The Brave Resister in the Camps

Part 2: World War 2 Roundups of Japanese-Americans

Revolutionary Worker #1144, March 24, 2002, posted at

In "The Crimes of Executive Order 9066" ( RW #1138) the RW explored how during World War 2 over 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and shipped to 10 distant concentration camps in some of the most inhospitable territory in the U.S.

The conditions in the camps were harsh. At Minidoka, Idaho, the fence surrounding the camp was electrified. There was never enough to eat. Workers were initially promised prevailing wages but ended up receiving less than 50 cents per day. At the Poston camp in Arizona summer temperatures climbed to 124 degrees in the shade. While in the winter, many newborn infants died because the hospitals often had no heat. Dust was everywhere.

Guards at the camps had orders to "shoot to kill" anyone who looked like they were trying to escape. In one of many incidents, Shoichi James Okamoto was shot at Tule Lake and died the next day. Despite many witnesses who testified that Okamoto was killed in cold blood, the soldier who shot Okamoto was acquitted--except for a fine of $1 "for the unauthorized use of government property" (the bullet).

The authorities pitted Nisei, second generation Japanese Americans born in the U.S. and therefore U.S. citizens, against Issei, first generation Japanese Americans who were born in Japan and who, by law, could not become U.S. citizens. Camp administrators gave direct support to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), an organization of professional Nisei, which in turn helped the War Relocation Authority (the government bureau that administered the camps) in order to prove their loyalty.

But contrary to the view of many historians that the Japanese were "culturally passive," many concentration camp prisoners waged intense resistance, in the face of threats, murderous shootings, and heavy repression. This article tells the hidden story of that resistance.

"I hope to dispel the myth that we were all `Quiet Americans'--that after being stripped of our constitutional rights by our own government, removed from our homes, businesses and jobs, then interned in concentration camps in god-forsaken areas of the deserts and prairies, we all went quietly and sheep-like, into segregated combat units to become cannon fodder to gain acceptance by the Great White Father..."

Frank Emi, a leader of the draft resistance at Heart Mountain concentration camp


Some of the earliest resistance broke out at the Manzanar camp in California. As in all of the camps, the WRA administration gave support to and propped up a section of pro- administration Nisei and used them against the resistance. In Manzanar a coalition between pro-America patriots like the JACL and supporters of the revisionist Communist Party, USA formed the Citizen's Feder- ation. The main concern of this group was not combating the unjust conditions but pressing for the "right" to volunteer to fight in the U.S. imperialist armed forces.

Other concentration camp prisoners denounced the Citizens Federation's stand and called them inu (dogs or stool pigeons in Japanese). An underground group, formed to take on the inu , called itself the "Blood Brothers Organization" and used a Black Dragon as its emblem.

A rebellion at Manzanar took place in December 1942 following the arrest of Harry Ueno, a popular leader of the Kitchen Workers' Union and an outspoken critic of corrupt practices by the administration. Ueno was accused of assaulting a JACL leader who was suspected of being a government informer. Most people in the camp were convinced that Ueno's arrest was a frame-up.

A mass meeting followed Ueno's arrest, and lists were drawn up naming "stool pigeons" and "traitors to our people." A "committee of five" was elected to present the demands to the camp administration. A determined group of over 1,000 marched to the camp administration building where representatives met with the camp administrator.

That evening, internees defied a ban on further mass meetings and called for retaliation against certain inu and the rescue of Ueno from the jail.

The administration, which sent informers to infiltrate public meetings, quickly placed the targeted inu in the safety of the military garrison, while troops armed with submachine guns and rifles swarmed into the compound and surrounded the jail.

Finding the informants had been removed, the demonstrators moved toward the jail--where they ran head on into a wall of waiting troops. The troops fired tear gas. When the wind blew the tear gas away from the protesters, the troops opened fire on the unarmed people. Two demonstrators were killed and at least eight others were injured.

The administration declared martial law and arrested the committee of five. When a new committee was elected, it too was put under arrest. In protest, most of the camp's residents refused to report to work.

In January 1943, many alleged "troublemakers" were shipped off to a heavily guarded isolation camp 1,000 miles away, near Moab, Utah. The "crimes" of these "troublemakers" varied widely. The young men were accused of instigating work stoppages, making statements of disloyalty, throwing jars of filth in apartments of informers, and making posters of Japanese soldiers.

The authorities were not able to crush the spirit of resistance. One author, describing the mood of the prisoners at Moab, said, "Passive deference was replaced by intensified disaffection and the attitude that it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."

Loyalty Registration

On February 1, 1943, President Roosevelt announced that the War Department would organize a segregated combat team for Nisei volunteers. Immediately after Pearl Harbor the selective service classification of all Nisei had been changed to IV-C, "aliens not acceptable to the armed forces, or any group of persons not acceptable."

