Japanese American Internment Camp Experiences in WWII

After December 7, 1941, the United States went to war with the invader and with itself. Almost overnight strident voices incessantly clamored that everyone with different names and faces were fifth columnists ready to stab America in the back with disloyal acts.
After December 7, 1941, the United States went to war with the invader and with itself. Almost overnight strident voices incessantly clamored that everyone with different names and faces were fifth columnists ready to stab America in the back with disloyal acts.

After December 7, 1941, the United States went to war with the invader and with itself. Almost overnight strident voices incessantly clamored that everyone with different names and faces were fifth columnists ready to stab America in the back with disloyal acts. Many feared more attacks and every unexplained flash of light or anyone associated with Japan in any way were looked at with deep suspicion. The aviation beacon atop Mt. Diablo was blacked out lest it lead enemy bombers to San Francisco.

California politicians like Attorney General Earl Warren, candidate for governor, quickly jumped into the fray. President FDR always attuned to political currents just ten weeks later signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. That fateful order authorized the military to designate military zones from which all “aliens” could be excluded by force if necessary. FDR had distanced himself from the controversy. A martinet WWI, totally bigoted, officer, named John DeWitt was bumped up the ranks to Lt. General and assigned to the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army. The military was given a blank check to secure the safety of the West Coast. DeWitt’s word was gospel in a time of war.


Three days after Executive Order 9066 was issued, the FBI conducted raids on Japanese homes across four states mainly in California. In Danville the Oakland Tribune reported, Shikanofuke Ajari was caught up in the sweep and taken to the Martinez jail for booking. He was arrested because he had been nominated as president of the Japanese American Social Club. Along with others he was shipped off by train to prison in Bismarck, North Dakota without a word to his family.

General DeWitt was in control and accorded wide respect. His perception of Japanese Americans narrowed down to “A Jap is a Jap”. It mattered not whether they are legal American citizens or spies, no one could tell if they are loyal or disloyal. He immediately ordered the evacuation of 120,000 Japanese Americans living between San Diego and Seattle to internment camps far away from the vulnerable coasts. . American neighbors with whom people lived, worked, worshipped with at church, met in shops, attended school together and shared in scout groups were deemed the enemy. Exclusion orders sent them off to ten isolated inland internment camps throughout the West. Although 70% were native born American citizens mostly children, and women they were all labeled enemy “aliens”!

Japanese Americans who for decades lived in the San Ramon Valley disappeared into the internment camps too. San Ramon Valley Union High School, the only 1940’s Valley high school, lost student body leaders, graduates, and friends. Among them was Charles Ajari, - Class of 1941. After high school, Charlie working in the vast family tomato fields east of Tao House recalled watching Carlotta and Eugene O’Neill in their big Chrysler automobile motoring down Danville Boulevard to shop in Danville.


Like almost all Japanese, the older generation denied the right to become American citizens followed their traditional vocation of agriculture. The Ajari’s were sharecroppers living off their tomato farms. Authorities were apoplectic after discovering dynamite in their garage. Of course it was used to blast out orchard tree stumps, but no matter, to FBI agents it was contraband for use by the enemy.


When General DeWitt issued Exclusion Order Number 28 on April 30, 1942, the Ajari’s along with other San Ramon Valley Japanese gathered in downtown Danville to board buses transporting them to the Turlock fairgrounds. They had stored their other belongings with friends. In Turlock they languished until the Gila River Relocation Camp opened on July 20, 1942. Moved in decrepit old passenger trains with drawn blinds they left California for the Arizona desert 30 miles south of Phoenix. The US Army had hastily constructed wooden barracks to house 5,000 Americans.


On arrival Charlie Ajari and his family were assigned to a barrack in a stark 20’ X 20’ space containing army twin bed cots stacked with two blankets and a wood burning stove. A bare electric light bulb lit each area. Camp was divided into blocks of 300 people living in 14 barracks. They met for meals in one mess hall, had a recreation building, and totally open men’s and women latrines offering showers and toilets. Ajari remembered that when the wind blew, the dust was so thick that he could not see the next door barracks. Coupled with intolerable summer heat and sand storms, camp life was hard. Privacy was completely forsaken and quiet country families were tossed into an urban situation that challenged all.


Still the Ajari’s and everyone else regrouped to recreate their American lives. School classrooms started to function. Churches met. Scout troops formed. Choirs gathered to sing. Sox hop dances for the youth were held. Holidays including the 4th of July were celebrated. They resorted to building their own furniture from scrap lumber inside the camp. Friendships emerged and people survived.


By 1945 with American military victories, the fear of the enemy faded. The US realized it needed every available man for its armies. Japanese men were recruited and achieved unparalleled honor in Europe. Finally in 1945 the internment camps closed. Charles Ajari and his family went home. Trying to retrieve their farm equipment and furnishings they found them all stolen.   Still he moved forward to create a very successful landscaping business in Contra Costa County, raised a family, and enjoyed a game of golf just like many of us. He and Pete Camacho traded services. Charlie pruned the Camacho fruit trees in Alamo and Pete welded Charlies’ equipment. Both men enjoyed each other’s company.


So why talk about an event from 74 years ago? Has it not been relegated to dry history books?


Apparently not! Author, Isabel Allende just released a new novel “The Japanese Lover” that deals with the internment camps. Recently on national TV, Whoopee Goldberg indignantly remonstrated against the “herding of 120,000 Japanese into internment camps”. In the face of current political challenges some wily politicians revisit Executive Order 9066 to tout it as the best solution to handle a new American enemy with unusual names and different faces. In January 2016 a Sunday comic strip tag line read: “Internment camps for Muslims…problem solved.” And Star Trek hero, Lt. Sulu, George Takei opened in November on Broadway in a new musical, “Allegiance” that emphatically states “never again”. In 1971 retired Chief Justice Earl Warren asked about the internment camps, hung his head in shame and wept over his abusive role in supporting them in California. The story still resonates in 2016.


The new Museum exhibit “Art of Survival” tells the story of the transfer of these Japanese Americans to the internment camps. Tule Lake in far off northern California housed 18,000 people, but the other nine camps too became stark homes for our fellow Americans. Californians were sent to every one of them. Innocent San Ramon Valley folks were caught up in the maelstrom of war.


Do not miss this fascinating exhibit opening at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley March 12, 2016 and running through May 15, 2016. The Museum located at 205 Railroad Ave. in Danville is open Tues – Fri from 1 – 4 pm, Sat. 10 – 1 pm, and Sunday’s noon – 3 pm. Check out the stories and special exhibit programs at museumsrv.org

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