Internment at Topaz and Santo Tomás

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

Ten weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor Naval base, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which banned persons of Japanese descent from living in West Coast states. Four weeks after that, Congress put the order into law and more administrative proclamations followed shortly after. The end result: 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens, were rounded up and placed in ten different concentration camps hundreds of miles from their homes. They carried on with their lives, such as they were, behind barbed wire and guard towers, for as long as three-and-a-half years.

It seems incomprehensible from our perspective today, especially when we learn that Japanese Americans constituted just one percent of West Coast population (and less than one tenth of one percent of the total American population). Through the Depression years that preceded the attack at Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans had assiduously avoided making  use of social welfare programs. They created their own, pooling funds into a community chest for the use of families struck by hard times. The Japanese were simply too proud to accept handouts from the government. Now, ironically, they were being made wards of the state against their will.

Was the incarceration of Japanese in World War II an example of straight out racism? Certainly the Hearst press’s drumbeat against the Yellow Peril supports that view. Other groups in the Pacific west–Fortune mentions the American Legion, the Associated Farmers of California, the Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, and assorted politicians–had been calling for the exclusion of Japanese for years. The war bolstered their racist cause. And Hearst amplified their message in his papers. But why were FDR, his Brain-Trusters, and his generals–the majority of them Easterners–moved to act on Western hysteria?

In mid-February, 1942, when Roosevelt signed his executive order, Americans learned that Singapore had just fallen. What they did not know was that the Philippines and the American forces there were already given up as lost by both civilian and military leaders. “They were expendable,” as the best-selling book (W.L. White, 1942) and the even better-selling movie (Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, 1945) had it. Among those sacrificed to strategic necessity: three thousand civilians, most of them Americans, already held in a Manila detention facility, known as Santo Tomás.

This fact alone must have made American officials seethe. Combined with the devastation of Pearl Harbor, it would have left them with a powerful tangle of emotions, including helplessness, guilt,…and a desire for vengeance. If so, what has been called the most shameful breach of the U.S. Constitution in our history, becomes explicable if not excusable. To Roosevelt and his fellow Americans, who were feeling deep anger and no small amount of fear, action was called for, concrete action. It made no sense to punish a hundred thousand loyal citizens, but, apparently, it satisfied the need to take action.

We saw in the previous post how internment in a Japanese concentration camp was remembered by one American prisoner. How did the experience compare to internment in an American concentration camp for Japanese Americans?

Most obviously, the numbers in each instance were of a different order of magnitude. Americans detained in the Manila and other Japanese-occupied cities of the Pacific numbered in the thousands. Japanese Americans held in inland concentration camps numbered in the tens of thousands, more than a hundred thousand in all. Though ostensibly similar, the situation for each was distinctly different. Americans abroad found themselves unexpectedly in hostile foreign territory. Japanese Americans found themselves unexpectedly treated as if they were hostile foreigners.


The Process of Internment

In the United States, the internment of Japanese Americans was drawn out and far from orderly. The initial order was for all persons of Japanese ancestry to vacate the coastal states, voluntarily, at their own expense. Relocation was slow and those who did move were met by fierce resistance as they traveled east. Inland Americans wanted no more to do with perfidious “Japs” than their countrymen on the coast. So the federal government stepped in to take control. Relocation became mandatory and supervised. By the end of March, Japanese Americans were being bused to one of fifteen temporary “assembly centers.” (At least two were famous horse tracks hastily converted for their new purpose.)

Months later the evacuees, as they were called, were removed to one of ten more permanent Relocation Centers in isolated locations. (California and Arkansas held two each; Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, one each.) Miné Okubo and her brother were sent to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. She describes all aspects of life there and at the Tanforan assembly center in her 1946 book, Citizen 13660.

The action in her graphic history (sketches with brief text) starts a few months before internment, as Okubo is finishing a two-year period of study and travel in Europe. After she returns home to Berkeley, we learn that she has been hired to create a mural for the city of Oakland. When the order is given to report to the Tanforan assembly center, Okubo is given extra days to complete her work. And when she and her brother finally “ship out” by Greyhound bus on May 1, friends came out to see them off. The message is clear: Okubo was highly educated, securely on the upper end of middle class, and thoroughly integrated into American society. And yet she was locked up in a concentration camp as if she were a threat to American security.

