Sunday, September 08, 2013

Ugly Truths

Here in Taos I run with a heady breed of well read, multi-degreed academics and lapsed lawyers. Sure don’t know what those overachievers see in me. But it’s amazing how little the very large collective brain of this group knew about our World War Two Japanese American internment camps.  Most of us were tiny tots or not yet a gleam in somebody’s eye at the time of the camps.  I turned four as the war came to an end so my knowledge of them was sketchy at best.  And when the war ended the camps were quickly leveled, the internees sent back to the West Coast to start all over and most Americans were none the wiser.  My guess is that the perpetrators of the great relocation tragedy had just that in mind when they struck the camps from American consciousness and left the land of the free and home of the brave in blissful ignorance.

Last week’s entry about the Topaz Concentration Camp in drew comments and questions that prompt a follow up. 
Last day on the farm
The Mochida family awaiting transport to Tanforan
Early last Monday Daryl Black informed me that there had been two camps in New Mexico, one in Santa Fe and another near Lordsburg. Yes, there were two camps in New Mexico but they were not so-called relocation camps.  These were Detention Camps for previously identified male “enemy aliens” who were rounded up within two days after Pearl Harbor. These imminent threats to hearth and home were imprisoned in camps operated by the Department of Justice according to the terms of the Geneva Convention, read prisoner of war camps, rather than by the US Army in gated desert communities. The Santa Fe Camp held nearly 5,000 male prisoners many of whom were lawyers, doctors and religious leaders and had an average age of 52.
Leaving San Francisco
One bag per person
Tanforan with track in the background
Nancy Enderby pointed out that the Supreme Court found the internment of the Japanese Americans to be constitutional.  That’s sadly true. On December 18, 1944 in the case of Korematsu v. United States, a 6-3 decision, the court stated that the exclusion process in general was constitutional.

Some of you wondered how long were the internees were held at the race track and county fair assembly centers and, for that matter, why racetracks and fair grounds?  The answer is that they spent six to nine months in their horse stalls, tents or barracks while the more permanent camps were built. Race tracks and fair grounds were chosen because they had ample space and existing infrastructure like water, electric and sewer hook-ups not mention those handy multi-purpose housing units.

When the internees finally arrived at their semi-permanent digs in places like Broken Pelvis, Wyoming and Dry Spit, Arizona they found the camps unfinished and were hired to build their own barb wire fences and guard towers for the munificent sum of $12 a month. That’s not quite as bad as digging one’s own grave but is still a seriously dystopian situation.

Since we know that each internee was given a week to settle his affairs and was allowed one bag of personal items, I've been asked what happened to their homes, businesses and other property?  The answer is that they left everything back home to be stolen, vandalized or bought for a pittance. Right before the great inland exodus bottom feeding snakes slithered through Japanese neighborhoods buying refrigerators for $5 and cars for a dime on the dollar. Your loss is my gain.
The record shows that the US government suppressed findings from the FBI and military intelligence that there was no threat from the Japanese Americans. And by late 1942 camp officials recognized there was no threat whatsoever from the internees yet they remained incarcerated until the end of the war.

No person of Japanese ancestry in the US was ever charged or convicted of espionage.

Dorothea Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority to photograph the camps but was discouraged from interacting with detainees and was not allowed to photograph armed soldiers, guard towers or any conflicts between guards and internees. Her work was heavily edited and what remained was secreted away by the authorities until being revealed under the Freedom of Information Act many years later.  Many of her images of the camps have never been found but those that have are rich, enduring and heart wrenching. Some of them support this text.


Daryl A. Black said...

This series has been stunning. And so appropriate to the time in which we now find ourselves, once again on the precipice of military action without all the facts and no stated conclusion. Why human beings do not learn from history nor are able to get beyond brutality to solve our problems must sadly be part of our condition. It would be nice if we could progress enough to get beyond that.

As far as additional photographic images are concerned, erhaps the state of New Mexico History Library has photographs in its archives of the camps here. It would also be telling to see Dorothea Lange's photographs and read more about her involvement in the War Relocation Authority work.

Thanks for pursuing this.

Steve Immel said...

Thanks as always, Daryl. There are images of the SF detention camp at the library I think. Some of the photos I used are Lange's, notably the family and the lines at Tanforan.

You can Google Dorothea Lange internment camp photographs and see dozens of them.

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