What followed was one of the most troubling events in American history.
Within days of Pearl Harbor, the FBI rounded up many Japanese, German, and Italian Americans on the West Coast. The U.S. government classified Japanese Americans as “enemy aliens.” In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order #9066, allowing military authorities to set up restricted zones and remove “aliens” from those zones. Most American citizens who happened to have Japanese ancestry had 10 days to close up their businesses and homes. Over 100,000 were loaded on trains and buses and sent to assembly centers and then on to larger camps were built in “safe” rural areas of Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Estimates of the value of property confiscated from Japanese Americans ran as high as $400 million.
Jim Chenault (left) was in high school in California with many of the Japanese-Americans who were interned. “They made these people just go away and leave everything they worked all their lives for,” Jim says. “Nobody objected to them taking the Japs – Japanese and doing that to them at that time. But it was a bad thing because they were good, loyal people.”
Don Geery’s brother Woodrow was involved in rounding up the Japanese Americans on the West Coast and putting them in the camps. He “didn’t think it was right.” Later, his brother fought side-by-side with Japanese-American soldiers in the Philippines and Guadalcanal.
Kaz Tada (left) was one of those rounded up. Kaz was a “Nisei” – a person born in America of parents who immigrated from Japan. Nisei is a Japanese word meaning second generation. “Isei” refers to first generation immigrants, those who came the U.S. from Japan. And “Sensei” refers to third generation Japanese Americans.
In 1941, Kaz was a 18-year old college student living with his family in Seattle, Washington. Kaz says he heard about the Pearl Harbor attack as he was walking home from church on Sunday, December 7, 1941. That same day, his grandfather was arrested by the Justice Department because he had been an officer in the Japanese Army. His grandfather was later deported. Under Roosevelt’s order, the savings accounts of Japanese people were frozen, and their short-wave radios and cameras were taken away. For the next few weeks, Kaz and his family had to be at home by 8 p.m. or face arrest. Then, they were removed to an internment camp, the Minidoka Relocation Center near Hunt, Idaho.
Kaz says his family tried to make the best of the situation. The camp administration allowed some measure of self-government within the confines of the camp. People had jobs – with one notable exception. All of the teachers were Caucasian.
Eleven members of the Tada family lived in two rooms, huddling around one coal stove. In the first few months, tragedy stuck. While the family was at the camp, Kaz’ 11-year-old brother drowned in a canal outside the camp.
Kaz’ experience was typical of the 100,000 Japanese Americans interned during the war. Families were housed in drafty shacks covered with tarpaper. They were crowded together, with little privacy. There was not always enough to eat, and winters at most camps were very cold. By 1942, more than 10,000 people lived at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, the camp closest to Nebraska. Camp dwellers soon set up a camp government, start publishing a newspaper and opened a school, even though there were not enough books and pencils.
Life seemed difficult for adults, but children played and made new friends. There were scout troops and teams for football, volleyball, basketball, and baseball, as well as swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter. Traditional Japanese activities such as judo, boxing, and calligraphy were popular. Camp administrators let the Japanese build an irrigation canal and plant vegetables and fruits.
By 1944, the War Department needed more soldiers. They created an all-Japanese unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and started drafting Japanese men. At Heart Mountain, nearly 100 young men refused military service until their constitutional rights were given back. The draft resisters were tried, found guilty and were sent to prison. But more than 900 men and women from Heart Mountain served in the Army and Navy. Some joined the 442nd Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit in World War II.
Remarkably, today Kaz is not bitter about the relocation experience. “Gosh, we were all together there,” he says, “and we would eat together. We would shower together. I didn’t feel that way about it. I really didn’t… There’s a Japanese feeling called shekata denei which means, ‘There’s no use.’ You know, ‘Go along with it. Don’t fight it.’ And for myself, I think that was pretty much my feeling. Heck, in the first place, I didn’t know what else I could do.”
What he did was to find a way to continue his education … in Nebraska.