation, manufacturing, small businesses, medicine, education, and camp administration. They could continue to receive rents, profits, dividends and royalties from businesses or property owned outside the camps. They could also continue to make investments and conduct outside business negotiations. The WRA left it up to each camp community to establish local governments, whose leaders met and negotiated with camp management. Camp residents served on agricultural crews to produce vegetables, poultry, eggs, and meat for their communities. They operated consumer enterprises, including stores, canteens, barber shops, and shoe-repair establishments on a consumer cooperative basis. Each camp published its own newspaper. And there were many opportunities for social and cultural activity.

Residents passed the time playing “go,” attending flower arrangement classes, competing in team sports, and watching Kabuki theater. Children attended both regular school classes and Japanese-language schools. Ministers and priests from the evacuee population were free to carry on their religious activities at the centers. Ordinary barracks were used for religious services by Protestants, Catholics, and Buddhists alike.

Under regulations adopted in September of 1942, the War Relocation Authority began working toward a steady depopulation of the relocation centers by encouraging all able-bodied residents with good records of behavior to reenter private employment in agriculture or industry (outside the prohibited zones). At a number of key cities throughout the interior of the country, the WRA employed relocation officers who worked with local volunteer committees of interested citizens and with the United States Employment Service to seek out employment opportunities for evacuees in their respective areas. The following requirements had to be met:

  1. A careful check is made of the evacuee’s behavior record at the relocation center and of other information in the hands of WRA. In all questionable cases, any information in the possession of the federal investigative agencies is requested and studied. If there is any evidence from any source that the evacuee might endanger the security of the Nation, permission for indefinite leave is denied.
  2. There must be reasonable assurance from responsible officials or citizens regarding local sentiment in the community where the evacuee plans to settle. If community sentiment appears so hostile to all persons of Japanese descent that the presence of the evacuee seems likely to cause trouble, the evacuee is so advised and is discouraged from relocating in that particular area.
  3. Indefinite leave is granted only to evacuees who have a definite place to go and some means of support.
  4. Each evacuee going out on indefinite leave must agree to keep WRA informed of any change of job or change of address.

WRA officials conducted background checks with help from military intelligence and the FBI.

Students applying to leave the centers were subject to similar requirements. Those who had contributed to Japanese war funds, whose fathers held memberships in subversive kais (military societies), and who had made substantial foreign investments were subjected to heightened scrutiny. Kibei were generally ineligible for leave clearance.

In the winter of 1942-1943, WRA administrators stirred resentment and anger among many evacuees with the introduction of a registration process asking draft-age male evacuees to answer a loyalty questionnaire. The draft had been introduced in the U.S. for the first time in September 1940. More than 3,100 Nisei were inducted by November 1941. Amid doubts about the loyalty of ethnic Japanese following the Pearl Harbor attack, however, the War Department discharged about half of these Nisei draftees in the interest of national security. The remainder, including a Nisei Hawaiian National Guard unit designated the 100th Battalion, were reassigned to non-combat and non-sensitive duties. Soon after, the military stopped inducting Japanese Americans. In the fall of 1942, some Japanese American leaders lobbied the government to give Nisei the opportunity to demonstrate loyalty through voluntary military service. JACL leader Mike Masaoka claimed an instrumental role. Among government and military officials, World War II veteran and historian Ted Tsukiyama credited Army commander Delos C. Emmons, Colonel Moses Pettigrew, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, and Office of War Information director Elmer Davis with bringing the idea of segregated combat units to fruition. The 100th Battalion served as a “test” unit before the creation of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team in February 1943. The call for Army volunteers in the camps was accompanied by the institution of the registration process. The process also required other non-draft-eligible evacuees to fill out leave clearance forms to expedite work and education releases.

One survey question asked potential volunteer recruits: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” Another asked all respondents whether they would “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America … and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?” Many were offended by the common-sense wartime presumption that enemy aliens and dual citizens might possess divided loyalties. Others were understandably upset that renouncing their ties to Japan would render them citizens without a country (since the U.S. barred them from naturalizing). But as NSA official David Lowman noted, the controversial loyalty oath was not materially different from the loyalty oath required by the Japanese American Citizens League, which asked members to “renounce any other allegiances” which they “may have knowingly or unknowingly held in the past.” Moreover, the process to separate loyal from disloyal evacuees was vigorously supported at the time by prominent Japanese American leaders. Saburo Kido of JACL asserted: “Japanese Americans would be the first to deny that all of their number are 100 percent loyal. At the same time, we feel that with our help—which we have proffered without reluctance—the sheep can be separated from the goats.”

