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ASU Collection of Japanese Internment Camp Newsletters Recalls a Low Point in American Life

An issue of the Poston Chronicle.
An issue of the Poston Chronicle.
Courtesy of ASU Libraries' Digital Repository

During World War II, more than 30,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in Arizona. Most had been living in California prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1942 executive order, and were incarcerated at one of two camps: the Gila River War Relocation Center, southeast of Phoenix, or the Poston War Relocation Center, near the California border.

Over the past few years, Arizona State University archivist Robert Spindler has worked to preserve and digitize the bilingual newsletters published by residents of the camps. Now fully searchable online, they're an enlightening look into a particularly dismal moment of American history.

Much of what appears in the newsletters is mundane. There are announcements about floral design classes, ping-pong tournaments, lectures on vitamins, choir practices, new books available at the library, and lost and found items. Latrine inspection results appear with regularity. So do detailed recaps of baseball games played between rival units at the camps.

Then, there are the announcements of births, deaths, weddings, and engagements. From time to time, the newsletters contain updates about American soldiers overseas, submitted by relatives who live in the camps.

Let that sink in for a second: At the same that Japanese-Americans were fighting in World War II on behalf of the United States, their parents were being forced into internment camps because they were seen as the "enemy."

And once in a while, a columnist (typically anonymous) will capture the loneliness and longing of people who'd been ripped away from their homes, and quarantined in the remote Arizona desert.

After a rare trip to Phoenix, one writer who's identified only as "Fuku" reflects: "After nearly two years of dormancy in camp, all the Cokes, a porcelain bath, the soft mattress, jukebox tipping, neons, traffic lights, and even the white and yellow danger lines down the middle of the highways brought pangs of nostalgia to this Poston-cured mind."

By the end of 1945, both of Arizona's internment camps had shut down. The newsletters from that final year are full of help-wanted ads from around the country, and reports about which areas of the countries were considered safe — that is, where Japanese-Americans were less likely to be victims of racial prejudice and hate crimes.

Many of the people in the camps had lost their jobs, houses, and businesses in the intervening years, and these dispatches capture their dilemma: Now free, where would they go?

Here's a randomly selected sampling of items from three years' worth of newsletters:

"Ignorance is bliss, goes the saying, but how many community citizens actually know what a Gila monster or a rattlesnake is like? Believed to be the first one caught here, Y. Takeno of 64-13-C with the able help of M. Maki and Y. Hiroshige has caged one specie of a Gila monster which lives on hard boiled eggs (no salt), and two rattlesnakes with twelve and two rattles, that just live contentedly with water being poured over them." — Gila News-Courier, September 12, 1942.

"A special appeal was made by E.R. Fryer, Acting Project Director, to all residents of the Gila River Project to improve the appearance of their homes by employment of native shrubs and plants which can be used." — Gila News-Courier, September 23, 1942.

"No Mr. Satan: When Satan in the voice of your 'friend' comes smiling to you and whispers into your ears that you should loaf on your job because, says, he, 'What's the use? You're only getting $16 or $19 a month,' don't let the devil beguile you. Have a ready answer for him. Tell him frankly and bluntly, 'I'm working for my own good, for the invaluable training and work experience, for the genuine enjoyment and satisfaction of doing a job to the utmost of one's ability, and finally, because I know that 'taking things easy' would make me soft and weak and less able to resist the temptations and pitfalls of the devil.'" — Poston Chronicle, January 15, 1943.

"The State of Arizona has collected $26,233 by the virtue of the fact that the Gila River Cooperative Enterprise, Inc., is in existence of Rivers. This fact was brought out by an inconspicuous news item on the last page of one of the Phoenix newspapers, saying that $26,233 in sales and luxury taxes were paid by the Co-op for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1943. [...] Not that we care to be in the limelight, but we feel that $26,233 ISN'T HAY and certainly warrants better than the last page. But, perhaps we should not expect too much." — Gila Co-Op News, September 28, 1943.

