History Stories

Publish date:

U.S. Propaganda Film Shows 'Normal' Life in WWII Japanese Internment Camps

The U.S. government, for its part, tried to assure the rest of the country that its policy was justified, and that those Japanese Americans forced to live in the internment camps were happy.

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

On February 19, 1942, just over two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. With one flourish of his pen, he consigned nearly 120,000 American citizens and legal residents of Japanese descent to internment camps for almost the duration of the war.

The policy was enacted under the guise of protecting the country. Japanese-Americans were relocated from the West Coast to the interior in an effort to prevent anti-American war activities like espionage and sabotage. But it quickly became clear that what was really taking place was the incarceration of innocent Americans in prison-like conditions.

The government, for its part, tried to assure the rest of the country that their policy was justified. In this 1943 video made by the Office of War Information, Milton Eisenhower—brother of then-general and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower—shows footage of the relocations and paints the camps in the most positive of light. Eisenhower was named director of the War Relocation Authority when it was created in March 1942. Three months later, he resigned in protest, writing a letter to the agriculture secretary citing the injustice of the policy.

Life in the Camps

On March 24, the West Coast evacuation process began. Those who fell under the edict of Executive Order 9066 were given six days to wrap up their lives and deal with their property before reporting with only what they could carry to temporary assembly centers. They lived at these sites—often former race tracks and fairgrounds where housing included horse stalls—until they could be moved to the more permanent relocation centers that were under construction.

“When we left for camp we only carried what we could in suitcases, everything else was left behind. [Our families] worked so hard to establish themselves in their communities and then they lost everything,” remembered Madeleine Sugimoto, who was six when her family was forced to relocate.

Life in the permanent camps took on a semblance of normality despite the barbed wire and armed guards—there were schools, post offices, and churches, as the U.S. government was so eager to tout in this video. In the camps, internees were offered the opportunity to work (with pay not to exceed that of an Army private) in jobs that ranged from camp staff, including doctors and teachers, to laboring in nearby farms and factories. At several camps, workers were even paid to make camouflage nets to be used by the American army.

But it was impossible to overlook the packed accommodations, often poor provisions, and other hardships faced by the camp inmates who had been stripped of their freedom. “I knew that we were so-called Japanese. I thought I was American too, but I found out I wasn’t. I thought I was American the whole time.” said Bill Shishima, who was 11 when his family was forced to leave Los Angeles following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Fighting 442nd

While many of their families were spending the war years dislocated from their homes and treated as prisoners in their own country, 13,000 American men of Japanese heritage—including some who had initially been interned in the camps—volunteered for the army.

In 1943, Roosevelt reversed his initial decree forbidding Japanese-American men from joining up, and those who subsequently volunteered made up the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This regiment would go down in history as one of the most decorated units in the U.S. Army during WWII, and over 700 soldiers from the 442nd would give their lives in the war.

“We all had the idea of proving that we were loyal Americans, Tim Tokuno, a member of the 442nd, told PBS. “And so everything was ‘go, go, go forward, go forward.” And so I understand it, we never retreated. We never took a backward step. Always forward.”

The U.S. Finally Apologies

On December 17, 1944, Public Proclamation No. 21 was issued announcing the end of the Japanese internment camps effective on the following January 2. The war was beginning to wind down, but it wasn’t a change of heart that led to this proclamation. Behind the scenes, the Supreme Court was about to hand down a judgment in Ex Parte Endo deeming the detainment of innocent civilians unlawful. The justices allowed Roosevelt’s administration to save face by announcing the closure of the camps one day before they announced their decision.

But it wasn’t until 1988 that justice was finally served. That year, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and, with this move, the U.S. government finally issued a formal apology for the actions it had taken during WWII. It also put into place a system of reparations, and each living survivor of the camps was offered $20,000. In the introduction to the Civil Liberties Act, the U.S. government’s actions are described as a “grave injustice” that was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

RELATED CONTENT