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Journalism, Behind Barbed Wire

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Roy Takeno, editor of the Manzanar Free Press, reads the newspaper at the internment camp in Manzanar, Calif. Ansel Adams Collection /Prints and Photographs Division.

For these journalists, the assignment was like no other: Create newspapers to tell the story of their own families being forced from their homes, to chronicle the hardships and heartaches of life behind barbed wire for Japanese-Americans held in World War II internment camps.

“These are not normal times nor is this an ordinary community,” the editors of the Heart Mountain Sentinel wrote in their first issue. “There is confusion, doubt and fear mingled together with hope and courage as this community goes about the task of rebuilding many dear things that were crumbled as if by a giant hand.”

Today, the Library of Congress places online a rare collection of newspapers that, like the Sentinel, were produced by Japanese-Americans interned at U.S. government camps during the war. The collection includes more than 4,600 English- and Japanese-language issues published in 13 camps and later microfilmed by the Library.

Manzanar Free Press, Dec. 22, 1943
Topaz Times, Feb. 6, 1943

“What we have the power to do is bring these more to the public,” said Malea Walker, a librarian in the Serial and Government Publications Division who contributed to the project. “I think that’s important, to bring it into the public eye to see, especially on the 75th anniversary. … Seeing the people in the Japanese internment camps as people is an important story.”

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that allowed the forcible removal of nearly 120,000 U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese descent from their homes to government-run assembly and relocation camps across the West—desolate places such as Manzanar in the shadow of the Sierras, Poston in the Arizona desert, Granada on the eastern Colorado plains.

There, housed in temporary barracks and surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, the residents built wartime communities, organizing governing bodies, farms, schools, libraries.

They founded newspapers, too—publications that relayed official announcements, editorialized about important issues, reported camp news, followed the exploits of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. military and recorded the daily activities of residents for whom, even in confinement, life still went on.

In the camps, residents lived and died, worked and played, got married and had children. One couple got married at the Tanforan assembly center in California, then shipped out to the Topaz camp in Utah the next day. Their first home as a married couple, the Topaz Times noted, was a barracks behind barbed wire in the western Utah desert.

Mimeographs and Printing Presses
The internees created their publications from scratch, right down to the names. The Tule Lake camp dubbed its paper the Tulean Dispatch—a compromise between The Tulean and The Dusty Dispatch, two entries in its name-the-newspaper contest. (The winners got a box of chocolates.)

Minidoka Irrigator, Jan. 15, 1944

Most of the newspapers were simply mimeographed or sometimes handwritten, but a few were formatted and printed like big-city dailies. The Sentinel was printed by the town newspaper in nearby Cody, Wyoming, and eventually grew a circulation of 6,000.

Many of the internees who edited and wrote for the camp newspapers had worked as journalists before the war. They knew this job wouldn’t be easy, requiring a delicate balance of covering news, keeping spirits up and getting along with the administration.

The papers, though not explicitly censored, sometimes hesitated to cover controversial issues, such as strikes at Heart Mountain or Poston.

Instead, many adopted editorial policies that would serve as “a strong constructive force in the community,” as a Poston Chronicle journalist later noted in an oral history. They mostly cooperated with the administration, stopped rumors and played up stories that would strengthen morale.

Demonstrating loyalty to the U.S. was a frequent theme. The Sentinel mailed a copy of its first issue to Roosevelt in the hope, the editors wrote, that he would “find in its pages the loyalty and progress here at Heart Mountain.” A Topaz Times editorial objected to segregated Army units but nevertheless urged Japanese-American citizens to serve “to prove that the great majority of the group they represent are loyal.”

“Our paper was always coming out with editorials supporting loyalty toward this country,” the Poston journalist said. “This rubbed some … the wrong way and every once in a while a delegation would come around to protest.”

Like Small-Town Papers
The newspapers maintained a small-town feel, reading like a paper from anywhere in rural America. They announced new library additions, promoted job opportunities, covered baseball games between residents, posted church schedules and advertised shows (“‘Madame Butterfly’ will be presented by Nobuio Kitagaki and his puppeteers”).

They often reflected a grin-and-bear-it humor about their plight. The Tanforan center was built on the site of a horse track, and some residents were quartered in horse stalls that once housed champion thoroughbred Seabiscuit—the source of frequent jokes in the camp newspaper, the Tanforan Totalizer.

A column of whimsical items was named “Out of the Horse’s Mouth.” A story headlined “Home Sweet Stall” reported on progress in living conditions: “Though still far from an earthly paradise, Tanforan has come a long way since the first week when residents were whinnying to one another, ‘Is it my imagination, or is my face really getting longer?’”

As the war neared its end in 1945, the camps prepared for closure. Residents departed, populations shrank, schools shuttered, community organizations dissolved and newspapers signed off with “–30–,” used by journalists to mark a story’s end.

