The Chicago Tribune: When Japanese-Americans Were Sent to Internment Camps

By Ron Grossman

Responding to Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt took an executive action that, like President Donald Trump's visa restrictions, aimed at frustrating a potential underground of enemy agents.

But while Trump's Executive Order 13769 produced an immediate backlash, Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 was virtually unchallenged long after he signed it on Feb. 19, 1942. Yet it led to the incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese people living on the West Coast on the theory that some might've been saboteurs or spies.

"I can still picture it to this day: to come in like cattle or sheep being herded in the back of a pickup truck," recalled Peter Ota of his internment at a camp in Santa Anita, Calif.

A Tribune correspondent was present when internees arrived at another California camp. "Japanese men, women and children, rich and poor alike, poured in a steady stream into this newly established internment center tonight as buses shuttled back and forth from the railroad station at Lone Pine Village," he wrote. "One old lady carried a bundle wrapped in a soldier's overcoat which she said belonged to her son, now serving in the United States army."

Government photographers documented the internment camps, and when their work was exhibited in 1992, a critic was struck by a haunting image. "A World War I veteran, wearing his old uniform, (is) being taken to the camps," she noted. "His contorted face is a study in pride and pain."

Among the few to question the constitutionality of the interment program was the Tribune:

"Two-thirds of the interned Japanese are American citizens," the newspaper observed in an editorial. "On what theory can an American citizen be locked up, with or without trial, because of his race?"

That question was answered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944. The case involved Fred Korematsu, who had plastic surgery hoping to look Caucasian, and went into hiding. When caught, he claimed to be a victim of racial prejudice. "Korematsu was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race," the justices ruled, 6 to 3. But "because the properly constituted military authorities feared an invasion of our West Coast."

In fact, there was reason to fear. The attack on Pearl Harbour crippled the Pacific Fleet, leaving the West Coast vulnerable. And when Germany declared war on the U.S., Nazi submarines sank merchant vessels off the East Coast virtually at will. Japan quickly conquered the Philippines, and its American defenders were force-marched to unspeakably brutal prisoner-of-war camps.

Japan's Radio Tokyo claimed that American POWs had "an almost normal life" while Japanese-American internees were mistreated. The U.S. countered that it was the other way around, as reporter Capt. M.M. Corpening wrote in a Tribune article: "Americans interned by the Japanese should receive good treatment in return for the consideration being shown Japanese evacuees interned here in California."

In another article, Corpening reported that the son of a Los Angeles department store owner and his bride, having been transported to a camp in Santa Anita, "were turning the trip into a honeymoon."

But few, if any, Americans found Radio Tokyo credible. Most were in no mood to make a fuss about Japanese-Americans' internment in hastily converted facilities, even if they suspected the government was painting a rosy picture.

Korematsu recalled of the detention camp he was sent to: "Jail was better." Ota carried indelible images of the Santa Anita camp, which during peacetime was a horse racing track. He described them to Studs Terkel, an interview the Tribune reprinted.

"My sister and I were fortunate enough to stay in a barracks," Ota said. "The people in the stables had to live with the stench."

Noriko Sawada Bridges' parents were strawberry farmers in Santa Ana. The internment order forced them to abandon their crop, hastily sell or lose their possessions and join other families at an assembly point. "We weren't even told when we got on the bus we were going to any specific place," she told the Tribune in 1992. Their destination was a camp on an Indian reservation in Arizona. Each internee got a sack and was told to fill it with straw to make a bed.

When detainees rioted in a California camp, the Tribune attributed it in an editorial to coddling by do-gooder camp administrators. "No other country in the world," the Tribune lamented, "has turned over the custody of dangerous and disloyal persons to left-wing social workers."

Some detainees were anything but disloyal, and enlisted in the 442 Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese-American unit of the U.S. Army that earned a staggering number of medals on European battlefields.

Still, according to contemporary newspaper reports, some detainees' loyalty was questionable. On the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a riot pitted pro-Japan internees against pro-America internees in one camp. At another camp, 650 internees renounced their American citizenship — though their motivation wasn't mentioned in the Tribune's account.

Equally murky is the case of Tokyo Rose, as GIs dubbed Iva Toguri, who was born in Los Angeles, died in Chicago and was the first America woman convicted of treason. Stranded in Japan when World War II began, she was tossed out of her relatives' house for being too American — the same quality that landed her a DJ slot at Radio Tokyo. Her program was beamed to GIs on Pacific battlefields. Management envisioned her sultry voice as demoralizing to U.S. troops. Supposedly she said that while they were fighting and dying, other Americans back home were romancing their wives.

After the war, Toguri claimed she dropped hints to her listeners that she was satirizing Japanese propaganda. Nonetheless, she was tried for treason, stripped of her American citizenship and imprisoned for six years. The American members of her family had been interned, after which they relocated to Chicago where a Japanese community was growing. Detainees could be released on condition that they settle inland, and upon her release from prison, Toguri joined them.

Immediately after the war, those who had been in the camps rarely talked about it. They were busy restarting their lives with meager resources. Those still in the camps, mostly elderly people, were given $25 and a train ticket to their pre-war hometowns. Not much awaited them. Homes and businesses were gone, and racial epithets greeted them.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, a younger generation began asking their elders about the camps.

A young student posed a tough question to Mary Tsukamoto, his teacher and a former detainee: "What did my grandpa do wrong that they put him in prison for so long?" That jolted her into joining the "Redress Movement," a grass-roots campaign for financial compensation and an official apology.

Meanwhile, historians and journalists brought a critical eye to the evidence. In 1976, Ronald Yates, the Tribune's Tokyo correspondent, interviewed several witnesses in Toguri's treason trial. One told him, "Along with other government witnesses, we were told what to say and what not to say." Another recalled, "We were told that if we didn't cooperate, Uncle Sam might arrange a trial for us."

After those revelations, President Gerald Ford pardoned Toguri, who operated an Asian gift store on Belmont Avenue until her death in 2006. Similar irregularities in the Korematsu trial caused the verdict to be vacated, and a congressional commission concluded in 1983: "Not a single act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast."

Under President George H.W. Bush, each living internee was awarded $20,000 and received a letter of apology.

"I think the idea of being interned because you are suspected of being disloyal or a military threat to this country is a very profound stigma," former internee William Hohri told a Tribune reporter in 1990. "You begin to wonder if something is wrong with you. What happened to us was not our fault. That's why the apology is so important."