A War Relocation Authority (WRA) term, also called relocation, used principally to describe the program to relocate Japanese Americans from the concentration camps to the outside. As the WRA director Dillon Myer described it, the resettlement program began as a plan to put Japanese Americans to work in as many as 50 agricultural camps throughout the U.S. West, and from there scatter them to jobs in both rural and urban centers where they could reestablish their lives. The plan failed when western governors refused to cooperate, but the idea of relocating Japanese Americans to specific sites and purposes continued to guide the WRA policy.
The first was the seasonal leave program. Because of labor shortages during the war and the need for agricultural production, the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA) and WRA as early as April and May 1942 decided to permit Japanese Americans to leave the camps for seasonal, agricultural work. Employers paid for their transportation and agreed to wages at the prevailing rates, and the government, provided housing for the laborers. By the end of June, approximately 1,500 Japanese Americans worked in the fields of Idaho, Utah, and Montana, and around mid-October, some 10,000 harvested sugar beets and labored in agriculture.
Another WRA program involved student leaves to continue their education beyond the camps’ high schools. With the WRA's encouragement, the American Friends Service Committee helped establish the National Student Relocation Council (NSRC) at a meeting in Chicago in May 1942. John Nason, president of Swarthmore College, was named chairman of the NSRC. The government cleared institutions to take Japanese American students, the WRA handled the leave papers from the camps, recruiters visited the camps and selected prospective students, and by November 1942, Nason reported, the NSRC placed some 330 students in 93 colleges and universities for the fall term.
In the case of both seasonal and student leaves, the government was concerned about possible security issues posed by Japanese Americans outside the concentration camps. Local sheriffs and police departments were held responsible for the seasonal workers, while schools could not be located near strategic sites nor could they be institutions working on defense research. Accordingly, many of the nisei students attended schools in isolated, rural areas and at small, liberal arts colleges rather than large, research institutions. As of May 1, 1946, the NSRC had in its records the names of 3,613 students at 680 institutions, and the council closed its doors on June 30, 1946.
The U.S. military offered a way out of the concentration camps. In November 1941, there were 3,188 Japanese Americans in the armed forces. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the army discharged recently inducted Japanese Americans from active duty although some remained with their units. Nisei were ordered into labor battalions, and others were given menial assignments like work in the kitchens. On March 1942, the selective service refused to accept any Japanese American enlistees, and in September 1942 the Selective Service System classified Japanese Americans as IV-C or as aliens unacceptable for service. Prior to that order, some local draft boards classified Japanese Americans as IV-F or as ineligible for military service.
Meanwhile, because the army needed soldiers capable of understanding and translating Japanese-language documents, beginning in July 1942 the army recruited some 6,000 Japanese Americans from the WRA concentration camps to its Military Intelligence Service (MIS) language school at Camp Savage, Minnesota, and later, at nearby Fort Snelling. Those MIS graduates served in the Pacific theater, translating captured documents, monitoring radio broadcasts, and interrogating Japanese prisoners.
Japanese Americans from Hawai'i formed the 100th Infantry Battalion, and in January 1943, the army announced the formation of a special Japanese American combat unit, which became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Volunteers from the concentration camps joined the segregated combat team after having filled out several forms swearing to their loyalty to the United States. In January 1944, Japanese Americans became subject to the draft. In all, approximately 26,000 Japanese Americans served in the U.S. military during World War II, about half from the continent and most of those from the concentration camps.
A fourth and the largest WRA program was the indefinite leave and general relocation policy that removed Japanese Americans from the camp. Indefinite leaves were only granted when the applicant had a firm job offer, the person posed no security risk, the local community accepted Japanese Americans living among them, and applicants agreed to keep the WRA informed of their current address. To account for those relocated Japanese Americans, the WRA established area offices in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Milwaukee, and New York City. By July 1943, there were 42 field offices from Spokane to Boston. At first, those offices worked to ascertain the community's acceptance of Japanese Americans and through public relations created a favorable climate for them.
Employers, concerned citizens, and church members participated in this program of relocation. In the fall of 1942, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America supplied funds to develop a network of resettlement committees across the country. Local churches were the most active together with organizations like the YMCA and YWCA. Those committees, some called Fair Play Committees, reached out to neighborhoods to make them receptive to Japanese Americans, they contacted employers and secured jobs, and they helped with housing and schooling concerns. They tried to ease the transition from concentration camps
into communities by serving as liaison and contact groups between Japanese Americans and mainly white Americans.
The demand for Japanese American labor was considerable; the Chicago area alone had 10,000 requests that went unfilled. Thousands who first left the camps via the seasonal leave system applied to make their leaves indefinite by remaining in the areas of their employment. In that way, by December 1943, there were 3,900 Japanese Americans in the Salt Lake City area and 3,000 in the Denver area, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total nationwide. To speed up the process, the WRA administered the “Application for Leave Clearance” in February 1943 with its Questions 27 and 28 that led to mass protests. Still, clearance was cumbersome, requiring FBI background checks on each Japanese American. By the end of 1943, the FBI had completed over 77,000 cases, and by early 1944 about 2,000 remained.
The WRA gave to Japanese Americans released from the camps $25 per person, a $3 per diem while traveling, and bus or train fare. Church groups in Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Des Moines operated hostels to house Japanese Americans temporarily and cheaply. Large-scale relocations of several thousand Japanese Americans involved companies like the Seabrook Farms in New Jersey and Becker Farms in Michigan. Other large recruiters of Japanese American workers were the International Harvester Company and Stevens Hotel in Chicago.
In 1944, some 18,000 Japanese Americans left the concentration camps for work outside the barbed-wire fence. The war and the work of the concentration camps were winding down, and the WRA declared the final phase of the relocation program in December 1944. On December 18, 1944, the Supreme Court ruled the government could no longer keep loyal citizens in detention against their will. A day before that unanimous decision, the army announced that effective January 2, 1945, the exclusion order would be lifted. Japanese Americans could return to the West Coast. About that time, approximately 80,000 Japanese Americans still remained in WRA concentration camps.
To relocate those to the West Coast, the WRA set up field offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle in early 1945, and about 25 district offices to manage the returning Japanese Americans. As the WRA camps closed, Japanese Americans resettled in places receptive to them. By 1946, when the WRA resettlement program ended, about 50,000 Japanese Americans lived in areas away from the West Coast, their former homes. Roughly 57,000 returned to the West Coast from whence they had been forcibly evicted. Some 5,600 of those came from resettlement sites in states such as Illinois, Colorado, and Utah. Before the war, California had the largest number of Japanese Americans on the continent. About half of those returned to the state By 1946. California's figures before and after the war coincided roughly with the pattern for the West Coast as a whole; about half returned, and these did not necessarily return to their former homes, farms, and towns. In fact, many relocated elsewhere away from former neighbors and friends and away from the stigma and shame of having been distrusted and victimized by their government.
Gary Y. Okihiro