The Trump Administration’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a couple of days ago that it is going to place 1,400 migrant children at Fort Sill, an Oklahoma facility once used as an internment (concentration) camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. The children will be housed there until they can be sent to relatives—if they can be found.
This reminded me of the 1942 actions of President Franklin Roosevelt. Military officials convinced him that Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast would turn against the United States and sabotage military installations along the coast. Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Justice Department to relocate thousands of Japanese-Americans to inland camps guarded by the U.S. military. Among them was Kiyo Sato, who was in my writing class years ago. She and her family—all American citizens—were rounded up and sent to Colorado. She explained what happened when the order went into effect:
I walked into the house after school and knew in an instant something ominous was happening. My mother was sitting in a chair alone, hands folded in her lap…. She pointed to my room. Through a half-open door, I could see a man with a hat sitting at my desk. He was reading my diary. My first reaction was to rush in and grab it away from him…. But mama whispered that there was another man in the attic and still another outside. “FBI,” she said, and my heart froze.
In spite of the fact that one of Kiyo’s brothers was serving in the U.S. Army, her family and their friends were forced to leave their California homes, give up their lands and many personal possessions. Like others of Japanese descent, they were herded into a train for transport to an unknown location. “Two army boys with guns,” guarded both sides of the train car which held the Sato family. Kiyo wrote:
We rode for miles into the sagebrush. Dust was everywhere; black hair turned brown; eyebrows and eyelashes drooped with brown dust. We looked at each other and laughed, but soon the weariness and the pounding heat sagged our spirits.
Eventually Kiyo’s family ended up on an Indian Reservation in the desert, where they lived for months in tarpapered barracks that “stretched out as far as one could see,” Kiyo reported.
In these concentration camps, families had to share a single room and there was no indoor plumbing. Barbed wire surrounded the camps and armed guards watched over these American citizens until near the end of World War II.
In spite of the unjust and degrading treatment, many men from the concentration camps volunteered to serve in the armed forces—in segregated units—and performed with distinction. More than forty years later, in 1987, the U.S. Congress issued a formal apology for denying the liberties of 120,000 U.S. citizens. Survivors of the concentration camps were awarded $20,000 each.