August 28, 2013

“A battalion of American troops of the 7th Army was cut off for a week near St. Die in France. All its attempts to break out were stopped by superior German forces. Nor could American relief get through. The situation grew steadily worse…At the last minute, relief troops got through. Who were they? Japanese Americans of the famous 442nd regiment.”

“A crippled Japanese American private, wearing many service ribbons, had been ejected from a civilian barber shop near the Poston WRA center because of the owner’s objection to his ancestry.” – The Topaz Times, November 15, 1944

Many Americans still know very little about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans; yet the entire episode is well documented in federal records kept by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and other government agencies. In the National Archives researchers can find details like the names of individuals and their exact barracks addresses in the camps. But the richest reports of the daily routine and larger concerns of the 120,000 Japanese Americans living in the ten WRA concentration camps appear in the pages of newspapers published by the very people incarcerated.

Densho has scanned, digitized, and indexed nearly 4,000 editions of newspapers from all ten WRA camps. All are available to users of the Densho Digital Archive. Ranging from rough mimeographs to professional layouts, the papers were named for the camp locations — The Topaz Times, Minidoka Irrigator, Manzanar Free Press, Gila News-Courier, Poston Chronicle, Denson Tribune, Heart Mountain Sentinel, Rohwer Outpost, Tulean Dispatch and Granada Pioneer. They relayed the announcements and bulletins you would find in typical American communities of the day: wedding, birth, and death notices; job openings; sports scores; worship schedules; Christmas parties; soldiers killed in Europe.

Upon closer inspection, the illusion of normalcy evaporates. As Steve Chawkins wrote in his Los Angeles Times article “Barbed Wire and Free Press” (May 3, 2007), “The items are redolent of Small Town U.S.A., but the newspapers that carried them weren’t exactly published in Mayberry.” The day-to-day business is about running incarceration camps that each held over ten thousand U.S. citizens and legal immigrants in harsh settings. Elections are not for town mayor but block leaders (divisions of barracks); messages from administrative officials outline policies for work allocation, clothing allowances, and leave clearance.

“So that Center children may enjoy a more cheerful Christmas, more than 500 sympathetic Caucasians from some 30 states all over the country have donated gifts as a friendly gesture in the true Christmas spirit.”– Jerome Communique, December 22, 1942 

Questions concerning freedom of the press naturally arise. How could people who were essentially prisoners of war within their own country be permitted to speak openly about the injustice perpetrated on them by their own government? In his interview for Densho, Bill Hosokawa, who went on to become an award-winning journalist at major dailies, described the delicate balance he struck as editor of The Heart Mountain Sentinel. He reported tense situations — such as anger over the erection of the barbed wire fence — but he took care not to whip up dangerous emotions:

“I was afraid that if there were violence, that the government would crack down even further. They had the guns, and they ran the place. We had no rights. And they could surely have cracked down…There was a military police detachment of something like 400 men who were just a few yards outside the camp. And they were armed, and it was their duty to climb into these watchtowers at night and focus their floodlights on us. And they, I’m sure they had their orders to, to shoot if necessary. And aside from that, I felt that the less cooperative we were, the more oppressive the management would be.”

Glaring omissions do suggest censorship. The Manzanar Free Press, for example, did not print a word about the December 5, 1942, confrontation with soldiers that left two detainees dead and nine wounded; papers in other camps did report the incident. All the camp newspapers employ the euphemistic terminology coined by the government to soften the reality of imprisoning 120,000 individuals simply because of their race. The concentration camps were “relocation centers”; the illegally detained inhabitants were “evacuees” or even “colonists.”

The camp newspapers in the Densho Digital Archive trace the full course of the wartime incarceration. The 1942 editions informed residents as the camps came into full operation: the hours you could expect hot water, which mess halls had food for young mothers and babies, the schedule for grade school to begin. By 1944, after the harshest restrictions were lifted, the papers commemorated Nisei soldiers killed in battle, listed people cleared for student leave, and printed what amounted to reconnaissance reports from those resettling “on the outside.”

“I just figure if we have spirit to fight like the first Issei who came to the United States about 50 years ago, I don’t see why we can’t put it through here in the east.” George Choichoi Yamamoto, Issei farmer from Gila River and Brentwood, Calif., recently told a visitor to the 50-acre truck farm in Pennsylvania which he is now operating on a share-crop basis. “People are more noble here than back in California.” Yamamoto continued. “There is nothing like their bunch of jealousy here. I have nothing to complain of and am getting along 100 percent O.K. When I go into town once in a while, I’ll bet no one even looks at me…I should have done it sooner, but it was impossible before.”– Gila News-Courier, August 29, 1945

The written records that remain long after the camps closed are not just dry statistics buried in the National Archives but human stories about an uprooted yet resilient population continuing their lives in exile. Among the innumerable fascinating details that fill these pages appear heartfelt expressions of faith in democracy.

“The one day difference between Dec. 6 and 7 meant the routine of my life was overturned and my finances were blown to bits. Though we were placed in an assembly center and deprived of our liberty, yet we hold no grudge against you, Uncle Sam. Even though some misguided people have called us “Jap” behind our backs, Uncle Sam, we still hold no grudge against you. War always involves innumerable sacrifices on everyone’s part. Nowadays I dream of the peaceful days that are gone. I have read many books on the subject of democracy but none of them described the happy life which we led in our great democracy before the war.”Teiho Hashima, Daily Tulean Dispatch, November 6, 1942