President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 signed on February 19, 1942, set off a train of events that led to the mass, forcible eviction of some 120,000 Japanese Americans and their confinement. The order authorized the military to designate areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded,” and to provide “transportation, food, shelter, and other accommodations as may be necessary” for those excluded persons.
The exclusion order enabled the military commander to remove Japanese Americans to temporary shelters called “assembly centers,” administered by the civilian Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA), prior to their “relocation” to permanent concentration camps. There were 18 assembly centers hastily erected in large, open areas to accommodate the masses of displaced people in the spring and summer of 1942. Nine were fairgrounds, two were horse racetracks (Tanforan and Santa Anita), two were migrant laborers' camps (Marysville and Sacramento), one was a livestock exposition hall (Portland), one was a mill site (Pinedale), and one was a former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp (Mayer). In addition, Manzanar and Poston began as assembly centers, and later became concentration camps.
Although conditions varied one center to another, all of them were places of confinement that held a racially profiled population. Numbered tags worn on the clothing were used to identify people, not their names. Long lines, bureaucratic forms, crowded conditions, and communal baths and toilets reduced their individuality. They were herded onto trucks intended for cattle and settled into former horse stalls still reeking of manure conspired to strip them of their humanity. High fences confined and military police and searchlights patrolled the facilities, and the center's police held and enforced roll calls and curfews and conducted invasive, periodic searches. These were the assembly centers.
Beginning in May 26, 1942, Japanese Americans left the assembly centers for the concentration camps as they were being completed. By the end of October, the assembly centers stood empty, and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) ran concentration camps, filled with Japanese Americans.
Located on the Fresno County Fairgrounds, the Fresno Assembly Center opened on May 6 and closed on October 30, 1942. It was the last center to close, and it held a total of 5,344 Japanese Americans. Most of them came from the central San
Joaquin Valley and Amador County. Their flimsy barracks stood on the infield of the fairgrounds' racetrack, aligned into four blocks of 20 barracks each. Once a week, visitors were allowed during a two-hour period, and despite its brevity, the interval was described as a happy time with excitement in the air because of the gifts and letters brought from the outside.
Teiko Tomita remembered the heat in the Fresno Assembly Center. The temperature soared in June, she recalled. There were no shade trees, and the barracks were poorly constructed with tin roofs that magnified the heat. When it got hot, she noted, the tar seeped through the floor and the bed legs would get stuck to the sticky, soft floor.
A migrant workers' camp about eight miles south of Marysville, the assembly center opened in April 1942 and confined a total of 2,465 Japanese Americans from Placer and Sacramento counties. By July they were gone, and soldiers occupied the center, which consisted of about 100 barracks, five mess halls, and two infirmary buildings.
The Mayer Assembly Center was located about 75 miles northwest of Phoenix, Arizona. The center was a former CCC camp, and held only 245 people, making it the smallest assembly center, and the shortest occupied, from May 7 to June 2, 1942. Most of Mayer's Japanese Americans were from southern Arizona.
Situated within the San Joaquin Valley town of Merced, the assembly center was built upon the site of the county fairgrounds. Open from May 6 to September 15, 1942, the center confined a total of 4,669 Japanese Americans mostly from northern California. A nisei mother who had exhibited flowers at the fairgrounds now found herself confined in a place that once also penned animals.
Kiyo Hirano described her first impressions of the Merced center. “Lined up properly and grouped separately in the open space were countless barracks that looked like they were covered with tar paper. Standing in that long line, I looked at the many barracks and wondered, ‘Is one of these going to be our home?'” After being marched to the infirmary for physical examinations, guards went through her bags, purse, and even pockets to search for and confiscate knives and other forbidden objects. Hirano was then assigned a room, which had a high ceiling and open space allowing conversation to cross from one room to another affording little privacy. She was fortunate, Hirano wrote, because she was not in a horse stall, which still reeked of manure. Those, she said, “suffered from the unsanitary conditions and terrible odor” (Hirano, 7, 9).
Meals were regimented and served at seven for breakfast, noon for lunch, and six for supper. “With the signal of the bell all from each block went in lines and ate at the tables.” Those who really suffered, Hirano observed, were the elderly and
the infirm. “During this time,” she recalled, “the weak, the elderly, and the sick died one after the other. The flag flying half-mast in front of the office meant that once again someone had passed away that day.” At the same time, while the hospital was full, the diseased, pregnant, and sick were fortunate because there were so many Japanese American physicians in the center (Hirano, 8).
