As a student at School #80 in Indianapolis in 1942, I was given a "War Stamp" book that I filled with $18.75 worth of dime and quarter War Stamps that I could turn in for a War Bond worth $25 a decade later. The incentive was more about patriotism than saving, and passion was stoked by pasting stamps over the cartoon faces of scary-looking enemy soldiers with blood dripping from their big fang-like teeth and the slogan "Slap the Jap right off the map!" It was easier to demonize our Japanese enemies than Germans or Italians because their skin was a different color than our national non-color. (Sixty years later, we still have to be reminded that "Black Lives Matter.")
"White native-born Protestants were not always prepared to count immigrants as Hoosiers," James H. Madison tells us in Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana, "But immigrants seldom faced discrimination of the sort that African Americans did. Quite often they seemed to be 'white,' or a least capable of becoming so."
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By this logic, Japanese Americans would evidently lack such "capability;" racial prejudice bolstered the war propaganda against them.
I am proud and surprised now to learn that in spite of this, Indianapolis was one of the Midwestern cities that welcomed Japanese Americans to live and work here during WWII. I had no idea as a boy that 110,000 Japanese Americans, 70 percent of them U.S. citizens, were taken from their homes on the West Coast in 1942 and sent to internment camps guarded by armed soldiers and surrounded with barbed wire, their constitutional rights denied for the duration of the war. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the fear of Japan invading California, stoked by unfounded rumors of sabotage, stoked by the Hearst papers (no cases were ever proved) led to the executive order for "relocation."
There are Indianapolis citizens today who have indelible memories of being sent to those internment camps and living there as children.
Kate Ase, a nurse who has worked for the World Health Organization, remembers walking to school one day and seeing a big sign attached to a telephone pole. It said "INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY. . . both alien and non-alien [meaning United States citizens]" had one week to report to a "Civil Control Center."
Kate asked her friends, "What does this mean?"
What it meant was that all those of Japanese ancestry had one week to leave home and get rid of all their possessions except what they could carry.
"The police came and notified us we were to go to a 'camp,'" Kate told me, "and word got around that we all had to leave. We didn't lock the doors, and when no one was home our house was ransacked. The FBI came and said they were taking my father away. They didn't say where, and we didn't hear from him or know where he was for two years."
"Whoever bought our car drove us to the place where we had to report, and we were put on buses — we didn't know where we were headed. We got to a 'transit camp' and then, they put us in an olive drab truck and dropped us off at the internment camp in Poston, Arizona."
"They said 'This is where you'll live.' It was my mother and us four kids in a room that was 20 by 25 [feet]. There was no insulation — tarpaper nailed to wood — and five metal army cots. They gave us canvas bags and said 'See that pile of hay? Go get hay from that pile and fill up the bags — those are your mattresses.'
"There were latrines for 300 of us – nothing to separate the toilets, so people brought towels to hang up for privacy.
"After the war we were too busy trying to make a living to talk about the camps. The ones who were old lost their jobs, lost family farms. My parents were very disappointed — this was the land of the free and the home of the brave."
Anne Moore, a retired art teacher and librarian who graduated from Ball State, was sent as a child with her family in California to the internment camp at Poston.
"Our school was in one of the barracks — there weren't any books or desks. We sat on crates. You weren't supposed to ask your parents about why you were there — the parents were very stoic and didn't explain anything."
"After the war, my parents were proud when we became citizens. [Second generation Japanese Americans, or "Nisei," born in the U.S., automatically became citizens, while immigrants — people born outside the U.S. — were not allowed to become citizens until 1952.] My parents didn't like the younger people talking negatively about the U.S. My mother told us this was a great country, we should appreciate the good things about it. Getting to vote for the first time was in 1952 — that was a huge deal."
I asked Anne the reason why her family originally chose to come to America.
"Because it was the land of Lincoln," she said.
Nancy Nakano Conner, Director of Grants and Novel Conversations at Indiana Humanities, told me "The parents never wanted to talk about being in the camps, and I never got my mother to talk about it until the 1980s. My mother, Grace, who was in the camp at Manzanar in Northern California, told me that since they could only take to the camps what they could carry, her father took a hammer and nails and a saw and hid them wrapped up in canvas with an ironing board so he could build his own furniture. The tools were considered contraband, so they had to be smuggled into camp — the ironing board disguised the shape of the tools. The guard thought it was just an ironing board wrapped in canvas, but the tools were in the packet too."
By the end of 1942, the War Relocation Authority that created the internment camps quietly began to offer a way out for those who were willing to move to the Midwest and East, where people did not feel threatened by Japanese invasion. (By that point the initial hysteria had died down.) Many in the camps were fearful of the reception they might receive with the war still raging. Most of the 34,000 who left the camps in the next few years were the second-generation, American-born Japanese, while the older were more fearful to venture into unknown places and people, where they could encounter hostility. In the three months after Pearl Harbor, there were 36 assaults on Japanese Americans and seven were murdered.
To facilitate "relocation" from the camps, the War Relocation Authority opened offices in the Midwest to find jobs and places to live for re-settlers — and improve public opinion toward them. Offices were opened first in Chicago in January, 1943, and then in cities throughout the Midwest including Cleveland, Des Moines, Minneapolis and Kansas City. In April of 1943 the Indiana Office of the WRA was set up at The Circle Tower Building in Indianapolis.
Early signs of the reception of Japanese Americans here were both positive and negative. The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, which found places for college students whose education was interrupted by the internment program, got permission to exit the camps on "educational leave." One of the 143 colleges and universities that participated in the program was Earlham. A headline in the Star announced "Earlham Accepts 12 Jap Evacuees," and college president William C. Dennis was credited with persuading the people of Richmond to accept the presence of the students.
