At all Times Loyal to America: Internment During WWII

24 February 2017

History | Politics | War and Conflict

Alien registration card for Shigezo Iwata, 6 Feb 1942. Image © Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

 

The latest POTUS recently signed the 13776th Executive Order - his twelfth since taking office. Last Sunday, however, marked the 75th anniversary of an earlier order – no. 9066 – which was issued by President Roosevelt in 1942. Harmless as this anonymous directive may sound, it gave the US military the authority to designate zones from which ‘any or all people may be excluded’. With this power, the government were able to enact a policy of interning and relocating thousands of its citizens. 

 

After the Japanese Empire carried out its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a shocked American public abandoned isolationism and feverishly began preparing for war. However, it was not only the far-flung Axis powers who would be punished for the events in Hawaii. In the wake of the attack, distrust became pervasive, and though the order did not initially target one specific group (11,500 German-Americans - including Jewish refugees - and 3,000 people of Italian ancestry were also detained due to fears of disloyalty), it was ultimately used to facilitate the forced relocation of 120,000 Japanese-American citizens from their homes – including members of the Iwata family. 

Fujita Family Papers, 1941-1945. Image © Historical Society of Pennsylvania. To view this document in the collection, click the image above.

‘I am an American citizen of Japanese descent and I believe in the government of the United States. I am grateful for the privileges I have been able to enjoy and share as a part of democratic America. […] I solemnly affirm that Shigezo Iwata, my husband, has at all times been loyal to America’. Found amongst a collection of letters in Migration to New Worlds, these words - written with reserve and restraint by Shigezo’s wife Sonoko in a bid to secure his release from a New Mexico internment camp - offer a rare glimpse into the life of a family separated by a nation’s suspicion. 

Sonoko Iwata to Francis Biddle Appealing the Decision Against Her Husband Shigezo Iwata, 21 Jul 1942. Image © Historical Society of Pennsylvania. To view this document in the collection, click the image above.

 

With as little as six days’ notice, thousands of families were forced to abandon their homes, businesses, farms and belongings for remote “Relocation Centers”. A guide for evacuees, found in the Fujita Family Papers, includes detailed packing instructions for the 20 x 25 foot living quarters that families would share; all other belongings were to be placed in storage. Few with land had time to arrange its sale, and those who did had to accept huge losses. Inside the swiftly constructed camps, the interned lived in cramped, overcrowded and initially unsanitary conditions. 30,000 were children, and funds for school facilities were scarce. Class sizes were large, supplies short and temperatures high. Armed sentries guarded the large enclosures, and, over the course of detainment, seven internees were shot dead. 

 

Despite a December 1944 Supreme Court ruling that loyal citizens, regardless of their descent, could not be detained without cause, the last camp would not close until 1946. Former detainees were given $25 and a train ticket, but many had nothing to return to; most families had lost their land and property. Some chose to emigrate to Japan, while others were forcibly repatriated. In the 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, young Japanese-Americans began to demand reparations and an official apology; by the end of the century, the US government had paid $1.6 billion to detainees and their descendants in an effort to compensate for this bleak period in American history.

Migration to New Worlds is available now! For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Sonoko Iwata's letter appealing her husband's internment and the Fujita Family Papers will be available to access free for 30 days.

About the Author

Lindsay Gulliver

Lindsay Gulliver

Since joining the editorial team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of resources charting the history of colonial America, popular medicine, World’s Fairs and socialism around the globe. My main academic interests lie in cultural history and Thatcherism, but I enjoy researching all areas of modern history.

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