The process was hardly fool-proof. Wouldn’t subversives simply lie about their loyalty to the country? Maybe so. (If they did, and the government later discovered the deception, they could be prosecuted for lying.) Ultimately, among American citizen males of draft age, some 28 percent refused to swear allegiance to their country or forswear allegiance to the emperor of Japan. However “improper, unfair, and utterly outrageous” the administration of the program might appear, the fact of the matter is that it yielded useful information to help register volunteers for combat and to distinguish troublemakers from the rest of the evacuees. Along the spectrum of impositions the government was making on all citizens during wartime, answering a loyalty questionnaire was hardly the worst psychological trauma suffered.

One of the first Nisei to depart from the camps, Gila (Az.) relocation center resident Charles Kikuchi, reflected that “on the whole the Nisei group didn’t get too damaged” by relocation. “Generally, we probably gained as a result.” He was not alone in this view. The editor of Kikuchi’s diary, John Modell, noted that many students of the Japanese American experience “concur that the relocation helped effect a transfer of power from the Issei to the Nisei that otherwise had seemed difficult or impossible.”

Barbed Wire and Bullies

Much has been made of the presence of barbed wire and armed guards at the relocation centers. But the military forces were scant and at most camps, the fencing was erected more to mark property boundaries and keep out wildlife and range cattle than to corral camp residents. The Army had responsibility for maintaining external protection, patrolling the perimeters, and controlling entry into and exit from the camps. Military police were allowed inside only at the request of camp administrators. Internal policing was maintained by the civilian War Relocation Authority and resident communities. Historian Page Smith reported:

While barbed wire was eventually strung around all of the centers it was more for definition and to control access and egress to and from the center than to prevent escape. At most of the centers, hundreds and sometimes thousands of evacuees came and went freely, along with visitors, purveyors of food, evacuees with outside jobs, teenagers on shopping expeditions (where there were nearby towns), athletic teams going to play Caucasian teams “outside,” church groups visiting congregations in neighboring communities, and so on.

Although soldiers were a constant presence, they were few in number (except at times of major disturbances in the centers) and, like the barbed wire, more symbolic than practical.

Evacuee Kiyoaki Murata, who stayed at Poston, Az., for nine months, independently confirmed Smith’s impression (at least at one camp):

The camp was not the prison I had expected it to be. I have since heard accounts of camps with high barbed-wire fences and rifle-bearing MPs threatening to shoot any evacuee attempting to escape. But for whatever reason, Poston Unit Three was not at all like this. At first there was a token stretch of barbed wire fence around the camp, but it was gone in a few months. And I did see one helmeted MP by a guard post. On one of the first days of my life in Poston, I chatted with a lone, black MP who appeared quite bored. I even sauntered out into the mesquite woods without his showing any signs of disapproval. Within a few days, he was no longer to be seen.

Violence and unrest did occur at some relocation centers. Sociologist Wendy Ng recounted shootings of residents by armed guards at Manzanar, Gila River, Tule Lake, and Topaz. Author Michi Weglyn labeled the shootings of two rioters at Manzanar by MPs as “atrocities.” Author Daniel S. Davis described military police as “trigger-happy” and asserted that “all evacuees were fearful that they too might someday be gunned down … “