In Merced, a young couple met, got engaged, and married. “To fall in love and move into marriage within three months of internment was impressive speed,” Hirano commented. Rumors spread in the center about moving to a concentration camp somewhere in Colorado, she wrote. The target date was August, and packing would be easy because they had such few possessions. She began feeling optimistic and looked forward to the two-day train ride. “But,” Hirano wondered, “what was a hot Colorado desert without even a simple tree going to be like?” (Hirano, 9).
In Merced Assembly Center, Wataru Ishisaka observed, “People acted just like dumb sheep, because life was so disrupted and confused. They lost their human dignity and respect” (Sarasohn, 202).
Located near Fresno, California, Pinedale Assembly Center was on vacant land near a mill-workers housing area. When it opened on May 7, 1942, Pinedale held a total of 4,823 Japanese Americans mostly from Sacramento and El Dorado counties. The assembly center closed on July 23, 1942.
Japanese Americans called Pinedale “hell's acre” because of the incredible heat, which soared to 120 degrees in the shade. “It was a terribly hot place to live,” remembered Hatsumi Nishimoto. “It was so hot that when we put our hands on the bedstead, the paint would come off! To relieve the pressure of the heat, some people soaked sheets in water and hung them overhead.” Others threw water on the concrete floor and lay there as the water evaporated. Besides the heat and tight and uncomfortable sleeping quarters, Tei Endow reported there was no privacy in the barracks, which had flimsy or no walls and in the toilets, which stood in a long row without partitions. And the meals, recalled Miyoshi Noyori, often consisted of strange and unappetizing foods and combinations that left one hungry after eating. “Frequently our meal was a plateful of white beans, four or five fresh spinach leaves, a piece of bread, and sometimes a couple of wienies,” she reported. “That was all we were served, so we had to eat it” (Tamura, 175, 176).
Some of Pinedale's Japanese Americans were from Oregon. From the train's window, they caught glimpses of their place of confinement. “I remember seeing a large cactus when our train stopped at a field near Pinedale, so I guessed that we had arrived at a hot place,” said Itsu Akiyama. “We were completely fenced in, and there were watchtowers with soldiers bearing rifles.” Misuyo Nakamura added, “I saw a soldier with a rifle who was stationed on one of those high towers outside the fence. I was very frightened! I was sure he had designs on shooting us!” (Tamura, 173–74). Center officials told the Japanese Americans never to use the word “camp” to refer to Pinedale because the facility was an “assembly center” and
not a “concentration camp.” But the barbed-wire fence, guard towers, and armed soldiers showed Pinedale to be a concentration camp. And most Japanese Americans like Itsu Akiyama and Misuyo Nakamura viewed it as a camp and not as an assembly center.
Los Angeles County Fairgrounds was the site for the Pomona Assembly Center, which confined Japanese Americans from May 7 to August 24, 1942. The center held a total of 5,514 persons who were mainly from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Shizu Hayakawa left San Francisco by train to go to the Pomona Assembly Center. The journey took two days because the train had to wait every time another train passed, and the train's windows were covered so she could not see where they were going. At Pomona, she remembered, everyone complained about the food, which was so poorly cooked and prepared.
Located on the site of the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Pavilion, the Portland Assembly Center held a total of 4,290 Japanese Americans from Oregon and Washington State between May 2 and September 10, 1942.
“What really surprised me was to enter the Portland center which, you know, was a former stockyard,” Masaji Kusachi recalled. “My family of ten was assigned a small room that had no doors—just curtains hung over the doorway.” Without ceilings, he continued, you could hear everything your neighbor was saying, and “the odor was so bad!” The stable floor, Kusachi explained, was simply covered over by boards, and the smell rose through the cracks. After all, he said, horses had just left the place. In addition to the stench, there were lots of flies attracted by the manure. A health inspection would certainly condemn the place for human habitation, Kusachi concluded (Tamura, 177).
Located about 35 miles south of Seattle, Washington, Puyallup Assembly Center was built on the Western Washington State Fairgrounds to hold a total of 7,628 Japanese Americans from Washington State and Alaska between April 28 and September 12, 1942. Besides the usual grandstand, stables, racetrack, and other buildings common to fairgrounds, Puyallup had a rollercoaster, which made it distinctive as an assembly center. Also, fences sliced the center into four separate units to keep the Japanese Americans divided and hence more easily controlled.
A contemporary observer described the barracks, because of their uniform, flimsy appearances, as rabbit hutches. Some Japanese Americans were housed in converted pigpens, and a Japanese American upon first seeing the barracks from the bus window thought the Puyallup center was a chicken farm. Ted Nakashima, an architectural draftsman, called the center a “concentration camp, U.S. style.”