It was not surprising that yhe Teamsters union and the Marion County Building Trades Council were opposed to resettlement here — as well as war-inflamed hatred and racial prejudice (Klan membership had been higher in Indiana than in any other Northern state), unions feared newcomers taking jobs. The International Teamster headlined "No Jap Help Wanted Here." Opposition from the Teamsters (whose national headquarters were here), the Marion County Building Trades Union and the American Legion was countered by two of the most supportive organizations of the national effort to help the Japanese Americans resettle, and both had their national headquarters in Indianapolis: the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Christian Missionary Society.
In an effort to tamp down the hostility of the state's American Legion, the director of the War Relocation Authority, Dillon S. Meyer, came to Indianapolis in November of 1943 and gave a talk to a meeting of the state commanders and state adjutants of the Legion, pointing out that failure to welcome Japanese Americans who wanted to leave the internment camps and live and work in the Midwest "makes a mockery of our American traditions." His speech was reported in the Star, and he reported in a memo the following month that " ... unfriendly though it has been, we have secured a substantial amount of support" in the leadership of the Legion here.
As well as The Disciples of Christ and the United Christian Mission Society, the most important factor in gaining support for Japanese Americans to, move here was the Indianapolis citizens committee. It had to take courage for some of our city's leading citizens to promote the cause of accepting Japanese American citizens into our city and state in the midst of the war. Volunteers in the WRA Advisory Group to help re-settlers here included Rowland Allen, the personnel manager of L.S. Ayres department store; William Book, the executive secretary of the Chamber of Commerce; Eugene Foster of The Indianapolis Service Foundation; Alvin T. Coates "a prominent Quaker," Dale Ellis of The United Christian Mission Society; Dr. Howard J. Baumgartel of the Y.M.C.A. and his wife, who chaired the committee.
"It was the citizens' committee's efforts that turned the tide and convinced a reluctant populace to accept the Japanese Americans," according to a comprehensive study of the subject by Nancy Nakano Conner of Indiana Humanities in her history master's thesis at IUPUI ("Forming A Japanese American Community in Indiana, 1941-1990"). Critics who later scoffed at Indiana having the lowest number of evacuee settlers (254) failed to note that we were in the same ballpark as Iowa (641) and Wisconsin (769.) None of these states could offer the jobs and active recruitment of Chicago alone, where 11,309 evacuees came and found work, several hundred employed by the Stevens Hotel. Indianapolis didn't have as much to offer in jobs or other big city amenities — a photographer sent here to promote the city to evacuees captioned one of his photos with the words: "The residents are for the most part amusement lovers. The city boasts dozens of theaters, both legitimate and movie. One of the latter is The Indiana, shown here." Anxious to avoid criticism of any who came here, the committee screened evacuees and only accepted those deemed "superior" people. Getting into Indianapolis for evacuees was like getting into Harvard.
Nancy Conner's mother, Grace, was one of those who left the camps to look for jobs in the Midwest. She wrote in her memoir "Full Circle," in Triumphs of Faith: Stories of Japanese Americans during World War II : "Hoping to find employment in a hotel, I journeyed to Chicago. No sooner had I arrived then I discovered that beauty operators were in great demand, so I was able to work in my profession ... Despite the war, I found very little discrimination in the Midwest compared with California. I also found a warm neighborhood church."
Reparations and rhetoric
Fourteen thousand young men of Japanese ancestry, many from the internment camps, fought in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most decorated unit of WWII. One of their seven Distinguished Unit Citations was presented by President Truman on May 2, 1945, who told them "You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home, and you won."
Forty years after the Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, a congressional committee issued a report called "Personal Justice Denied" finding that the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII had been the result of "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." Five years later, reparations of $20,000 were given by the government to surviving internees.
Despite official recognition of the grave mistake of the internment policy, it was raised again last November by the Mayor of Roanoke, Virginia in speaking of how to deal with Syrian refugees. Rep. Judy Chu of California was one of many politicians who spoke out against the idea: "Instead of keeping us safe, Japanese internment compromised our principles and demonized an entire population of Americans. It is outrageous to let the same kind of xenophobia influence our policy today. . . [it] is just one example of how extreme the rhetoric around Syrian refugees has become."
A local example of that rhetoric was Governor Pence preventing a Syrian family from settling in Indiana last fall (the family was welcomed by the governor of Connecticut). In the far more volatile atmosphere of WWII, there were people here who stood up for American ideals in spite of strong opposition, and welcomed Japanese Americans who were our own countryman, not our enemies. Nancy Conner wrote in conclusion of her study of that period:
"Indianapolis was called upon to do its part in Japanese American resettlement. ... When the call came, there were people in Indianapolis who were prepared to answer."
The fact that they answered in spite of the local voices against them adds honor to their efforts.
The rhetoric around refugees
"In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, effective immediately, I am directing all state agencies to suspend the resettlement of additional Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana pending assurances from the federal government that proper security measures have been achieved. Indiana has a long tradition of opening our arms and homes to refugees from around the world but, as governor, my first responsibility is to ensure the safety and security of all Hoosiers. Unless and until the state of Indiana receives assurances that proper security measures are in place, this policy will remain in full force and effect."
— Gov. Mike Pence, Nov. 2015
"Instead of keeping us safe, Japanese internment compromised our principles and demonized an entire population of Americans. It is outrageous to let the same kind of xenophobia influence our policy today. . . [it] is just one example of how extreme the rhetoric around Syrian refugees has become."
— Rep. Judy Chu, California
Dan Wakefield's books, including the memoir New York in the Fifties and Under The Apple Tree: A WWII Home Front Novel, are newly available as ebooks.