The internment of Americans expatriates in Manila took place in a much more expedited fashion. They and other foreign nationals–British, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Latin American, Russian, Chinese–were rounded up beginning the second day of Japanese occupation. (Americans made up roughly two-thirds of the interned population. [Hartendorp, xiii]) They were held in temporary confinement just a few days or even a few hours before being transferred to their permanent residence at the University of Santo Tomás detention center. Unlike their Japanese American counterparts, these internees avoided the anxiety that came with not knowing and the disruption that came with repeated relocation. The Americans hated their status as prisoners, resented the Japanese takeover of their adopted home, and were critical of the lack of American military response. Yet they understood their position and accepted it as a fact of war. The interned Japanese Americans were confused by their position, and torn between an impulse to ingratiate and a desire to defy (or vice versa).


Administration and Infrastructure of the Internment Camps

The American government was deeply involved in the establishment of its internment camps. The military hastily constructed the temporary assembly centers, but a civilian bureaucracy was created to construct and administer the ten more official relocation centers. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) operated within the Department of the Interior despite some critics’ calls to place it within the War Department. It had an operating budget paid for with tax dollars. Bureaucrats in Washington met, discussed, and communicated rules to onsite directors who implemented them. Health care professionals, social workers, and, in at least one case, an anthropologist were employed to operate the relocation centers. Though the first purpose of the camps was to remove Japanese Americans from society, a secondary purpose of reintegrating them into society became more important as the war progressed.

The camps themselves were created ex nihilo, as it were, in areas specifically chosen for their isolation from civilian populations who, it will be recalled, wanted the “Japs” out of sight, if not, due to war news, out of mind. Topaz, where Okubo went, was located in the middle of a Utah alkali desert. Forty-two “city blocks” of barracks in one square mile comprised the residential heart of the camp within a total grounds of 19,000 acres. Much of the remaining land was set aside to grow crops and raise livestock, with the goal of making the camp self-sufficient. The prisoners could not leave the camp without permission, but they did have space in which to wander when they needed solitude.

Each block consisted of pine and tarpaper barracks, enough to house about 250. (Later sheetrock and Masonite were added  to the walls and floors, respectively, which improved the insulation only marginally.) Four-to-six family members, or four same-sex strangers, would be assigned to each 20 ft. x 20 ft. unfurnished room. They slept on cots with mattresses they stuffed themselves with straw ticking. Resourceful evacuees (they all became resourceful to varying degrees) scavenged scrap lumber and procured tools to craft their own rudimentary furniture. They hung fabric as a partition to create a semblance of privacy. Each block had its own mess hall, recreation hall, and laundry/shower/toilet facilities. The latter, to repeat, provided little or no privacy.

Santo Tomás was built into an existing facility and housed a third of Topaz’s population. The Japanese military commandeered the University of Santo Tomás campus and, for the most part, gave the internees the task of converting it into an internment camp. Santo Tomás official historian, A.V.H. Hartendorp, reported that men of the sanitation committee installed toilets, showers, and dug pit latrines to accommodate the three thousand new residents on the campus. The toilets and other supplies might have come from the Japanese, though more likely they came from the Philippine Red Cross. I just don’t know.

The internees at Santo Tomás did not have private rooms for a family or even a small group of strangers. Twenty-to-thirty bedded down in former classrooms, with mattresses rolled out on the floor or sometimes on cots. Privacy was hard to come by while sleeping or showering or toileting. (“IF YOU WANT PRIVACY, CLOSE YOUR EYES,” read a sign on one toilet. [Hartendorp 31]) The walled-in campus did cover sixty acres, enough for internees to seek out secluded corners or shaded arbors, but privacy was still at a premium. A few took the initiative to construct their own private shanties in front of the main building. Many others, wanting to keep up with the Joneses, as it were, followed suit. Before long there were several hundred packed together on the grounds. Japanese authorities allowed them only if they were open to the air–no walls, only roofs–so they would not become dens of iniquity, or otherwise sources of immorality.



“Authorities” in this case meant the Commandant, a one-man rule that was as hands-off as he could make it. On the very first day of internment, even before a commandant had been appointed, Japanese military officials asked for an American who could step forward as leader of a committee tasked with operating the camp. Earl Carroll, the man selected, was told to appoint a representative from each of the ten rooms. Carrol simply chose the men he knew. (The representatives were all men, even though the rooms were sex segregated. Women internees lacked representation. But what else is new?)

