When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, World War II was already in its second year. The surprise bombing put the United States into a panic and resulted in the immediate Declaration of War by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. America joined the Allied Forces, with England and Russia, to fight against the Axis Powers, led by Germany, Italy and Japan.

Long-standing prejudice in our country against Japanese Americans combined with newly inflamed fear and distrust to create unprecedented heights of hysteria. The success of the attack on Pearl Harbor was thought to be the result of espionage by Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the West Coast. Newspaper articles and pressure groups called for the expulsion of all Japanese Americans.

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which dramatically changed the lives of 120,000 civilians of Japanese descent. This order authorized military commanders to remove civilians, primarily Japanese Americans, from designated "military zones". These areas were mainly along the U.S. Pacific Coast, where most Japanese Americans resided. Lt. General John L. DeWitt, in charge of the Western Defense Command at this time, singled out Japanese American residents in the western region to be subjected to curfews and called for their "voluntary" evacuation. One of his first steps was to identify leaders of Japanese American community groups, and to send them to isolation camps. On March 19, 1942, General DeWitt called for a more mandatory evacuation, and eventually internment between 1942 and 1945 (see chronology) of all residents of California, Oregon, Washington and parts of Arizona who were as little as 1/16th Japanese. Of the 120,000 people who were ordered to leave their homes and businesses, two-thirds were U.S. citizens by birth (Asian immigrants were not allowed to become citizens until 1952). These men, women and children were told that this removal to remote, undesirable locations was for their own protection. By contrast very few Americans of German or Italian ancestry were rounded up and forcibly moved. As later years would tell, not a single Japanese American was found guilty of either treason or espionage.

The first phase of evacuation began in March, 1942, when families were transported on notice as short as 48 hours to trains which took them to hastily organized assembly centers in 5 western states. These were frequently located at racetracks or fairgrounds. Detainees were housed in cramped spaces (sometimes livestock stalls) with inadequate ventilation, power, privacy and sanitary conditions. Food and medicine were also in short supply. In these first steps of relocation, detainees were guarded by military personnel in guard towers “for their own safety”. The evacuees were allowed to bring with them items listed by government order, but only what they could carry. Other property (including homes, businesses, land, boats, personal possessions) was stored, sold, abandoned or left in the trust of non-Japanese friends. Some was recovered after the war, but much was not.

The second phase moved large groups, mainly by train, to permanent concentration camps (later to be called internment camps). When the plan for relocation was completed, 10 camps in 7 states were in full operation. Those facilities that were located in desert areas were inescapably hot and dusty, reaching temperatures of over 100 degrees. People in northern camps fought sub-zero winters. The internment camps were surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. Armed military guards patrolled the perimeter and were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to leave.

Life in the camps was organized around lines: lines for meals, clothing, mail and still more lines to use bathing and restroom facilities. Because of the cramped conditions the nature of the family changed dramatically. Young members spent more time with their peers, and less with their elders. Rules came from outside the family, eroding family structure and challenging the authority of parents. Morale was an issue. Steps were taken to provide education, work and other activities for the internees. Some were organized by the Japanese Americans themselves and some was provided by the on-site military organization. Each camp varied, as did each person's experience.

End of camps
As World War II began to draw to a close, President Roosevelt provided for the return home of internees by ending the exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast (December 17, 1944). Many returned to find their property greatly devalued or in the hands of others. All faced the challenge of rebuilding their lives as individuals, as families and as a community within the fabric of postwar American life.

Because there are 120,000 different stories from within the camps, none of them should be considered typical. No single account of life there adequately expresses the experience. One story, however, brings with it a wealth of artwork and documentation:

Estelle Ishigo
Among the American citizens forced out of California was artist Estelle Ishigo. As the European American wife of a Japanese American, Ishigo and her husband Arthur were first sent to Pomona Assembly Center and later to Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in a remote area of Wyoming. There, Estelle Ishigo continued her work as a painter. Estelle Ishigo's artwork gives us a rare look, from within, at the conditions in these bleak, roughly constructed camps. The individual experience of these innocent prisoners differs by age, gender, place of incarceration and what their prewar life had been. Ishigo was able to capture the spirit of Heart Mountain by showing the courage and dignity of the internees in their attempt to make a home under incredibly constrained circumstances. She had to hide some of her work because of the government censors. In addition to her watercolor paintings and black and white sketches, Estelle Ishigo (who died in 1986) left a large collection of papers, including letters, business and government forms, and notes. She also preserved several original scripts, one of which resulted in her book, Lone Heart Mountain.

Refer to Estelle Ishigo's biography at
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