While at the Puyallup Assembly Center, Yoshito Fujii observed, “Everybody gave up and accepted the situation as a wartime misery” (Sarasohn, 180).
The Sacramento Assembly Center, also known as Walerga, was built at a migrant workers' camp some 15 miles northeast of Sacramento, California, to hold a total of 4,770 Japanese Americans from May 6 to June 26, 1942. Most of them came from Sacramento and San Joaquin counties.
Located on the fairgrounds at the north end of Salinas, California, the Salinas Assembly Center confined a total of 3,608 Japanese Americans from April 27 to July 4, 1942. Most came from the Monterey Bay area. After Japanese Americans left for the WRA concentration camps, the Salinas Assembly Center was used to train an army unit of Filipino soldiers to fight against the Japanese.
Located on the grounds of a famous horse racetrack, Santa Anita was the largest and longest occupied assembly center, holding a total of 19,348 Japanese Americans from March 27 to October 27, 1942. Most came from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Clara counties. Horse stalls were converted into housing units, the grandstand became living quarters for bachelors, and new barracks were built. The horses left three days before the Japanese Americans arrived.
“Have you ever slept in a stable?” Ernest Fukuda asked. “Many of us did at Santa Anita, and believe me, they need more than clean straw.” Japanese Americans named the rows Bridle Path for the racetrack and Seabiscuit Avenue after the famed horse, Seabiscuit, whose stall, barrack 28, units 24 and 25, became an apartment of honor for its Japanese American occupants (Girdner and Loftis, 151).
Half-an-hour visits by those outside the center were allowed once a week. When notified that friends were at the center's front gate, Japanese Americans walked from their barracks to a gate, across a half-mile clearing to a second fence, then past another clearing to the fence where their friends awaited on the other side. “You stick a foot over the line, and you get a bawling out from the M.P. [military police],” a nisei college girl wrote. “One man got a bottle of beer from one of his friends, and the M.P. came along and took it from him and emptied the bottle at his feet …” (Girdner and Loftis, 156).
On May 30, 1942, the army directed the WCCA to recruit 800 to 900 Japanese Americans at Santa Anita to begin camouflage net production within a week. Recruitment began in earnest, and rumors of a WCCA blacklist of those who refused to work created resentment and fear. The WCCA urged the nisei, especially women, to work on the nets as their patriotic duty and warned them this would be their only opportunity to work and earn wages. In addition, individuals received notices to appear at the employment office and with that, the WCCA forced them
to make a decision. Some refused to work because confinement violated their civil liberties, others claimed they opposed war and would not contribute to war making, and a few cited hay fever and the dust associated with net manufacturing. Still, sufficient workers showed up, and before long Santa Anita was producing 250 to 260 large camouflage nets each day.
Japanese Americans worked a 44-hour week, and many took pride in their work. But after lunch in mid-June, a laborer stopped working. The foreman demanded he return to work, but the Japanese American insisted he was hungry and had to get a bite to eat. Soon, others stopped working, and in all some 800 workers walked off the job. The spontaneous strike shut down Santa Anita's entire net production. Later that afternoon and during the following day, representatives met with the administrators to settle their differences. The workers complained about the center's food, about the dust and fumes that irritated the eyes and lungs, about the long hours they spent at work on hard cement floors that wore on the feet, and the hot weather and stifling conditions of work. With concessions from the center's administrators, the Japanese Americans returned to work within days of the initial strike.
But after a June 18 meeting, the WCCA arrested six men and later five more for having attended that gathering, which was held to discuss general center conditions and ways to improve them. Clearly, the administrators did not want the camouflage net strike to spread among the center's Japanese Americans and to challenge some of the center's rules like speaking in Japanese during meetings and not having a policeman present at any gatherings. The men were first confined
to a jail cell, then released by the California attorney general, and seized again by the military police. Two of them, Ernest and Toki Wakayama, were released when the southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) secured a writ of habeas corpus for the couple. The ACLU's plan was to use the Wakayama case to test their imprisonment without a hearing or trial, contending discrimination based solely upon their race or ancestry. The ACLU later dropped the Wakayama for other cases, which challenged more directly the constitutionality of the concentration camps.
The Santa Anita strike is notable for being the first mass act of resistance by Japanese Americans while under confinement during the war. It also foreshadowed a larger act of rebellion over military abuses.
On August 4, 1942, Santa Anita's security police instituted a center-wide search for contraband. “Overzealous” and “overbearing” officers, in the words of the Army commander, entered Japanese American quarters and seized anything they chose, including preparation for baby formulas and special food for the sick. The search angered the center's Japanese Americans, and by the afternoon crowds gathered and a suspected inu or informer was beaten. The army called in 200 troops to quell the rebellion, and martial law lasted for three days.
