February Deep Dive into History: Japanese Internment Camps

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Tuesday, Feb 9 2021 by

February’s deep dive into history focuses on one of the darker periods in the recent history of the United States: When the US government forced more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent into internment camps during World War II.

The Executive Order permitting the action was signed on February 19, 1942. By fall 1942, camps had been opened across the United States, and were filled with unwilling residents, who stayed there until after the end of World War II.

Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, Japan’s military bombed Pearl Harbor, the Navy base in Hawaii. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan, it was clear the US would go to war against the Asian country.

Pearl Harbor (Google Maps)
Pearl Harbor

In reaction to the attack, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. This order gave the War Department the authority to forcibly relocate Americans with ties to Axis countries. This included people from Germany and Italy, but most relocated persons were of Japanese descent.

Both legal residents and American citizens were rounded up and housed in internment camps for the duration of the war, and in some cases, even after the war ended.  Because more Japanese Americans were relocated than people of other backgrounds, it has shows just how racist the measure was, as it had no basis in fact and was not applied consistently across the country.


Manzanar was one of the ten internment camps. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the area is known for its hot summers and cold winters. This made life difficult for the roughly 11,000 involuntary residents.

The barracks were not designed to keep out the heat and cold, and didn’t even always have walls between family areas. Bathrooms and showers had no privacy, not even separating men and women.

Manzanar Internment Camp (Google Maps)
Manzanar Internment Camp

While media reports stated that the residents were well-fed and cared for, the truth was that residents were held there against their will, and treated as criminals. The camp was surrounded by wire fencing, with guard towers all around. While the towers were taken down after the war, they have been reconstructed as part of the restoration taken on by the National Park Service.

Visitors can walk around the site, and get a real feel for what it would have been like here during World War II.

Guard tower at the Manzanar National Historic site (StreetView)
Guard tower at the Manzanar National Historic site


The Topaz Relocation Center in central Utah, housed nearly 11,000 Japanese Americans, mostly from the San Francisco area. Like at Manzanar, the barracks were not sufficient to keep the residents protected from the elements, especially the harsh cold of the high desert winters.

The area is now a National Historical Site, and has a permanent museum and exhibits that tell the stories of the people who lived there from 1942-1945.

Topaz War Relocation Center (Google Maps)
Topaz War Relocation Center

Tule Lake

The Tule Lake internment camp in northern California originally held residents from northern California and Washington and Oregon. However, it was soon turned into a maximum security camp to house so-called “disloyal” Japanese residents and American citizens who failed a mandatory loyalty questionnaire.

The camp housed more than 18,000 inmates at one point, and was under marshal law for more than a year due to unrest and complaints about unsanitary conditions.

The site has been turned into a National Landmark, which is important for American history as we work to reconcile the poor decisions made by the government during a time of national crisis.

Tule Lake War Relocation Center (Google Maps)
Tule Lake War Relocation Center


Not every camp was in the western United States. The Rohwer War Relocation Center was located in Arkansas, in what was swampy marsh land that hadn’t even been completely cleared and prepared for residents when the first groups arrived from California.

This camp held around 9,000 inmates, and was the last to close in November 1945. Unlike most other camps, the site was not largely abandoned, but many of the resources built for the relocated inmates were taken over and used by local residents for years. Only the cemetery is clearly marked as a remnant of the war. It has been designated a National Historical Landmark.

Rohwer War Relocation Center (Google Maps)
Rohwer War Relocation Center

Supreme Court

Residents did not all go willingly to the internment camps. Many petitions and complaints were made, and one even made its way to the US Supreme Court. The case Korematsu v. United States was heard in 1944.

Fred Korematsu had worked hard to avoid being sent to a camp, but was found and arrested. His case worked its way to the Supreme Court, who decided the internment, while suspect constitutionally, was permitted in times of national crisis.

President Gerald Ford repealed the Executive Order and issued a formal apology in 1976. President Ronald Reagan issued an order that compensated survivors. Later in life, Korematsu was recognized as a civil rights icon, had his conviction overturned, however, the Supreme Court ruling still stands.

US Supreme Court (StreetView)
US Supreme Court

Looking back over these events and locations, it is important to remember what happened in World War II. As Frank Korematsu said, we will only heal when “we learn that, even in times of crisis, we must guard against prejudice and keep uppermost our commitment to law and justice”