That Oct. 23, the Poston Chronicle published its final issue, reflecting on the history it had both recorded and made.

“For many weeks, the story of Poston has unfolded in the pages of the Chronicle,” the editors wrote. “It is the story of people who have made the best of a tragic situation; the story of their frustrations, their anxieties, their heartaches—and their pleasures, for the story has its lighter moments. Now Poston is finished; the story is ended.

“And we should be glad that this is so, for the story has a happy ending. The time of anxiety and of waiting is over. Life begins again.”

Heart Mountain Sentinel, July 28, 1945

The collection is available here.

Comments (6)

  1. Happy to have this recorded and saved for my children to reflect upon in their future studies.

  2. It has become customary to decry the internment of the Japanese as unjust and unnecessary.

    But if we imagine a large number of Americans living in Japan at the time of Pearl Harbor, would the Imperial government have believed their protestations of loyalty to Japan? Should it have? I think not.

    It was wartime and the war was so uncertain as to its outcome that the decisive battle, the Battle of Midway, was decided by which side found the enemy fleet first. As it happened, the Seventh Fleet found a hole in the clouds over the Imperial fleet before the other side found one over them. Because our pilots knew where the Imperial fleet was in the vastness of the Pacific meant that they could bomb and sink them. So we won the battle and eventually the war.

    Had the Imperial fleet found the Seventh Fleet first, we would have lost the battle of Midway and the Japanese would have seized Hawaii and won the war. It was that close.

    Looking back, we know the Allies won the war and the Axis lost, and we assume it could not have been any other way. But the people who made the internment policy were looking forward and had no such certainty. As the Battle of Midway showed, they were right in having no way to know who would win.

    If it had been our fleet which was destroyed at Midway rather than theirs, after seizing Hawaii, the Imperial fleet’s next objective would have been to attack and destroy all the West Coast shipyards to keep the US from rebuilding the Seventh Fleet.

    With the West Coast under attack, would keeping a large population closely identified with the enemy immediately behind the lines have been a defensible military policy? No it would not.

    Had the Seventh Fleet been destroyed or badly damaged, and Hawaii lost, and the West Coast under attack, would Roosevelt have given a damn about defeating Imperial Japan’s allies, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy? There would have been no ‘Europe first” policy.

    Without American materiel and soldiers there would have been no D-Day, no Normandy invasion. Imperial Japan’s Nazi and Fascist allies might well have won the war in Europe. So a great deal was at stake.

    That was the scenario in which the internment took place. For the descendants of the internees to complain of the internments is both special pleading and historical nonsense.

    The one absolute injustice that was inflicted was the confiscation of their property. The property was never returned and no compensation was made for it. For that there was and is no excuse.

  3. Mr. Kessler, I vehemently disagree. These were US citizens. For the US to have treated its citizens like this is a source of enduring shame. Even those who were instrumental in making the decisions at the time, like Earl Warren, then Attorney General of California and later Chief Justice, would later regret these acts bitterly.

  4. To Wendy & Jack, you should both read the April 8, 1942 report of the April 7, meeting between Gen. DeWitt & Milton Eisenhower & the 10 western governors. Page 4, Distinction between Internment & Evacuation. Enemy aliens, German, Italian & Japanese nationals were arrested Dec. 7, 1941 under the 1918 Smith Act. by the time E.O. 9066 was signed, 2,192 Japanese, 1,393 Germans & 264 Italians on the “ABC” List had been arrested under the 1918 Smith Act & interned in D. of Justice Internment camps after seeing the charges against them.
    Gen. DeWitt used E.O. 9066 to remove people of Japanese ancestry minus those interned & evacuated them to Assembly center while the relocation centers were being built & were eventually evacuated to the WRA Relocation Centers under the D. of Interior.
    Yours, JK Tanaka

  5. Mr. Jack Kessler

    Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. At that time, there were more than 150,000 Japanese Americans living in Hawaii. They were not interned in concentration camps or moved to the interior of the United States like the Japanese Americans of California, Oregon, and Washington. There were about 2000 Japanese American Hawaiians’s interned because they were priests, ministers, teachers, leaders of the community and family members who wanted to be with their interned family.

    The Japanese Americans in California, Oregon, and Washington had significant assets lusted by many. This lust resulted in the lobbying of the state and federial governments. This resulted in my 3.5 year internment at the Colorado River Relocation Center at age 2 and affected 80,000 other United State Citizens and 40,000 legal immigrants from Japan who lived in the United States for at least 16 years but were prohibited from becoming United State Citizens because of their race.

    Roy Kakuda

  6. Wow! Mr.Kessler I’m so glad you brought that up I never knew Roosevelts reason for implementing Japanese internment camps only on the west coast thank you this gave me a whole new perspective.

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