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Introduction: Internment
Digital History ID 43

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Document: Tsuguo Ikeda kept a diary when he was seventeen years old. In some ways, it was quite ordinary. It recorded the latest songs he had heard, his attempts to find a date for a dance, and his mom’s complaints when he came home late. But his life was anything but typical. He and his family were interned in the Minidoka Relocation Camp in southeastern Idaho, “a vast stretch of sage brush stubble and shifting, swirling sands—a dreary, forbidding, flat expense of wilderness.” Alongside his description of everyday life, his diary recorded his loneliness, the hard work he was assigned (toiling in a sugar beet field), and his anxiety about whether he and his family would ever get out of the camp.

Barred from migrating to the United States by the Immigration Act of 1924, they comprised a tiny portion of the population in 1941, totaling no more than 260,000 people. Of this number, 150,000 lived in Hawaii, with the remaining 110,000 concentrated on the West Coast, where they worked mostly as small farmers or business-people serving the Japanese community. After Pearl Harbor, rumors spread about Japanese troops preparing to land in California, where they allegedly planned to link up with Japanese-Americans and Japanese aliens poised to strike as a fifth column for the invasion.

On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt authorized the Department of War to designate military areas and to exclude any or all persons from them. Armed with this power, military authorities immediately moved against Japanese aliens. In Hawaii, where residents of Japanese ancestry formed a large portion of the population and where the local economy depended on their labor, the military did not force Japanese-Americans to relocate. On the West Coast, however, military authorities ordered the Japanese to leave, drawing no distinction between aliens and citizens. Forced to sell their property for pennies on the dollar, most Japanese-Americans suffered severe financial losses. Relocation proved next to impossible, as no other states would take them. The governor of Idaho opposed any migration, declaring: "The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats. We don't want them."

When voluntary measures failed, Roosevelt created the War Relocation Authority. It resettled 100,000 Japanese-Americans in ten isolated internment camps scattered across seven western states. Called relocation camps, they resembled minimum security prisons. In these concentration camps, American citizens who had committed no crimes were locked behind barbed wire, crowded into ramshackle wooden barracks where they lived one family to a room furnished with nothing but cots and bare light bulbs, forced to endure bad food, inadequate medical care, and poorly equipped schools.

Nearly 18,000 Japanese-American men won release from those camps to fight for the United States Army. Most served with the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. In Italy, the 442nd sustained nearly 10,000 casualties, with 3600 Purple Hearts, 810 Bronze Stars, 342 Silver Stars, 123 divisional citations, 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, 17 Legions of Merit, 7 Presidential Unit Citations, and 1 Congressional Medal of Honor. In short, they fought heroically, emerging as the most decorated military unit in World War II. In one of the most painful scenes in American history, Japanese-American parents, still locked inside concentration camps, received posthumous Purple Hearts for their sons.

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