Japanese Internment Camps

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Japanese Internment Camps

The U.S. internment camps were overcrowded and provided poor living conditions. According to a 1943 report published by the War Relocation Authority (the administering agency), Japanese Americans were housed in "tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Coal was hard to come by, and internees slept under as many blankets as they were allotted. Food was rationed out at an expense of 48 cents per internee, and served by fellow internees in a mess hall of 250-300 people.

Leadership positions within the camps were only offered to the Nisei, or American-born, Japanese. The older generation, or the Issei, were forced to watch as the government promoted their children and ignored them. Eventually the government allowed internees to leave the concentration camps if they enlisted in the U.S. Army. This offer was not well received. Only 1,200 internees chose to do so.
In 1944, two and a half years after signing Executive Order 9066, fourth-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt overturned the order. The last internment camp was closed by the end of 1945.

A Personal Account

My name is Reiko Oshima Komoto. I was born in San Lorenzo, California in 1932. Regarding my internment years, my recollections of fifty-five years ago are shaky. It was not a good experience.

The family consisted of Father, Mother, four boys, and three girls; and we lived in Oakland, California. Father and Mother were residents of California for twenty-one years at the time. Most of the children were attending school when the order to relocate all Japanese Americans from the West Coast was issued on March 1942. We were sent to Tanforan Race Track (an assembly center) in San Bruno, California with only what we could carry in clothing and personal possessions. All radios and cameras were confiscated. Furniture and household goods were stored in our next door neighbor's basement and never retrieved. Our sleeping quarters consisted of two white washed horse stalls. All bathrooms, dining hall, and similar rooms were located in other buildings. School was held in the dining room with all grades and dining tables in place of desks. We stayed at Tanforan Race Track for probably about six months before we were sent by train (only a few seats were available) to Topaz, Utah. Topaz was located in the Sevier Desert, near the small town of Delta, Utah. As a consequence I missed the flowers, trees, and green plants that grew so abundantly in California. Can you imagine being thrilled to see a living, green tree?!

Topaz consisted of blocks; how many I don't recall, but the total number of people was approximately 8,300. Each block contained two rows of eight, tar-papered barracks, one-story, twenty by one hundred feet. An H-shaped building in the middle of the block that contained a laundry room, separate bathrooms for males and females. All shower and toilet stalls were without doors or curtains. Each block also had a separate building for meals. I remember waiting in line to receive our food and lots of organ meats (kidney, liver and heart) being served. Food on the most part was not good depending on the cook's culinary skills and groceries allotted. Our sleeping quarters consisted of two large rooms (approximately 20' x 25'); metal cots, and army blankets. There was a pot bellied stove for heating. I saw snow for the first time but don't remember it collecting on the ground for any length of time. I remember sand covering the room after storms (resembling miniature tornadoes).

One barrack for the whole camp was used as a store; another as a movie theater, and one as a library. The library was quite a distance from our block, but walking was the only alternative since cars were not allowed. Somehow I acquired a horned toad as a pet. I don't believe pets were allowed, though an elderly man was shot trying to retrieve his dog that got too close to the fence. In the beginning, guards with questionable intelligence manned the towers around the fenced camp. However, even if one could escape there was no place to go in the desert, in Utah, on foot, with an Asian face. Eventually, the guards were gone but no one tried to escape. A person could legitimately leave the camp if a person relocated to any place but the West Coast.

Jobs in the camp paid from twelve (for women) to nineteen dollars per month. Your occupational status before being interned had no bearing on your pay. Medical doctors were paid nineteen dollars, while my Father received sixteen dollars for inspecting the camps bathrooms.

School was held in designated barracks. I learned marching, volleyball, and basketball, but I have no recollection of being taught the three R's (reading, writing, arithmetic); therefore, I have gaps in my formal education. One of my teachers had an 8th grade educational background. I have fond memories of one teacher who stressed initiative, and her parties were memorable. I'll always remember the punch she made from grape jam. All my teachers were Caucasian though I'm sure there must have been Japanese teachers with teaching degrees. Piano lessons were available but after several lessons I quit since I could not practice on a piano. Only a few pianos were available in the whole camp. A table wasn't a very acceptable substitute. I did have a few vocal lessons. I managed to win a talent contest and sang solos at church services while in camp. The one life-long activity I acquired in camp was the love of reading. Consequently, I became a voracious reader as a child and hope to renew that activity when I retire.

My oldest brother left camp to work in a factory in Cleveland, Ohio. My two sisters moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to work as maids in a private home. All my brothers eventually moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. The rest of us joined them when the camp was closed in 1945. Remarkably my oldest brother was able to purchase a home. Out of camp, school was foreign in many ways, including the usual things a student encounters going from elementary to junior high school. I also had the difficulty of entering after the school year had already started, and I missed many of the subjects that should have been presented from 3rd to 6th grade. I was afraid someone would create a scene and hatefully call me a Jap!!!

I recall trying to walk on ice and hitting my head after a fall and falling down a few more times before arriving at school. I still have a scar on my head as a reminder. Adjustment to life outside the camp was difficult. I was afraid a great deal of the time. I didn't want to encounter incidents of prejudice. I became a timid and introverted person, which I've overcome as I've aged. Hopefully, people will learn from this unfortunate episode in our history. People are people; judge them as individuals, not by race, color, or creed. No Japanese American was ever tried for espionage.

Written by Reiko Oshima Komoto in March 1997.

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