Many Nisei found the situation highly ironic. The U.S. government, using the war as justification, had thrown Japanese Americans into concentration camps. Now the U.S. was asking them to volunteer for its war.

The JACL had lobbied for this "right," arguing it would allow the Nisei to prove their citizenship.

On February 6, registration teams began arriving in the camps to separate the "loyal" from the "disloyal" and to sign up young Nisei men for the armed forces. The registration was supposed take place over 10 days. All internees were required to fill out a four-page questionnaire. Questions 27 and 28 were the decisive questions. Question 27 asked: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" Question 28 asked: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power or organization?"

These questions posed problems for the internees. If a Nisei answered yes to question 27, was he volunteering for the armed forces or only saying that he would serve if drafted? Was question 28 a trick question? If someone answered "yes" did that mean he had previous loyalty to the Japanese emperor? For Issei there were even more problems. If they answered "yes" to 28, they were pledging full allegiance to a country that by law refused them citizenship and foreswearing the only citizenship they had--making themselves "stateless people."

The day before registration was to begin at Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming, a call was put out by a small number of Nisei for a forum to debate the merits of the registration program. On the morning that registration was to begin 500 internees descended on the registration site, demanding that no registrations take place until people had time to think it over and clear up some questions. They threatened to kick the registration table over if any internees were registered. The team gave up and registrations did not proceed on that day.

That evening a group met in the mess hall and decided that Nisei should refuse to register until the government clarified their citizenship rights. By the end of one week only 107 of the nearly 7,600 Heart Mountaineers eligible to register had filled out the form, and only three had volunteered. The administration threatened to charge the protest leaders under the Espionage Act--which made it a felony, punishable by 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to "willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States."

By the time registration concluded at Heart Mountain, only 42 out of more than 1,700 eligible men had volunteered for the service. Almost one in four of the draft-eligible men answered "no" to question number 28, about loyalty to the U.S.; 329 Nisei filed requests for expatriation (to give up their American citizenship and be sent to Japan); 151 Issei filed requests to be sent to Japan.

In his book, Free to Die for Their Country , Eric Muller wrote, "When the registration team left Heart Mountain, it left a very different camp than the one it had found on its arrival five weeks earlier, a camp that nearly overflowed with resentment and bitterness and that was beginning to experiment with organized resistance."

At Tule Lake camp, opposition to registration was even fiercer. Entire blocks voted not to register. One block voted to sign up en masse for expatriation or repatriation. Those who did register were taunted and mocked as inu .

As at Heart Mountain, the authorities at Tule Lake threatened protest leaders with the Espionage Act. They also took things a step further--those who refused to fill out the registration forms were arrested at bayonet point and shipped off to county jail.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the scene at Tule Lake as the young men were dragged off to jail: "When the prisoners were carried off they were surrounded by howling Japanese who yelled `Banzai!' `You can't imagine how close we came to machine-gunning the whole bunch of them,' one official said. `The only thing that stopped us I guess, were the effects such a shooting would have had on the Japs holding our boys in Manila and China.' "

By the time the registration was over at Tule Lake the camp administrators had arrested over 100 internees. 49% of eligible Nisei and 42% of the eligible Issei at Tule Lake, either refused to register or answered "no" to the loyalty question.

Out of all internees in all 10 camps only 1,181 Nisei volunteered for the military--only 6% of the nearly 20,000 draft-age U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry in the camps.

Tule Lake

Four months after the failed loyalty registration the government announced that those Japanese deemed disloyal because of their answers to questions 27 and 28 were to be incarcerated for the remainder of the war at Tule Lake. Tule Lake was the maximum security camp. But putting the resisters all in one camp gave rise to even more rebellion.

A farm accident, and the administration's response, touched off major protest at Tule Lake. A truck carrying 28 internees to work overturned, killing one man and seriously injuring five others. The camp director, Raymond Best, refused to give permission for a mass funeral for the man who died. But organizers went ahead with their plans and thousands turned out for the funeral.

The prisoners at Tule Lake also started a work stoppage at the camp--which had provided tons of produce to the Army and Navy, various relocation centers and their military garrisons. The protesters de- manded that the authorities give them prisoner of war status under the Geneva Convention, accept responsibility for the farm accident, upgrade the food allowance from 27 to 45 cents per day, establish an evacuee governing body and the resignation of racist officials in charge of the camp.

This set the stage for November 1, 1943, when Dillon Myer, National Director of the WRA, visited Tule Lake. Led by youth, over 5,000 people formed a human barricade around the administration building for three hours while inside, protest leaders confronted Myer with their demands.

