Day of Remembrance: Photographs of Japanese American Internment During World War II

The following is a guest post by Karen Chittenden, Cataloger, Prints and Photographs Division.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Executive Order applied to all people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, forcing nearly 120,000 people to leave their homes on the Pacific coast.

Perhaps no picture can adequately capture the stark reality of this troubling episode, but various organizations and individuals photographed aspects of the evacuation and internment that help to tell the story.

Russell Lee and another photographer, most likely Dorothea Lange, separately documented one of the ways in which Japanese American residents on the West Coast received the evacuation orders.

Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Reading evacuation orders on bulletin board at Mary Knoll mission. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a31179

Los Angeles, California. Japanese-American evacuation from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order. Reading evacuation orders on bulletin board at Mary Knoll mission. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a31179

Civilian exclusion order #5, posted at First and Front streets , directing removal by April 7 of persons of Japanese ancestry, from the first San Francisco section to be affected by evacuation. Photo attributed to Dorothea Lange, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a35053

Civilian exclusion order #5, posted at First and Front streets, directing removal by April 7 of persons of Japanese ancestry, from the first San Francisco section to be affected by evacuation. Photo attributed to Dorothea Lange, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a35053

The evacuation of Japanese-Americans from West coast areas under United States Army war emergency order. Japanese try to sell their belongings. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38736

The evacuation of Japanese-Americans … Japanese try to sell their belongings. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38736

Lee was working for the Farm Security Administration. The FSA had two somewhat ironic connections to the internment activities, given its primary mission to help improve the self-sufficiency of small farmers: It was tasked with recruiting farmers to operate the six thousand farms Japanese American farmers had to leave in the middle of a growing season, and it arranged for a few hundred Japanese Americans to work as paid migrant laborers on farms in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and Idaho.

Lange was working at the time for the War Relocation Authority, the agency responsible for the management of the internment camps, officially known as “relocation centers,” where the evacuees were ultimately confined.

While the relocation centers were being readied, Japanese Americans initially reported to assembly centers hastily prepared at fairgrounds and racetracks, where some of the internees resided in converted horse stables.

Japanese waiting for registration at the Santa Anita reception center. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38735

Japanese waiting for registration at the Santa Anita reception center. Photo by Russell Lee, 1942 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38735

Relocation center facilities were not much better. The centers were located in remote areas. Tar paper-covered barracks served as living quarters, doing little to protect the residents from the harsh environmental conditions. Barbed wire surrounded the camps, which were watched by armed guards.

Ansel Adams captured the buildings and many other facets of the life internees made at Manzanar War Relocation Center in California.

Winter storm, Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Photo by Ansel Adams, 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppprs.00332

Winter storm, Manzanar Relocation Center, California. Photo by Ansel Adams, 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppprs.00332

Some internees participated in acts of civil disobedience and were arrested and tried in court. Others left the camps to join the military even as their families remained confined in the camps. Army photographers documented the contributions of the much decorated 442nd Combat Unit.

Two Masaoka brothers ... flank flag bearer at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1944 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11187

Two Masaoka brothers … flank flag bearer at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1944 April. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c11187

San Francisco (Calif.) evacuation... Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c33821

San Francisco (Calif.) evacuation. (The writing on the cap of the boy on the right says “Remember Pearl Harbor”).  Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c33821

As a consequence of the internment, many Japanese Americans lost their homes, businesses, and other property. In the 1980s, members of the Japanese American community began to seek an apology and reparations from the U.S. government. After an investigation initiated by President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which attributed the incarceration of Japanese Americans to the race prejudice and war hysteria of the time.

February 19th, the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, is observed in many states as a “Day of Remembrance.” U.S. Representative Mike Honda, an internee in the Amache camp in Colorado, spoke at a 2014 Day of Remembrance ceremony of the importance of “remembering the injustices, reflecting on our journeys, and educating our communities so that these mistakes are never repeated.”

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2 Comments

  1. Jane Van Nimmen
    February 19, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    An excellent “Day of Remembrance” posting, with those large and beautiful photographs, as well as the relevant links. The two little boys are wonderful! Many thanks, especially as I was only remembering the Asian New Year today.

  2. Jenny
    February 20, 2015 at 9:51 am

    I highly recommend for anyone who is interested in this topic visiting the California State Archives and reading correspondence files to really get a sense of “race prejudice and wartime hysteria.” Combined with these photographs, the correspondence tells a broader story. Yes, it was an Executive Order that set the internment in motion, but responsibility for this travesty of justice belongs to society at large.

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