“Evacuation” is used incorrectly to refer to the forced eviction of some 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes during World War II. The term, “evacuation,” connotes an emergency removal for the safety of those leaving an area of danger for a place of safety. Also, it usually involves people willing to leave an area in their self-interest. Instead, the forcible eviction was justified by “military necessity,” which was not because Japanese Americans were endangered but because the government and military considered Japanese Americans to be a potential source of danger to the national security. Moreover, Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps not for their safety; after all, barbed wire fences were not erected to keep intruders out but to keep Japanese Americans in and armed sentries had orders to shoot not outsiders but Japanese Americans seeking to leave the camp's confines.
Under the powers granted it by President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, the military issued proclamations, the first dated March 2, 1941, which divided the states of Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona into two military areas. Military Area No. 1 was subdivided into a “prohibited zone,” the West Coast and a strip of land along the Mexican border, and a larger “restricted zone” surrounding the prohibited zone. In addition, the proclamation designated 98 other prohibited zones, namely military installations, power plants, and other places of strategic interest. The two zones applied to Japanese, German, and Italian aliens and “any person of Japanese Ancestry,” and an accompanying press release explained the eventual exclusion of all Japanese Americans from Military Area No. 1 and all prohibited zones.
The first “evacuation” was directed by the Navy at Japanese Americans living on Terminal Island in the port of Los Angeles. Five days before EO 9066, Navy secretary Frank Knox served eviction notices to mainly fishermen and cannery workers, giving them a month to vacate their homes. Adjacent was Long Beach Naval Station, the secretary noted, and fishermen knew the coastal waters and had shortwave radios, making them prime suspects in the Navy's view. Many of the men had already been taken in Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sweeps in the days following Pearl Harbor, and now the remnants had to settle their affairs and leave. Then suddenly, on February 25, the Navy posted notices, informing Japanese Americans they had two days to leave their homes. “Near-panic swept the community,” wrote Bill Hosokawa, “particularly those where the family head was in custody. Word spread quickly and human vultures in the guise of usedfurniture dealers descended on the island. They drove up and down the streets in trucks offering $5 for a nearly new washing machine, $10 for refrigerators.” A nisei
volunteer who helped the islanders pack recalled: “The women cried awful…. Some of them smashed their stuff, broke it up, right before the buyers' eyes because they offered such ridiculous prices” (Okihiro, 60).
“The volunteers with trucks worked all night,” wrote Virginia Swanson, a Baptist missionary on the island. “The people had to go, ready or not. Some had to be pulled forcibly from their homes. They were afraid they were going to be handed over to a firing squad. Why should they have believed me,” she asked, “telling them to get into trucks with strangers?” At the Forsyth School, one of the reception centers prepared by white and Japanese Americans, Esther Rhoads was among the volunteers. “All afternoon trucks and Japanese kept coming,” she described the scene in a letter to a friend. “They were tired and dazed as a result of the sudden exodus…. We have old men over seventy—retired fishermen whom the FBI considered ineffective, and we have little children—one baby a year old … practically no men between thirty-five and sixty-five, as they all are interned…. Where are these people to go?” she asked poignantly. “There are many Japanese with young leaders able to face pioneer life, but those who have come to our hostels represent a group too old or too young to stand the rigors of beginning all over again” (Okihiro, 61). And Terminal Island was just a dress
rehearsal for the mass eviction and confinement program that would touch so many lives.
The Japanese American “evacuation” of World War II had precedents in U.S. history. An example was President Andrew Jackson's particular hatred of American Indians that resulted in their expulsion from the South during the 1830s when thousands of Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Cherokees walked and died along the Trail of Tears to the Great American Desert to settle on land deemed unfit for human habitation. Other native peoples, the Unangan or Aleuts in Alaska, were, in the words of a government commission, “relocated to abandoned facilities in southeastern Alaska and exposed to a bitter climate and epidemics of disease without adequate protection or medical care” when Japan launched an attack on the Aleutian and Pribilof islands in the summer of 1942. There, “they fell victim to an extraordinarily high death rate, losing many of the elders who sustained their culture.” While the government held the Aleuts under detention in southeastern Alaska, its military pillaged and ransacked their homes in the islands. Those forced removals, the commission concluded, along with the slow and inconsiderate resettlement thereafter, sadly followed the historical pattern of “official indifference which so many Native American groups have experienced …” (Okihiro, 61–62).
On March 24, 1942, the army issued a Civilian Exclusion Order that became the model for all other exclusion orders that effected the complete removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The target of this experiment was the several hundred Japanese Americans who farmed on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, near Seattle and at the approach to Bremerton Naval Yard. Soldiers dressed in battle fatigues tacked up the notices, “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry,” on the island's utility poles, at the post office, and at the ferry landing. The Bainbridge Japanese Americans, mostly berry and truck farmers, had six days to close their farms, settle their affairs, and pack their possessions.
Bill Hosokawa described the “raw, overcast day” of March 30. “Although the Japanese had been given less than a week in which to settle their affairs and pack,” he wrote, “they began to gather at the assembly point long before the designated hour; each of the fifty-four families carrying only the meager items authorized by the Army—bedding, linens, toilet articles, extra clothing, enamel plates and eating utensils. All else, the possessions collected over a lifetime, had to be stored with friends, delivered to a government warehouse, sold or abandoned. Farms developed over decades were leased or simply left to be overgrown by weeds.” Armed soldiers directed the people onto a ferryboat, from which they viewed, some for the last time, their island home. In Seattle, a train took the islanders to California. “What impressed me most was their silence,” wrote Thomas Bodine of the Bainbridge islanders as they boarded the train. “No one said anything. No one did anything” (Okihiro, 65). The train creaked out of the station and headed south for Manzanar assembly center and later, concentration camp.
Okihiro, Gary Y. “An American Story.” In Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment, edited by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro, 47–84. New York: Norton, 2006.