Japanese American Detainees on Angel Island in World War II
The story of Angel Island as a center for processing U.S. immigrants did not end when the Administration Building burned down due to an electrical fire in 1940. Almost 700 Japanese immigrants were sent from Hawaiˋi to the mainland after Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941, according to Patsy Saiki’s book Ganbare! An Example of Japanese Spirit and documents from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaiˋi. Close to 600 of these people were first were detained in the former immigration barracks on Angel Island, with the other 105 being sent to Sharp Park, near Pacifica. In addition, at least 98 mainland Japanese immigrants were arrested and brought to Angel Island. Most of them came from the Bay Area, Central and Salinas Valleys, with some from Colorado and Washington. For some, Sharp Park was their first site for further screening – those deemed the most “dangerous” were sent to the U.S. Army camp on Angel Island (Fort McDowell) and then to Army and Department of Justice camps, while others were allowed to join their families at the War Relocation Authority camps like Poston, Arizona, Jerome, Arkansas and Tule Lake, California. They were considered internees under the control of the U.S. government, both the U.S. Army and the Department of Justice.
To read more stories about those detained during WWII, click here.
Why were there wartime internees on Angel Island?
Those arrested included community leaders, journalists, ministers, mostly of the Buddhist and Shinto denominations, people who worked with the Japanese consulates to help the adjustment of Japanese immigrants, shopkeepers, farmers, photographers and others who were members of kendo and other martial arts clubs or contributed to organizations seen by the U.S. government as “pro-Japan.” According to Tetsuden Kashima in Judgment without Trial (chapter 2) the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other government agencies had been monitoring their activities for many months before Pearl Harbor. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had requested the FBI to prepare, in conjunction with the army and navy intelligence units, a list of “potentially dangerous” persons to be detained in case of national conflict (Proulx, p.1). This became known as the Custodial Detention List and was used to arrest specific people just hours after Pearl Harbor had been bombed.
Examining the files that are in the National Archives, some of the ministers were accused of taking orders from Japan (though they were never found to have taken any actions against the U.S. government), kendo club members were accused of associating with pro-Japan organizations because they might have been in a meeting with government officials, etc.
These immigrants were classified as “enemy aliens” although due to the Naturalization Act of 1790 which limited naturalization to “free white persons” (later modified after the Civil War to include those from Africa and in 1924 to include Native Americans), they were unable to become naturalized citizens even if they had wanted to. They were part of 17,477 people of Japanese descent who were interned or placed under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department for all or part of World War II, according to Kashima (p. 125). 13,798 Germans, Italians and a few other foreign nationals were also imprisoned as “enemy aliens.” We have found the names of about 81 Germans and Italians who were interned at Angel Island for at least a short time during the war.
Many were arrested immediately after Pearl Harbor was attacked, even before a declaration of war by the U.S on December 8, 1941. As “enemy aliens,” they did not have the rights of citizens. Citizenship rights proved insufficient when Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942 called for the incarceration of all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast, including both immigrants and citizens.
We are also learning about some cases of Japanese from Hawaiˋi who spent time on Angel Island on their way to War Relocation Authority camps such as Tule Lake. They did not spend any time in Department of Justice camps. More details to follow, we hope.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which acknowledged and apologized for the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation and internment of Japanese American citizens and permanent resident aliens, provided for a public education fund to inform the public about the internment, and made restitution to those who were interned.
Where were the internees housed on Angel Island?
These “enemy aliens” were housed, sometimes alongside prisoners of war, in the former Immigration Station barracks. It appears that most stayed for only a couple of weeks on Angel Island (also known as Fort McDowell), before being sent to more permanent camps. To the best of our knowledge, only men were detained on Angel Island. We have found internment records for a few women who were sent to Sharp Park near Pacifica and then on to internment camps run by the War Relocation Authority, but to the best of our knowledge, they were not sent to Angel Island.
Larisa Proulx notes that after the Administration Building had burned down in 1940, the US Army’s Fort McDowell, which already operated the East and West Garrisons on the island, took over the immigration station site and renamed the area the North Garrison of Fort McDowell. On December 8, 1941, part of this site was formally converted into a temporary internment camp and prisoner of war enclosure to process, incarcerate and transfer (1) immigrants from Japan, Germany and Italy who are arrested by the FBI in the U.S., (2), U.S. citizens with Japanese, German, or Italian heritage arrested by the FBI in the U.S., and (3) Japanese, German or Italian military captured abroad. For Larisa’s Frequently Asked Questions about the Internee and Prisoner of War facility on Fort McDowell/Angel Island, please click here.