Masses of people filled the streets before the soldiers arrived. Mrs. Takaichi spotted some officers who had searched the barracks overwhelmed by the numbers of Japanese Americans who cornered them. “And their eyes were green,” she said. “They were absolutely terrified, because they suddenly realized, they could have one little gun, you know, but there was nothing to keep the tremendous horde of people from tearing them limb from limb.” But the army arrived to save them. Their trucks with mounted machine guns sped into the center, and the soldiers piled out wearing helmets and holding rifles with bayonets. Between them and the masses stood an old, Japanese American woman, Mrs. Takaichi recalled, who stared down the troops and walked slowly with her cane keeping the soldiers at bay. The sight broke the tension, and the people dispersed laughing.
In the aftermath of the uprising, the army apprehended young men and a few women without notice or apparent reason, and sent them to destinations unknown. A nisei wrote to her former schoolteacher about the military crackdown. “People have had to put up with so much here, most of which was unnecessary: the ban on Japanese literature; Japanese records; and the denial of free speech, assembly, press, freedom of religion … the search, and many other things. I feel that the sooner everyone is relocated the better it will be for everyone concerned. If things continue like this, I fear that there will be something that will make August 4 look silly” (Girdner and Loftis, 193–94).
Located on the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds, the Stockton Assembly Center confined a total of 4,390 Japanese Americans from May 10 to October 17, 1942. Most of them came from San Joaquin County.
The Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, California, about 12 miles south of San Francisco was the site of the Tanforan Assembly Center. The center opened on April 28 and closed on October 13, 1942, and it held a total of 8,033 Japanese Americans from the San Francisco Bay area.
“As the bus pulled up to the grandstand,” Yoshiko Uchida wrote of her first impression of the Tanforan Assembly Center, “I could see hundreds of Japanese Americans jammed along the fence that line the track. These people had arrived a few days earlier and were now watching for the arrival of friends or had come to while away the empty hours that had suddenly been thrust upon them.” Uchida and her family got out of the bus, and were directed under the horse track's grandstand to stand in line and fill out forms. Their bags were searched, they had a brief physical examination, and they walked over muddy ground before reaching their quarters, which was a horse stall. Called an apartment, Uchida wrote, the “euphemism was so ludicrous it was comical” (Uchida, 69, 70).
Osuke Takizawa reported of his horse stall: “It was terrible. The government moved the horses out and put us in. The stable stunk awfully. I felt miserable, but I couldn't do anything. It was like a prison, guards were on duty all the time, and there was barbed wire all around us. We really worried about our future. I just gave up.” His wife, Sadea Takizawa, added of that first night in Tanforan, “Though I was tired, I couldn't sleep because of the bad smell. It was hell” (Sarasohn, 183).
Ten by twenty feet, the stall was empty except for three folded Army cots lying on the floor, Yoshiko Uchida noted. “Dust, dirt, and wood shavings covered the linoleum that had been laid over manure-covered boards, the smell of horses hung in the air, and the whitened corpses of many insects still clung to the hastily white-washed walls.” Two small windows high over the entrance were the only source of sunlight. There was nothing they could do but sweep the room, and stuff their mattresses with straw. Scrounging through the assembly center for scraps and other necessities became a valuable skill, Uchida wrote (Uchida, 70).
At dinnertime, Uchida and her family stood in line for their meal. “When we arrived,” she recalled, “there were six long weaving lines of people waiting to get into the mess hall. We took our place at the end of one of them, each of us clutching a plate and silverware borrowed from friends who had already received their baggage. Shivering in the cold, we pressed close together trying to shield Mama from the wind. As we stood in what seemed a breadline for the destitute, I felt degraded, humiliated, and overwhelmed with a longing for home. And I saw the unutterable sadness on my mother's face” (Uchida, 70–71).
The lack of privacy in the latrines and showers was “an embarrassing hardship,” and many tried to partition off each toilet and shower with newspapers and sheets. In addition, everything was in short supply, including hot water, which appeared sporadically, and toilet paper, which people stole and hoarded. It was “everyone for himself or herself,” Uchida wrote. Survival required that. Women had to wake up at three or four in the morning to wash their dirty laundry, and still there were
long lines. As a consequence, Uchida observed, most learned to rush to everything. “They ran to the mess halls to be the first in line, they dashed inside for the best tables and then rushed through their meals to get to the washtubs before the suds ran out” to wash their plates and utensils (Uchida, 77).