The army occupied Tule Lake three days later. A 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was ordered, tear gas was used to disperse crowds, schools were closed and recreational activities ceased. Anyone suspected of harboring anti-administration feelings was purged from work crews.

On November 14 the army called for a mass outdoor rally to address the camp residents. The rally was elaborately staged with a great deal of fanfare. A WRA staff person described what happened: "At two o'clock, no one came and there was no sign of anyone coming to hear his speech. Like an army man true to his tradition, [Col.] Austin began his speech. No one was there. Not a single soul! Colonel Austin spoke to the air.... It was a pitiful sight that I cannot forget."

In retaliation for this insubordination, the clampdown was intensified in an all-out drive to crush the resistance. Arrest warrants went out for all leaders. Many of the leaders were able to go into hiding to escape capture. Martial law was declared to give the army unlimited powers of search and seizure. Midnight raids were conducted. On November 26, a camp-wide dragnet was conducted after the community refused to betray their hidden leaders. Four of the top leaders were able to elude capture.

The authorities built a prison within the concentration camp to house those who were arrested. Prisoners, including many minors, remained locked in this stockade for long periods without any trial or hearing.

Resistance continued for several months. The camp residents often had no food, milk, hot water, or warm clothes. In the freezing cold of winter, one prisoner at Tule Lake recounted, "Many people with children had no shoes, no money, no clothing. Some of the children were beginning to go barefooted."

The army gave support to conservative sections of the community like the JACL, who started to blame the hardships on the "extremism" of the protest leaders. In December the remaining protest leaders turned themselves in to the FBI, thinking they would get a fair hearing. This was a mistaken idea. The FBI marched the activist leaders over to the Army Commandant who immediately isolated them in the "little stockade" made of flimsy unheated isolation tents. After surviving eleven freezing days and nights under heavy guard, they were thrown back in with the main stockade population.

With their leaders incarcerated, resistance at Tule Lake shifted to issues concerning the stockade. The prisoners in the stockade carried out three hunger strikes. The first began on New Year's Day 1944 after prisoners were beaten by guards

The administration tried to isolate the stockade prisoners by building a large fence around the area, censoring mail and denying any visits. Bold youth defied the rules by carrying on yelling conversations with inmates whenever the sentry was not at his post.

Draft Resistance

On January 20, 1944 the War Department announced that they would start drafting the interned Nisei who had not volunteered. By early February draft notices started to arrive at the camps.

WRA Director Dillon Myer laid out the penalties of resistance in a memorandum: "Any evacuee in a relocation center who refuses to report for induction when called will be guilty of a violation of the selective service act and subject to criminal penalties... No real or fancied grievances will be allowed to interfere with this operation."

"The way I figured," a Tule Lake resister recalled, prison "couldn't be much worse than it was here anyway. We were in a prison to begin with. Going to prison wouldn't have been too much different; the food might even have been better."

There was draft resistance at all of the camps. At Tule Lake, 29 internees refused induction and were arrested by soldiers and taken away to county jails to await trial. At Minidoka, known as something of a "model" camp, 15% were refusing induction by April.

The most determined and organized draft resistance took place at the camp at Heart Mountain, where 85 young men resisted the draft. A group called the Fair Play Committee (FPC) was formed after the draft was announced. Mimeographed sheets were posted around the camp and passed from hand to hand. Soon FPC meetings were packing the mess halls.

An FPC manifesto declared: "Without any hearings, without due process of law as guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, without any charges filed against us, without any evidence of wrongdoing on our part, one hundred and ten thousand innocent people were kicked out of their homes, literally uprooted from where they lived and herded like dangerous criminals into concentration camps with barbed wire fence and military police guarding it. And then, without rectification of any of the injustices committed against us and without restoration of our rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, we are ordered to join the army through discriminatory procedures into a segregated combat unit...We members of the Fair Play Committee hereby refuse to go to the physical examination or to the induction, if or when we are called in order to contest the issue."

The FPC got support from Jimmie Omura, a courageous journalist who was editor of the Rocky Shimpo , a Japanese/ English newspaper published in Utah, and his columns and editorials helped spread news of the draft resistance at Heart Mountain. (Japanese Americans not on the West Coast were not incarcerated.)

The camp administration at Heart Mountain responded quickly to the protest. Two of the key leaders of the struggle were shipped off to Tule Lake. The American Civil Liberties Union refused to intervene on their behalf because, according to the ACLU National Director, the leaders "would be a poor representative of the evacuees on the outside and might generally interfere with the relocation program." All public meetings of the FPC were banned in Heart Mountain.