A few of the internees left writings on the walls of the former immigration barracks (for example, see Soga). Professor Charles Egan of San Francisco State University has found some writings in a former closet that now houses an elevator, so these writings are unfortunately not accessible to be viewed by visitors.
Soga also mentioned seeing the names of nineteen men from Hawaiˋi who arrived on August 5, 1942 and wrote that they were leaving on August 7 on one of the walls – it is a group of Hawaiˋi-born American citizens who were returned to Hawaiˋi in August of 1942.
The U.S. Army ran the facility on Angel Island as part of its Fort McDowell during World War II. From there, internees were sent to other facilities run by both the U.S. Army and the Department of Justice and its office of Immigration and Naturalization Services.
There are few first-hand accounts of life on Angel Island for these Japanese immigrants, especially for those from the mainland. One is an account in Yasutaro Soga’s Life Behind Barbed Wire, which is described in our accompanying article. Soga said, “Living quarters for all forty-nine of us were two rooms measuring about thirty-six feet by seventy feet on the second floor of an old building that had once been the Immigration Bureau office. Because there were about ninety internees from California already housed there, space was very tight. The beds were tri-level bunks with barely enough walking space in the aisles. There were about ten windows and one ventilator, but with 140 occupants, air circulation was poor. That night I had difficulty breathing and had a headache (Soga, page 68).”
Jukichi Inouye vividly remembered that “Angel Island was the first place [we went on the mainland]. We were there for about two weeks. We were stripped down naked for physical examinations. Then our clothes were returned to us. It was at that time my watch was missing. Boots were missing…they didn’t even investigate that. We were classified as prisoners of war (Nakamura, chapter 9, page 9).”
Patsy Saiki in Ganbare! An Example of Japanese Spirit also describes Angel Island as a brief stop for women from Hawaiˋi on their way to join husbands who had been sent from Hawaiˋi to camps on the mainland. Read the profile of the Hoshida family to learn more about one family where the father, mother and children all journeyed through the island. Tamae Hoshida’s ship, the S.S. Lurline, also included a number of other women traveling with children and we expect they spent a short time on Angel Island as well.
Saiki interviewed many former detainees from Hawaiˋi about their experiences to develop this optimistic composite report about the first ship to arrive at Angel Island on March 1, 1942, the U.S.S. Grant: “The men did not mind being photographed, fingerprinted and examined in the nude for ‘infectious diseases.’ This took from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and it was cold, a damp, clinging cold…Angel Island was a continuation of the fairyland that was called San Francisco. Birds welcomed them in the morning, and cherry and acacia trees bloomed in pink and white glory. Such beauty, after ten days in the confining walls of the ship’s hold, made them drunk with joy. But how many tears of frustration, of fear, of sorrow must have fallen at this Station! The building, old and deteriorating, had been used to receive Oriental immigrants for some 75 years (Saiki, page 76).” In reality, it was only 30 years of processing Asian and other immigrants!
Saiki described that the internees decided to do something about the food, volunteering to help in the mess hall and cooking rice the way Japanese liked it. “The men were allowed to walk the grounds around the dorm for half an hour three times a day. They exercised loudly and joyfully.” Within five days of arrival, Group 1 was on its way to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin (Saiki, page 77).
Prelude to Internment
The FBI had been keeping an eye on many of these Japanese immigrants long before Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Many of those arrested by the FBI and local police departments were arrested that evening, and others in the weeks that followed. Even before the formal declaration of war, the FBI put the word out to arrest these people classified as “enemy aliens” and subject to arrest because of their status. Men were arrested and their homes were often ransacked by the FBI, without warning. Masao Okamura from Fresno noted, “We’d already burned all our records and maps in a bonfire, but it didn’t do any good, they took my Dad away.” The detained men (his father and other farmers, the Nakamura brothers) were taken suddenly, “right from the field (Yamada, page 83).”
This was even before Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the mass incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent from the West Coast, the majority of whom were citizens. They were sent to local “assembly centers” and then to “relocation centers” run by the War Relocation Authority such as Tule Lake and Manzanar in California, Topaz in Utah, and Jerome and Rohwer in Arkansas. Angel Island was not used to detain these Japanese Americans. Despite the government’s fears, there were no examples of sabotage, spying or any anti-American activities by any Japanese immigrants or Japanese Americans born in the U.S. during World War II.