Every weekend, Uchida wrote, the grandstand visiting room was crowded with friends from the outside. They brought especially food, which those in the assembly center missed. Visitors were laden with cookies, cakes, candy, potato chips, peanut butter, and fruit, she reported, and those gifts “gladdened our hearts” and supplemented “our meager camp diet. Some friends came faithfully every week, standing in line from one to three hours for a pass to come inside the gates.” These were mainly white neighbors and friends who undertook this great act of courage, in the face of anti-Japanese hatred, and charity. (Uchida, 84).
Japanese Americans organized churches in Tanforan, established a library of over 5,000 books with the help of outside donations, and set up education and recreation programs. Hundreds of players joined softball teams, and hobby shows and Saturday night dances attracted many participants. People sat on the floor to watch movies. “Hundreds were willing to put up with the discomfort in order to be entertained for an hour or two,” Uchida reported. Japanese Americans built trays, chests, ashtrays, and bookends, and cultivated flowers and miniature trees, which they exhibited at hobby shows. They got so popular, Uchida noted, that a separate exhibit for garden and flower enthusiasts had to be organized to accommodate the crowds (Uchida, 87).
In June 1942, Uchida explained, the center's administrators instituted a twicedaily roll call, once before breakfast and the other at 6:30 in the evening. “It seemed an unnecessary irritation to add to our lives,” she commented, “unless it was designed to impress on us the fact that we were under surveillance, for there was little opportunity or inclination for anyone to escape.” Also that month, the FBI launched center-wide searches for contraband, turning some stalls inside out and making people feel violated and insecure. Rumors began circulating of an impending move to a concentration camp. Three months of communal living, wrote Uchida of Tanforan, wore on the nerves. “There was no place to cry and no place to hide. It was impossible to escape from the constant noise and human presence. I felt stifled and suffocated and sometimes wanted to scream” (Uchida, 93, 96).
Located on county fairgrounds in the town of Tulare, California, the assembly center held a total of 5,061 Japanese Americans from April 20 to September 4, 1942. Most of those came from Los Angeles and Sacramento counties. The center had over 150 barracks, eight mess halls, and eight communal buildings for toilets, showers, and laundries. The military police occupied the northern end of the fairgrounds.
Her daughter, Hatsuye Egami remembered, told her once she entered Tulare Assembly Center she would never come out. The war would have to end first, she
declared. The barracks, Egami reported, were built of rough boards with small windows and a concrete floor. Eight people occupied each room. The toilets and showers, she noted, relegated them to a state of nakedness. “Polished civilized taste and fine sensitivity seem to have become worthless here.” The mess hall held 160 persons while 500 waited their turn in line. The food was simple, though adequate. The issei, she reflected, in the United States for 40 or 50 years pursuing their gigantic dreams tilled the soil that was “a mother to them, and their life was regulated by the sun. They were people who had worked with all they had, until on their foreheads, wave-like furrows were harrowed. Every time I see these oldsters with resigned, peaceful expressions, meekly eating what is offered them, I feel my eyes become warm” (Gorfinkel, 27, 30–31).
On May 18, 1942, Egami played the piano at the funeral of Michiko Toguri, the first death in Tulare. She was a stranger, Egami wrote, but they were together in the assembly center, having boarded the “same ship of destiny … to live, to die.” That fate bound them together. So she played the piano for Toguri, whose coffin bore “a pitifully small amount of flowers” because they were not found in the center. Words of condolence were uttered, touching Egami's heart, and others offered sympathy and prayers. It was, she confessed, “truly an unforgettable funeral,” despite the rough setting and meager flowers (Gorfinkel, 37, 38).
Located at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in Turlock, California, the Turlock Assembly Center held a total of 3,699 Japanese Americans mainly from the Sacramento River delta area and Los Angeles. The assembly center opened on April 30 and closed on August 12, 1942. Later that year, the assembly center became a prison and rehabilitation center for military convicts.
Gary Y. Okihiro
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Gorfinkel, Claire (Ed.). The Evacuation Diary of Hatsuye Egami. Pasadena, CA: Intentional Productions, 1995.
Hirano, Kiyo. Enemy Alien. San Francisco: JAM Publications, 1983.
Sarasohn, Eileen Sunada (Ed.). The Issei: Portrait of a Pioneer: An Oral History. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1983.
Tamura, Linda. The Hood River Issei: An Oral History of Japanese Settlers in Oregon's Hood River Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Uchida, Yoshiko. Desert Exile: The Uprooting of a Japanese-American Family. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.