A firsthand account of living inside the fenced compound at a Japanese American concentration camp during World War II.
HEART MOUNTAIN RELOCATION CENTER
Community Analysis Section
August 11, 1943
The Fence By an Evacuee
“The barbed wire fences are to keep cattle outside.” a man who was eating at my side in a mess hall said. “So I would not sign the petition to Washington”.
But most everybody else signed the petition asking no fence be erected around the center. There appeared at that time in the Sentinel a strong editorial condemning the fence. The petition was forwarded to Washington. No answer. No explanation by our WRA officials either. The barbed wire fence was erected in spite of such a protest—without any explanation. Yet some kept on believing the fence was to keep the cattle out, until they saw watch towers being built and soldiers in them. Then even their creditity was dashed to pieces.
“Why these fences when we never think of leaving the center?” some asked.
When the evacuees were moved from Pomona Assembly Center and from the one at Santa Anita where their freedom was nil, they were made to believe that at the Relocation Center which is located outside of the western military zone their freedom of action will be mostly restored. So their disappointment was indeed acute when they first found out that they could not go to the towns of Cody and Powell even for shopping, then saw the barbed wire fences going up and the watch towers at strategic places built.
99 out of 100 wondered “Why all these restrictions.” Then resentment followed.
I think the above took place in November some time 1942. Then one day, a group of women crept outside of the fence on the southern side and ventured to the dump yard to pick up old wires to use them for artificial flower making. (They could not buy wires at the stores. The Heart Mountain center having been opened in a desert that had been bare of any junk piles, wires or any metallic materials. Artificial flower making was at its height and there were about 3 instructors to teach women folk the art.) Well, these few women were busy in picking wires from old lettuce crates etc. when suddenly a jeep approached and M.P. put them in it and took them to the guard house and they were kept there some time (some say over night, I do not know whether it was so). People were indignant.
One day a group of children, some of whom were as young as four years old, approached the watch tower (in broad daylight) at the north-western corner of the center and passed it a few steps and were indulged in playing there. After several whistle blowing to caution the children to trace back inside the tower which they apparently did not understand, M.P. came and hustled the children in a jeep and took them to the guard house and kept them there until Mr. Robertson came and rescued them (I think our clock chairman reported the incident to a block meeting).
Then a shooting of an evacuee by a M.P. at Topaz was reported in newspapers because the evacuee approached the wire fence too closely. Then it downed on even very credulous souls that the army meant business when they set up the fence. When young children go too close the fence, mothers would shout at the top of their voice “Don't go there. Come back”.
Sometime in February 1943 Mr. Barber, the former Community Service Dept. Head, came to visit our center. (He works in the Washington WRA office). Surrounding him, we—block chairmen and a few leaders—had a tea party. Everyone asked Mr. Barber one and the same question: “Why this restriction? At Amache relocation center, evacuees could go to a neighboring town very freely. Why the same freedom not given to us in H.M.?” “Well,” Mr. Barber answered “someone in Cody overheard a couple men were saying ‘if I see a Jap in the town, I will shoot and kill him”. “We are cautious. Hence this restriction etc.”
Late in May the Victory Garden on the western side of the center was opened. Then Mr. Todd announced that Victory gardeners could stay outside the fence till sundown. Everyone was eager to take advantage of the extended time limit and went out in evenings. The towers around the center are now empty until about nine o'clock P.M. Guards in day time were removed to outer towers. Now people seem to have forgotten that the wire fences still stand. They do not seem to mind. The fences are lost from gossiping lips.
A few Japanese-Americans visited this center the other day. They said “These watch towers are bad. The relocation centers at Poston and Gila have no fences even. What are these menacing guard towers for?”
In going to Cody and Powell, evacuees will be questioned by M.P. and mist show passes. As far as the evacuees are concerned, this procedure is not very humiliating to comply with. But American people passing on the scene come to think of the evacuees more and more in the terms of internees. No wonder that the city councils of Cody and Powell have passed the resolutions limiting our visiting of their cities. The fact evacuees are under the glaring lights of watch towers and they are questioned by M.P. every time they go out of the camp must make outsiders think we are internees. There is no question of this interfering with the relocation of the evacuees, because people outside think we are dangerous characters. This interferes with the carrying out of the main purpose of the Relocation Center—relocation.
I am one of the residents and am familiar with psychological movements of the fellow residents. And I think there will be no trouble inside the center in future big enough to need the presence of military police. Let Japanese police assume all the responsibility the military police is now functioning. It will remove the stigma of concentration camp from our relocation center. It will relieve many soldiers from here to an active service. Neighboring towns would open their doors wide for the evacuees.
If Japanese-American boys are good to serve the U.S. army, (and they are) they should be good enough to assume the duty of police works in the WRA camp (my opinion).
In connection with this assumption of duties by the Nisei, I want to say further—that all the important duties now assumed by the Administrative officers (Caucasian), should be transferred to the Niseis (except the positions of the project directors and a few others). The evacuees are criticized for being irresponsible, negligent, and not quite honest in discharging their duties in the center. Why? because we evacuees are depended on the Government. Our psychology is “Let Uncle Sam do it”. Way down in our psychology is that consciousness that injustice was done to the Japanese-Americans in evacuation and relocation. That is perhaps the reason why boys on the Agricultural project is not efficient. Carpenters and plumbers are not efficient. Now Caucasian supervisors assume responsibilities for their being inefficient.
The center will be better in every respect.
Source: Essay, “The Fence,” by an evacuee, August 11, 1943. National Archives.