In truth, evacuees often had more to fear from militant, pro-Japanese residents—especially the Japanese-educated Kibei—than from guards or administrators. Two major riots at Manzanar and Poston were instigated by Kibei who had beaten residents suspected of cooperating with camp authorities. At Manzanar, the Kibei had terrorized pro-American residents and drawn up a hit list of Nisei whom they vilified as traitors and labeled inu (dogs). Some evacuees believed the militants intended to turn the list over to the Japanese government. Manzanar subversives etched pro-Japanese graffiti at the camp and marked their territory on behalf of the mafia-like Black Dragon Society. At Poston, militants harassed innocent families, including relatives of Lyle Kurisaki, who cooperated with the Office of Naval Intelligence. A memo from the District Intelligence Officer of the 11th Naval District noted that while Kurisaki was on leave from the camp, his family was “made to suffer serious mistreatment”—not from guards, but at the hands of fellow camp residents. Ultranationalist hoodlums preyed on young girls and attacked elderly residents. In one case, three old men returning from a religious meeting—where they had condemned Kibei agitators—were beaten with sticks by a gang of a half dozen young men. One of the victims recalled:

The three of us were coming home from a religious meeting at block 52. I heard noisy footsteps. One of my friends was at my side, the other was 15 feet ahead. The first man who was attacked yelled. I turned around and saw that big stick. I can still see the club like a frozen picture, but I didn’t know anything after that.

Many Kibei also harassed those who volunteered for the all-Nisei combat unit. Sadly, while progressive historians have exalted belligerent Nisei draft resisters, they have derided as “accomodationists” those who—at risk of great bodily harm—worked inside the camps to keep the peace and inform the government of potential subversives in their midst.

In July 1943, the Tule Lake relocation center was converted into a “segregation camp” for those who refused to renounce fealty to the emperor and swear loyalty to the U.S. and for troublemakers from other relocation centers who were fanatically loyal to Japan. Many who were original residents of the Tule Lake center before it was converted to a segregation camp remained when the outside segregants moved in; segregants’ families also moved in. The total population of the camp, now a volatile mix of loyal and disloyal, was roughly 18,000.

The pro-Japan segregants leaned on all Kibei, as well as Nisei who had never been to Japan and spoke no Japanese, to adhere to rigid cultural ceremonies and language study. Americanized Nisei were harassed and threatened with beatings until they joined the program. Leaders formed the Hokuku Seinen-Dan (Young Men’s Organization to Serve Our Mother Country), openly pledged loyalty to the Emperor, and vowed “to sacrifice life and property in order to serve our mother country in time of unparalleled emergency.” The group, shouting “Banzai,” led daily militaristic marches, drills, and ceremonies around the camp. The routine began at dawn with outdoor taiso (exercises) and goose-stepping drills punctuated by shouts of “Wa-shoi! Wa-shoi!” (Hut! Hut!). Each militant shaved his head and don a sweatshirt emblazoned with the rising sun. Every month, to commemorate the Pearl Harbor attack, the men faced east and offered prayers for Japan’s military victory. One of the group’s leaders preached that “to help the great cause, we have to kill those who stand in its way.” It was not an idle threat. Minoru Kiyota, a Kibei at Tule Lake, recounted that soon after the militant groups were formed there, the manager of the camp’s consumer co-op, Yaozo Hitomi, was found with his throat cut. “This crime was never solved, but the fact that such a murder could take place and not be solved illustrates the psychological hold these violent gangs had on the general population of the segregation center,” Kiyota noted.

A total of 83 residents (all but four of them male Nisei) who caused the most trouble for camp administrators were sent to isolation centers in Moab, Utah, and Leupp, Arizona. (Women were ineligible to join the Hokuku Seinen-Dan , but formed their own spin-off group called Hokoku Joshi Seinen-Dan [Young Women’s Organization to Serve Our Mother Country].)

In July 1944, President Roosevelt signed a law enabling extremists to abandon their U.S. citizenship. A total of 5,620 Nisei, most of them the most militant of militants from Tule Lake, formally cut their ties to America and assumed enemy alien status. A total of 2,360 renunciants were sent to DOJ internment camps at Fort Lincoln and Santa Fe; 2,031 were deported to Japan. It is not hard to imagine what these pro-Japanese loyalists, who were willing to attack and kill their fellow residents of Japanese descent, may have been capable of doing to the rest of the American citizenry had they been allowed to roam freely at the height of wartime hostilities. “If the Japanese had landed on U.S. soil, who knows?” mused Teruo Nobori, a Nisei who volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and has been an outspoken critic of the radical draft resisters in the camps. America’s pro-Japanese militants, Nobori concluded bluntly, “might’ve shot the other way.”

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