The administration was helped by the JACL and by the pro-administration camp paper, The Heart Mountain Sentinel,which enthusiastically supported the draft and viciously attacked the FPC and Omura. But the actions of the JACL went beyond pro-administration rhetoric. A WRA official in Denver wrote to WRA Director Myer, "The JACL is working hand and glove with the FBI to hang Omura if they possibly can." Two JACL leaders were allowed to go into the jails to interview the resisters, supposedly to help them. In fact the JACL was conducting surveillance for the WRA and submitted reports which were used to identify the protest leaders.

The FBI threatened to shut down the Rocky Shimpo if Omura was not removed as English language editor. Omura stepped down and was replaced by a reporter who had been screened for his attitude toward the U.S. government.

On May 10, 1944, Omura and seven leaders of the FPC were indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with conspiring to counsel, aid and abet young men to resist the draft.

Most of the trials of the draft resisters were nothing but kangaroo courts, with a guilty verdict a foregone conclusion. The Heart Mountain resisters were tried in front of Judge Kennedy, an open racist who argued for laws restricting the right to vote for Black people.

Judge Clark, who heard the case of the Minidoka resisters as governor of Idaho in 1942, argued against plans to move the West Coast Japanese to his state saying, "I am so prejudiced that my reasoning might be a little off, because I don't trust any of them." Judge Clark's solution to what he called the "Jap problem" was to "send them all back to Japan and then sink the island."

Almost all of the draft resisters were convicted. While the sentences varied greatly from court to court, most resisters were sentenced to about three years in federal prison. In the case of Omura and the seven FPC leaders all except for Omura were found guilty and sentenced to two- or four-year prison terms. While Omura was found not guilty, he was never able to work again as a journalist and ended up making his living as a landscaper. The charges against the seven were thrown out on appeal after they had served nearly two years in prison.

The Tule Lake resisters were tried in Eureka, one of the most racist cities on the West Coast. At a dinner before the start of the trial, attended by the judge and prosecutors, one of the attorneys appointed to defend the resisters made fun of his own clients and ended a speech speaking in a mock Japanese accent.

It looked like conviction for the Tule Lake resisters was a foregone conclusion. However, the judge in the case, Louis E. Goodman, was a son of immigrants who, as a Jew, had experienced racism and discrimination growing up in San Francisco. Judge Goodman ended up dismissing the charges against the resisters, saying that the case "shocked the conscience." The victory was largely symbolic, however, because the defendants were merely returned to the Tule Lake concentration camp where they remained for the rest of the war.

What Would You Have Done?

"In the 1940s, 120,000 Japanese Americans were evacuated and put away in internment camps in isolated areas because of war hysteria, racism, and distrust. Today the same thing is happening to new targets: the Arabs, the Muslims, the South Asians or those who look like them. We must protect our Middle East and South Asian friends and neighbors."

Yuri Kochiyama, activist and former detainee in a concentration camp,
speaking at this year's October 22
 National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality in Oakland

Despite the heroism of the Japanese internees inside the camps, the resistance never developed to the point where the government was forced to close down the camps and free the Japanese. Much of the resistance remained scattered and isolated inside the camps, without any real understanding of the system that they were up against. Resistance took different forms--from supporting the Japanese government (which was waging the war for its own imperialist purposes) to protests with big illusions about American democracy.

A key factor in all this was the role played by the revisionist Communist Party, USA. Rather than lead a real fight against this whole injustice--both inside the camps as well as among people in society as a whole--the CPUSA became cheerleaders for the U.S. war effort. At some camps CP supporters were the first to volunteer for the U.S. war effort, often in direct opposition to boycotts by the "disloyal." One "leftist" in the camps reported how they were attacked by young "hoodlums" who threw rocks and threatened them as they worked making camouflage netting for the U.S. army. Many CP inu ended up in protective custody, segregated from the camp population "for their own protection."

Another factor that held back the resistance was that the polarization in society outside the camps remained very unfavorable to the interned Japanese. Many so-called liberals supported the internment or refused to speak out against it. The national American Civil Liberties Union took the position that the internment of the Japanese fell within the scope of the President's war powers and decided to only concern itself with how the internment was carried out. No newspapers reported on the conditions of the interned. With no support coming from U.S. society, it is not surprising that many Japanese Americans felt isolated and unable to get sympathy for their situation and support for any resistance.

Today with a new wave of attacks coming down against Muslim, Arab and South Asian immigrants it is important for people to critically examine this period and learn the lessons of history to step up our struggle.


Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps, Michi Weglyn, Morrow Books, 1976

"U.S. Concentration Camps in World War 2," Revolutionary Worker #113, July 10, 1981

" Treachery of the CPUSA ," RW #118, August 21, 1981

Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War 2, Eric Muller, University of Chicago Press, 2001

Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience , ed. by Lawson Fusao Inada, Heyday Books, 2000

"Conscience and the Constitution"--Video documentary written, produced and directed by Frank Abe, Independent Television Service, 2000

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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