Those who were sent to Angel Island by the FBI fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army; the base on the island was called Fort McDowell. Other temporary detention camps included San Pedro, Sharp Park, and Tuna Canyon in California; Ellis Island, New York; East Boston, Massachusetts; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Seattle, Washington (Weglyn 1976). After these temporary camps, the detainees went on to Department of Justice camps in Crystal City, Kenedy and Segoville, Texas; Kooskia, Idaho; Fort Lincoln, North Dakota, Fort Missoula, Montana; Fort Stanton and Santa Fe, New Mexico. A large number of Japanese in Hawaiˋi were interned at Honouliuli, which is currently being considered to be a historic landmark and part of the National Park Service system. There were also several temporary and longer term camps on several islands in what was then the Territory of Hawaiˋi. The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaiˋi has recently completed an excellent film about the experiences of Hawaiˋi Japanese Americans, The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawaiˋi.
Many of the mainlanders who were detained at Angel Island were sent next to Camp Lordsburg, NM, which was a U.S. Army camp, and then on to the Department of Justice camp in Santa Fe. Records for the Japanese detainees on Angel Island from Hawaiˋi indicate that many went on to Fort Sill, OK, an army camp, and others to Camp McCoy, WI, and Lordsburg, before heading to other camps like Santa Fe for longer periods of time. Sometimes, usually after many appeals by the internees and their families, detainees would be allowed to rejoin their families, who were interned at the WRA camps, but other times they would be separated for the duration of the war and even beyond.
In February of 1942, the Special Defense Unit (SDU) of the Department of Justice (DOJ) highlighted “suspect” Japanese organizations, noting that they appeared to be subject to the direct control of “radical nationalist elements” in the Japanese military or government and had a “high degree of dangerousness” (Kashima, page 30). Kashima notes that while the SDU felt these organizations served as “schools of espionage and sabotage,” the FBI made no arrests for spying or sabotage. What was seen as “shore to submarine signaling” was actually found to be Japanese farmers carrying lanterns to light their way to outhouses.” Kashima noted little evidence that organizations deemed dangerous like the “Black Dragon Society” were actually viable organizations. Also on the FBI’s lists of people to be arrested were Japanese immigrants recognized by the Japanese government for their achievements in the Japanese American community.
Before Pearl Harbor, government appointee Curtis Burton Munson submitted two reports to the president assessing potential dangers presented by Japanese agents and Japanese immigrants and their children. He wrote, “There is no Japanese ‘problem’ on the [West] Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese…For the most part the local Japanese are loyal to the United States, or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we are at war…We do not suspect the local Japanese above anyone else or as much as the Communists or the Nazis (Kashima, page 40).”
The Wartime Records
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) office in College Park, MD has many of the internment files for Japanese detainees during the war. NARA has an online index that allows searches by name for these and other detainees. Staff at NARA can provide assistance if you would like copies of specific records. Special thanks to researchers Adriana Marroquin and Gem Daus who thoroughly researched these files for AIISF and provided much of the information in the accompanying profiles. In addition to those we profiled (listed above), we have scanned some materials for a number of former internees. These have been marked with an asterisk in the index and we would be happy to share what we have found.
Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment without Trial. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2003
Nakamura, Kelli. Suspected criminals, spies, and "human secret weapons": the evolution of Japanese-American representations in political and cultural discourse from Hawai'i to Japan, 1880--1950s. Doctoral thesis, University of Hawaiˋi at Manoa, 2008. The quote above quotes Mr. Inouye’s oral history interview with the University of Hawaiˋi’s Japanese Internment and Relocation: The Hawaiˋi Experience study.
Proulx, Larisa. “Angel Island WW II Internment Camp and Prisoner of War Enclosure (1941-1946),” unpublished paper, 2013.
Saiki, Patsy. Ganbare! An example of Japanese Spirit. Honolulu, Kisaku, Inc., 1982.
Soga, Yasutaro. Life Behind Barbed Wire. Honolulu, University of Hawaiˋi Press, 2008.
This project was funded, in part, by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
This material received Federal financial assistance for the preservation and interpretation of U.S. confinement sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, as conamended, the U.S. Department of the Interior prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability or age in its federally funded assisted projects. If you believe you have been discriminated against in any program, activity, or facility as described above, or if you desire further information, please write to:
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