What “Back to School” Looked Like in World War II Concentration Camps

“Nineteen forty-two, how full of events it has been. So many turning points, crisises [sic], days of anxiety and disappointment, yet some happy moments, too. It was like a goodbye to carefree days and a hello to reality.” Fifteen-year-old Amy Mitamura wrote these words in a school essay, “A Review of 1942,” during her fourth month of incarceration at Minidoka concentration camp.

Amy’s classmate Ikuko Ouje shared a similar sense of displacement, writing: “I lived for twelve years in one house. It had nineteen steps. Our neighbors moved and new ones came but we still lived on at the same old place until one day notice came that we had to move. That was the beginning of our moving days which never stopped until I came out here.

The events of 1942 would have been challenging by any standards: government-mandated curfew, the euphemistically named “evacuation,” and imprisonment at temporary facilities, then transfers to camps in remote, unfamiliar places. School-aged children experienced these traumas differently than their elders or younger siblings, and school–at least at first–didn’t do much to provide a sense of normalcy.

When incarcerees arrived at many of the camps, schools were still under construction. Temporary facilities were established in mess halls and unused barracks. Students sat on floors or on rustic, carved wooden benches. A lucky few had family members who made chairs that they were able to carry with them to school. These makeshift classrooms were often overcrowded. Clifford D. Carter, superintendent of Heart Mountain Schools, noted that classroom occupancy exceeded Wyoming standards by 80 to 100 percent, with one 20′ by 100′ barrack classroom reporting 203 students.

The sub-standard schooling and the limitations of camp life were not lost on children. As 14-year-old Henry Fukuhara astutely observed, “Well, this is my opinion why I don’t like to be living out here in Idaho. I don’t like it because there is not enough freedom out here as we used to have in our own States. This is not only my opinion, but many others that I know.”

Once schools were better established and provisioned, students reported both positive and negative experiences, a variety of which can be seen in Densho’s oral history archive. By the time the camps closed down in 1945, many of the schools had improved facilities and the same extra-curricular activities as schools on the other side of the barbed wire. But traditions like yearbook clubs and high school bands existed alongside overcrowded classrooms, “mandatory harvest vacations,” and a chronic lack of supplies. 

Scroll through the photos below for a glimpse into what school would have been like for student incarcerees. Note that original War Relocation Authority (WRA) captions put a deliberately optimistic spin on the conditions of camp life. 

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Original WRA caption: Nursery school children with model barracks, Tule Lake concentration camp, November 2, 1942. Photo by Francis Stewart, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Original caption: Manzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An elementary school with voluntary attendance has been established with volunteer evacuee teachers, most of whom are college graduates. No school equipment is as yet obtainable and available tables and benches are used. However, classes are often held in the shade of the barrack building at this War Relocation Authority center. July 1, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Fourth grade boys from Heart Mountain Elementary School play outside. Courtesy of the Dell Family Collection.

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Original WRA caption: Rohwer Relocation Center, McGehee, Arkansas. Two young grade school students watch the camera as their pictures are being taken, November 22, 1942. Photo by Tom Parker, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

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Original WRA caption: Manzanar Relocation Center third grade students working on their arithmetic lesson at this first volunteer elementary school. School equipment was not yet available at the time this photograph was taken. July 1, 1942. Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Elementary school class at Minidoka Concentration Camp, 1944. Courtesy of the Okawa Family Collection.

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Original WRA caption: A view in grammer school at this relocation center. Tule Lake concentration camp, November 4, 1942. Photo by Francis Stewart, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Elementary school children at Granada (Amache) concentration camp, Colorado. Courtesy of the James G. Lindley Collection.

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Original WRA caption: Little nursery school girl singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Tule Lake concentration camp. November 2, 1942. Photo by Francis Stewart, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Original caption: “Wanda Watson and several of her first graders,” Heart Mountain concentration camp, Wyoming. Courtesy of Dell Family Collection.

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Students at recess at Granada (Amache) concentration camp, Wyoming. Courtesy of the Catherine Ludy Collection.

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Students working on the Granada (Amache) concentration camp farm. Courtesy of the Catherine Ludy Collection.

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Original WRA caption: Hunt High School students clean and rake areas between classroom barrack buildings preparatory for planting rye, Minidoka concentration camp. May 1943. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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Elementary school students at Granada (Amache) concentration camp. Courtesy of the James G. Lindley Collection.

By Natasha Varner, Densho Communications Manager

[Blog header: Original WRA caption: Jerome Relocation Center, Dermott, Arkansas. View of 5th and 6th graders going through their exercises on elementary school grounds, 1943.]

Sources (Research credit: Brian Niiya, Densho Content Director)

Horiuchi, Carol Lynne. “Dislocations and Relocations: The Built Environments of Japanese American Internment.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2005.

James, Thomas. Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans, 1942-1945.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.  Originally a Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, 1984.

Nelson, Douglas W.  Heart Mountain: The History of an American Concentration Camp.  Madison, WI: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976.  

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