The organizing committee quickly identified four “pressing needs”: sanitation, food, discipline, and keeping the children occupied. Subcommittees were formed. [Hartendorp 8] The Sanitation Committee was soon directing the work of six hundred internees; Food, two hundred kitchen workers, Discipline, one hundred and fifty “police,” Children, twenty-three teachers, among others. Subcommittees for fire prevention, medical needs, and adult entertainment followed shortly. The inmates ran the prison (or, rather, the internees ran the internment camp.)

All within the dictates of their Japanese captors, of course.

The organizing committee, later elected and re-formed as the Advisory Committee, later as the Central Committee, and later still as the Executive Committee, served as liaison between internees and Commandant Tomayasu and his successors. They brought requests and carefully worded grievances to Tomayasu, and he, in turn, called Carroll and committee chairs to his office whenever he heard reports of transgressions or abuses of privileges. Often the Central Committee negotiated compromises in the face of threatened crackdowns, such as the issue over the proliferating shanties. Tomayasu might have razed them all, but, in negotiations, the Central Committee promised that all exterior walls would be removed.

Japanese American internees obtained only the pretense of self-government. In the Tanforan assembly center, internees organized their own advisory councils, giving Issei (first-generation Japanese American non-citizens) a vote for the first time in their lives. The Army shut them down.

In Topaz, under the auspices of the WRA, internees elected representatives, block managers, from each residential block of two-hundred and fifty internees. At first, only Nisei (second generation Japanese American citizens) were permitted to hold these positions. WRA officials quickly realized that this was untenable. Many Nisei were too young to be leaders and certainly younger than the Issei they represented. The rules were changed to allow the natural leaders of the community, the elders, to serve as block managers. Together the block managers made up the camp’s council, which really could “do little more than listen to new rules, new plans of WRA, handed down from Washington.” [Fortune 58] Block managers and the council mainly existed to respond to individual and community problems: a shortage of toilet paper, a leak in a building’s roof, complaints of an internee playing the radio too loud and too late at night. In this regard, the Topaz block managers were no different from Santo Tomás’s Central Committee.

Japanese American internees were at least as active in building their community as those of Santo Tomás. While still in the Tanforan assembly center, they organized the rudiments of a school, despite inadequate infrastructure and supplies. Okubo taught art classes–and experienced the poor behavior of the interned children. (In Topaz, the WRA made sure education was provided, using the approved curriculum from the state of Utah.) Also while in the assembly center, the internees enhanced their grounds by digging a lake and landscaping its perimeter. They created “a miniature aquatic park, complete with bridge, promenade, and islands.” [Okubo 99] The poignancy of the effort is brought home when one recalls that the residents had just two months to enjoy their work before relocating to the Utah desert.

Once in Topaz, internees were given jobs both to keep them occupied and to aid in the running of the camp (to keep operating costs down). Internees could select the work that appealed to them and apply for the position. Okubo worked for a while at the Topaz Times newspaper before breaking away to found a literary and art magazine of her own, called Trek. Toyo Suyemoto‘s family were all well-educated. Her brother and two sisters worked at the hospital or in the medical lab. Her father, an engineer, kept his skills to himself. He chose a job as a furnace tender which gave him more time to pursue art in his off-hours. Her mother cared for a young son and grandchild. Toyo herself tried teaching in the school but found the unruly children too stressful. (Traditional Japanese discipline and respect were undermined in the camps. Children roamed freely, and parents had little control.) She transferred to the Topaz Public Library for the final eighteen months of her internment. All her family members (save her mother whose work, typically, went uncompensated) earned an average of $16 a month ($19 was the highest). In addition, all were given $3.75 clothing allowance each month. Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs were indispensable.


The impact of these internment experiences, physically and psychologically, was significant on both groups. Despite similarities, though, the differences were pronounced. More on that in the next post.


Hartendorp, A.V.H. The Santo Tomás Story. New York: McGraw-Hill Co., 1964.

Harth, Erica. Last Witnesses: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans. New York: Palgrave: 2001.

“Issei, Nisei, Kibei.” Fortune, April 1944, in Hynes, Samuel, et al. Reporting World War II, Part II. New York: Library of America, 1995.

Mydans, Carl. More than Meets the Eye. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

Mydans, Shelley Smith. The Open City. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc., 1945.

Okubo, Miné. Citizen 13660. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 1983 (1946).

Wikipedia: “Internment of Japanese Americans,” “Manzanar,” “Santo Tomas Internment Center,” “Topaz Relocation Center,” ” Tule Lake National Monument


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