Fear Was Stronger Than Justice
On December 7, 1941, at 7:55 a.m. Hawaiian time, a Japanese dive bomber bearing the red symbol of the Rising Sun of Japan on its wings appeared out of the clouds above the island of Oahu. A swarm of 352 more Japanese warplanes followed in two waves, descending on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in a ferocious assault. News of the “sneak attack” sent a shockwave across the nation when it was broadcast to the American public via radio bulletins, interrupting many popular Sunday afternoon entertainment programs.
On the following day, December 8, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress and the Nation via radio, declaring: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Thirty-three minutes after he finished speaking, Congress declared war on Japan. Three days later, December 11, Germany declared war on the United States. Both declarations thrust the nation directly into World War II, something most Americans wanted to avoid. Up to that time, the United States had been involved in the European war only by supplying munitions to England and other antifascist European countries.
The attack on Pearl Harbor also unleashed a rash of fear about national security. Not long after the attack, racial prejudice helped fuel rumors of a plot among Japanese-Americans to sabotage the war effort. In the minds of many Americans, every Japanese could be a potential spy, ready and willing to help with an invasion that was expected at any moment. Some political leaders, army officers, newspaper reporters, and even many average citizens came to believe that everyone of Japanese ancestry, including American citizens born in the United States, needed to be removed from the West Coast, where 127,000 persons of Japanese ancestry lived.
Initially, American public opinion stood by the large population of Japanese Americans living along the Pacific, with the Los Angeles Times characterizing them as “good Americans, born and educated as such.” Many Americans believed that their loyalty to the United States was unquestionable.
However, six weeks after the attack, public opinion began to turn against Japanese- Americans as newspapers increased their anti-Japanese rhetoric, triggering an increase in the number of Americans growing increasingly nervous about potential fifth column activity. Though the administration (including President Franklin D. Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) dismissed all rumors of Japanese-American espionage, pressure continued upon the Administration including from politicians taking advantage of anti-Japanese public sentiment.
As pressure grew for the Administration to do something about the “Japanese-American problem,” newspapers and radio broadcasts across the country reported the story of several Hawaiian-born Japanese-Americans assisting a downed Japanese pilot on December 7, 1941. According to the news reports, twenty-two year old Airman 1st Class Shigenori Nishikaichi was making a final run in his Mitsubishi Zero fighter on Bellows Army Airfield when his plane was severely damaged by heavy machine gun fire from the ground. Knowing he would never make it back to his aircraft carrier, he made the decision to fly his crippled plane 130 miles west of Oahu to Niihau Island, a small island occupied by several hundred, mostly Hawaiian-born, ethnic Japanese. After crash-landing his plane in a pasture near an isolated house, he headed to the nearest village. Since the culture on Niihau was primarily Japanese, Nishikaichi was at first welcomed and given some freedom, but he was eventually placed in a makeshift jail after Niihau islanders learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
One night a civilian Japanese national and two Hawaiian-born ethnic Japanese freed Shigenori Nishikaichi, violently attacking their fellow Niihau islanders in the process, and returning to the young pilot his confiscated pistol. Fortunately, two men, Hawila Kaleohano and Beni Kanahele, were able to disarm and kill Nishikaichi. Kanahele, who was shot three times in the incident, reportedly grabbed the pilot and flung him against a wall, cracking his skull. One of the men helping the downed pilot committed suicide. The other two were imprisoned.
The event, which became known as the ‘Niihau Incident,’ produced a Navy report that indicated a “likelihood that Japanese residents previously believed loyal to the United States may aid Japan.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the incident and subsequent naval report to rationalize Executive Order 9066 allowing local military commanders to exclude any group of people from any region without trial or hearings for reasons of “military necessity.” This executive order, signed on Feb.19, 1942, provided the legal authority behind the mass removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and their subsequent relocation to internment camps in the interior U.S. No comparable order applied to Hawaii, one-third of whose population was Japanese-American, or to Americans of German and Italian ancestry.
In an attempt to put the executive order in the best possible light, the government insisted the objectives of the order were not only to prevent espionage, but also to protect persons of Japanese descent from potential violence due to the growing anti-Japanese sentiment.
Roosevelt’s order affected 117,000 people of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were native-born citizens of the United States. The Issei were the first generation of Japanese in this country; the Nisei were the second generation, numbering 70,000 American citizens at the time of internment. Within weeks, all persons of Japanese ancestry – whether citizens or enemy aliens, young or old, rich or poor – were to report to assembly centers near their homes. Many were forced to sell their property at a severe loss before departure.
Before being transported to a permanent wartime residence, internees were not immediately sent to the relocation camps. Instead, they found that a cowshed at a fairgrounds or a horse stall at a racetrack became home for several months.
Ten relocation or internment centers were built in arid and semi-arid areas where life would have been harsh under even ideal conditions. These often remote and desolate locales included Tule Lake, California; Minidoka, Idaho; Manzanar, California; Topaz, Utah; Jerome, Arkansas; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Poston, Arizona; Granada, Colorado; and Rohwer, Arkansas. Some people refer to the relocation centers as concentration camps; others view internment as an unfortunate episode, but a military necessity.
One of the most stunning ironies in this episode of American civil liberties was articulated by an internee who, when told that the Japanese were put in those camps for their own protection, countered “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”
As four or five families with their sparse collections of clothing and possessions squeezed into and shared tar-papered barracks, life took on some familiar routines of socializing and school. However, eating in common facilities and having limited opportunities for work interrupted other social and cultural patterns. Internees elected representatives to meet with government officials to air grievances, often to little avail. Recreational activities were organized to pass the time. In camps adjacent to fertile lands, vegetable farms were created and became active and profitable.
In 1943 and 1944 the government assembled a combat unit of Japanese Americans for the European theater. It became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated all-Nisei unit. A call for volunteers yielded vastly different results in Hawaii than on the mainland: some ten thousand Hawaiian Nisei volunteered within days, while only 1,256 mainland Nisei came forward from the camps. The 442nd fought gallantly in Italy and France, earning a reputation as a crack infantry unit and gaining fame as the most highly decorated unit of World War II including 22 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses and 560 Silver Stars (plus 28 Oak Leaf Clusters for a second award). Their outstanding military record illustrated their unquestionable patriotism.
The internment of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II sparked constitutional and political debate. In the 1940s, a handful of Japanese-Americans including Mitsuye Endo challenged the constitutionality of the forced removals and eventually won. Her lawyer, James Purcell, filed a Writ of habeas corpus on her behalf demanding that she be charged or released from confinement in order to challenge her dismissal. Rather than test the constitutionality of detention, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote “detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by the Congress or the Executive, but it is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism in the entire evacuation program.”
Following the ruling, the exclusion orders were suspended and Japanese-Americans were allowed to leave the internment camps. But many had no homes or businesses to return to because their properties had been confiscated, abandoned or sold at enormous discount to profiteers when they were hurriedly and inhumanely forced into internment camps. Internees returning to their home towns quickly discovered that hostility against Japanese-Americans remained high across the West Coast as many villages displayed signs demanding that the internees never return. As a result, the internees scattered throughout the country.
A 1948 law provided for reimbursement for property losses by those interned. In 1988, Congress attempted to apologize for the action by awarding each surviving intern $20,000.
While the American internment camps weren’t comparable to the Nazi concentration camps in cruelty or deprivation, they remain a regrettably dark smudge on the nation’s record of respecting civil liberties, cultural differences, and basic human rights.