Photos from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
On December 7, 1941, the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii was attacked and bombed by the Japanese military. There were over 2,000 American casualties and over 1,000 wounded. President Roosevelt called this “a date which will live in infamy.” Following the attack, the U.S. entered World War II and declared war on Japan.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was increased fear about national security and suspicions of spies, especially on the West Coast. Just two months later, in February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 that resulted in the forceful internment of Japanese Americans. The order authorized military commanders to evacuate all people of Japanese descent deemed a “threat” into incarceration camps, which the government called “relocation centers”. Over 120,000 people of Japanese descent, whether they were American citizens or had immigrated here, were relocated to one of the 10 internment camps in California, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and Arkansas.
In Sonoma County, about 800 Japanese Americans and immigrants were taken from their homes. There were posters announcing a curfew and ordering the evacuation. At the end of March 1942, under the Executive Order, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt issued a proclamation that began the forced evacuation on 48-hour notice. If Japanese residents were not able to make arrangements for their property and belongings within a few days, their belongings were lost.
From March to August 1942, Japanese American residents were sent to “assembly centers”, where they waited and were tagged to indicate which incarceration center they would reside at for the next few years. A number of Japanese people from Sonoma County were sent to Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache in Colorado. The conditions and environment were horrid; temperatures reached over 100 degrees during the summer and the winters were extremely cold. The camps were created to resemble military-styled barracks, with paper thin walls, scarce clothing and other materials, while multiple families were crowded into small rooms. Families were also separated when some men were drafted out of the camp to fight in the war. They were surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire fences with soldiers who had their guns pointed toward those in the camp.
While being forced to live in these camps, residents had to make do with what they had. It was like a functioning city behind barbed wire, with different stores. Many taught themselves how to create crafts and art, paintings, carvings, jewelry, and other decorative household objects. Historian and archaeologist, Dana Ogo Shew, said, “They used what they had there and turned it into art.” There were schools and jobs, where a silk screen shop was used for creating posters for the US Navy, but not everyone was employed. With their spare time, they became skilled in artistry.
Sonoma State University (SSU) received a grant to digitize artifacts such as photographs and objects from those who were detained in Amache. These artifacts are more than art and tell the story of what the art means to them. These were real people, with real stories and connections to the objects. Members of the Sonoma County Japanese American Citizens League partnered with SSU on this project and often visited schools to share their experiences and photos of what the internment camps looked like. Their creativity blossomed and their resiliency to overcome their internment deserves to be honored.
In 1944, when the war was drawing to a close, Roosevelt rescinded the executive order, and the internment camps slowly began to close. During the three years of operation, there were over 100 deaths at Amache. By 1945, the last internment camps were closed, and some residents returned home or relocated elsewhere. For many, it was hard to talk about what they had experienced. For others, like Japanese leader John Tateishi, it was embarrassing and shameful to say, “Well, I was in jail for three years.” They were made to feel like traitors and betrayers of the U.S. The trauma, memories, and long-term effects of what happened will never be forgotten.
Decades later, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) was established and joined other Japanese community leaders for the fight for reparations through advocacy, campaigning, and education. Although they were met with resistance from some in the community, the JACL persisted until they received $20,000 per person and a formal apology from then President Ronald Regan. The group continued to educate the public about their experiences to prevent future interments of other groups of people in the United States.
The actions of the U.S. government were deeply rooted in xenophobia, racism, and baseless fears of spies living throughout the country. U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were forced to uproot their entire lives, stripping them from their homes and families. Over 40 years after the internment camps closed, in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered a formal apology and compensated each survivor of the internment $20,000. No amount of money can take away from the 3 years they spent in internment camps, but the US government had to address their horrible wrongdoings and mistreatment of Japanese Americans.
Japanese Americans have proved to be resilient with unbreakable spirits and persistence. Through their stories and artifacts, we have been able to get a glimpse into their lives at Amache. We’ll never understand how life was for them in those camps and how their lives were affected after they came home, but we can listen, be supportive and empathize with them. As human beings, we have to do better at supporting one another, being advocates for civil rights and ensuring that this never happens again.