"Speaking from the editorial rooms of the Denver Post, which has taken pot-shots at the evacuees from time to time, James R. Young, who is currently writing a sensational series of 'Jap atrocity' items for the Hearst papers, was angry in his denunciation of all Japs.[...] When Mr. Young insists that Buddhism is a dangerous theory which teaches devotion to Japan, we somehow cannot make that jibe with the thought of the young Buddhists here in the center who eagerly and successfully sponsored the local March of Dimes campaign in conjunction with President Roosevelt's 62nd birthday." — Poston Chronicle, February 15, 1944.

"It's a long step from working in a California hop field to employment under one of America's foremost poets, but Kaye Miyamoto of the Jerome center has taken the step and he considers it 'one of the most interesting ventures of my life.' Miyamoto resettled at Harbert, Mich., in the home of of Carl Sandburg, who has gained worldwide fame with his poems about Chicago and the Midwest, and is recognized as the outstanding biographer of Abraham Lincoln. Miyamoto is a caretaker of of the Sandburgs' famous and pedigreed Toggenburd and Nubian goats." — Gila News Courier, March 9, 1944.

"A public notice prohibiting the possession of domestic fowls after May 1 and the inadvisability of owning wild game in the center was issued this week by the joint executive committees of the Councils of Butte and Canal and representatives of the Block Managers after consultation with the administration [...] This applies to quails, doves, pigeons, eagles, hawks, etc. as well as badgers, chipmunks, foxes, coyotes, mice, rats, etc., said Hugo Wolter. Wild birds and animals of this region are carriers of valley fever and rabies." — Gila News Courier, March 30, 1944.

"Remember... in California? How happy we were when it rained? Probably to the 'City-Slickers' it didn't mean anything, but we farmers know. Boy, when we heard the pitter-patter of the rain falling outside, we would spend the whole morning sleeping, with the radio softly playing its early morning music. In the afternoon, drive down to our local theatre, or spend the afternoon sprawled on the living room rug, with the crackle of wood burning in the fireplace." — Poston Chronicle, November 21, 1944.

"STILL TO BE CLAIMED: A book, 'American Government and Its Works," and No. 6. knitting needles." — Poston Chronicle, November 21, 1944.

"Nine men in the armed forces, two of them Purple Heart winners, are reported by their families in Block 35. The two wounded from this block are brothers, Sgt. Manuel Hirata and Pfc. Louis Hirata. Sgt. Hirata was wounded at Tarawa and is at present instructing marine trainees at Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California. Pfc. Hirata has been wounded twice, first in Italy and more recently in France." — Poston Chronicle, November 25, 1944.

"In all fairness to former Californians who want a true picture of conditions there, they should be informed about actual cases of evacuees being beaten and harmed [...] And unless these facts can be verified, they should not be passed on as truth. There are many evacuees, Central Californians for example, who are anxious to return to their grape vineyards, sentiment permitting. They have property and income at stake. They would like to be there in time for the next harvest. Any false rumor that would tend to keep them from going back to produce and share the benefits of wartime prices would be unfair to the evacuees." — Gila News Courier, January 10, 1945.

"FIRST ATTACK REPORTED IN ALAMEDA COUNTY: Robert Hailey, 35, farm tractor driver, and Charles Custom, 42, garage helper, were held September 18 by the Alameda county sheriff's office on suspicion of firing four shots into the homes of two Japanese American families in the first such attack in the county but the 22nd in California, reported the L.A. Daily News." — Poston Chronicle, September 26, 1945.

"For many weeks the story of Poston has unfolded in the pages of the Chronicle. It is the story of people who have made the best of a tragic situation; the story of their frustrations, their anxieties, their heartaches — and their pleasures, for the story has lighter moments. Now Poston is finished; the story is ended. And we should be glad that this is, for the story has a happy ending. The time of anxiety and waiting is over. Life begins again." — Duncan Mills, Project Director, in the final edition of the Poston Chronicle, October 23, 1945.

ASU's full collection of newsletters and photographs from Japanese internment camps can be found on the library's digital repository site.

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