Poston Prison Blues

An ugly chapter of Arizona's past

The film's soundtrack might have offered some clues, but, while the magnetic strip that probably held it is intact, the sound itself has long since disappeared, deterioration common in old magnetic film.

If a soundtrack had been recorded, it was likely a voice-over narrative, according to WWII historian Steve Hoza, an archivist at Hoo-hoogam Ki Museum and author of PW: First-Person Accounts of German Prisoners of War in Arizona. "Synchronized sound in a news short was rare at the time," Hoza says. "Frankly, a newsreel about an internment camp wouldn't have had high production values because — and I hate to say this — most Americans didn't care."

In an era when the Arizona Republic was publishing "Little Itchy Itchy," a loathsome Japanese stereotype drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Reg Manning, the attitude among many Americans seemed to be "a Jap is a Jap." A headline in the San Francisco Examiner of the time read, "Ouster of All Japs in California Near!"

A Del Webb construction crew quickly assembles one of dozens of tarpaper barracks.
A Del Webb construction crew quickly assembles one of dozens of tarpaper barracks.


DVD copies are available for $40 through the Arizona Historical Foundation. Call 480-965-3283.

"Racism was more blatant back then," Hoza says, "especially as regards the Japanese during wartime. A lot of people who saw this film would have thought these people deserved internment because of Pearl Harbor. They looked like the enemy."

And they were treated like the enemy, once Poston and its sister site were completed. "The last five minutes of this movie," Whitaker says, her voice filled with dismay. "Oh, man, it's hard to watch."

Indeed, the final scenes showing Japanese-American detainees arriving at Poston are among the film's most disturbing. They're seen stepping off dusty buses and crowded trains, dressed in their Sunday best — the women in hats and gloves; the little girls in party dresses and Mary Janes — wearing confused, defeated expressions. They're shown blinking into the harsh light, drinking from paper cones of water as clouds of dry dust blow past. It's not hard to imagine how the hot, oppressive July day felt — the average temperature in Parker that month in 1942 was 109 degrees — or what it felt like to arrive in a camp surrounded by barbed wire and a guard tower. Oral accounts from Poston survivors claim they didn't know where they were going. "They must have thought they had landed in hell," Whitaker says.

The last scenes in this odd newsreel attempt to depict a pleasant life in the hot, dusty desert camp. In one sequence, a boy gets a haircut while his mother looks on, smiling and chatting with the barber. In another, a group of boys plays baseball in a dirt field. In yet another, a woman cheerfully hangs wet canvas in the window of her tarpaper home, the only form of air conditioning in this sweltering prison. These scenes are clearly orchestrated to make life in Poston look like a brief wartime respite, but in every frame, there's desperation, heat, oppression.

"They were locked up in this place for almost four years," Whitaker says. "We'd like to think this could never happen today, but then you watch how efficiently our government locked up thousands of people because of their ethnicity, and you realize this film was shot only 60 years ago, and you start to think, 'Have things changed? Have they?'"

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Del Webb got his first fortune from over-charging and under building these camps. He never made restitution or apologized for this crime- never buy a Del Webb home!


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