Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. rounded up roughly 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry (62% of whom were U.S. citizens) and forced them into internment camps. The executive order was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942.
Before they were detained, Japanese Americans had to register themselves. They were then forced to follow strict rules including curfews and travel restrictions. Soon after, thousands of Asian Americans were forced to close their businesses, leave their work, and abandon their homes to be relocated to internment camps called “relocation centers”.
FBI agents raided homes of the Issei (first-generation immigrants from Japan). The U.S. government also froze the assets of anyone connected to Japan. Those whose assets weren’t frozen had to immediately sell their businesses and property.
A number of local schools with a larger number of Japanese students were also affected. The photos below show before and after the executive order was issued.
Once evacuated, Japanese-Americans were only allowed to take what they could carry. Detainees would be gathered at assembly centers to await processing and would then be moved to relocation centers across the U.S.
Racetracks and fairgrounds were typically used as assembly centers. Internees stayed in animal stables and stalls where livestock had been recently kept. The stench of manure was fresh and they were literally forced to live like animals.
Living quarters were shared with strangers with little to no privacy. Some couldn’t even dress themselves privately. There were no bathrooms in the barracks, so everyone had to line up outside to use the communal outhouses. Showers were also taken in open areas. Because of the close proximity to so many people, sickness was prevalent and numerous people died from the lack of proper medical treatment.
Anyone who attempted to escape or failed to obey orders could be killed. Guards faced little punishment for killing without cause.
A number of Americans were opposed to the the policy including photographer Ansel Adams. During the summer of 1943, he visited the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to document the living conditions.
“The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment,” he said.
The Manzanar War Relocation Camp was relatively self-sustainable and included livestock and farms.
While they were in dark times, detainees managed to keep themselves together through recreational activities like reading and playing sports.
Adams also took portraits of the different types of people who were detained in the camps.
Yes, even soldiers who served in the U.S. armed forces were forced into internment camps.
The only way to leave the camps was to enlist in the 442nd infantry Regimental Combat Team, a regiment made up of only Japanese Americans. Internees were labeled as enemy aliens whereas soldiers were seen as loyal to America.
There were also town-hall meetings and camps even had their own newspapers.
In special cases, some detainees could be let off camp to find work.
In January 1944, the Supreme Court rescinded the executive order and Japanese Americans were finally able to start leaving the camps. Detainees at Manzanar War Relocation Camp lived at the camp from 1942 through 1945. The last camp was closed in 1946.
The U.S. government did not issue a formal apology until 1988. Since then, the government has paid $1.6 billion in reparations to detainees and their descendants.