February 24, 2017

Remembering Internment

Photo by Dorothea Lange

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, setting in motion the rounding up and incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans. Florence Daté Smith was one of those put into internment camps during World War II. Here is her story, originally featured in the November 1988 issue of Messenger:

On December 7, 1941, I was in the library at the University of California. There was a sudden disruption in that customarily muted and somber sanctuary. Someone had brought in a radio. Whispered words swept through the halls: “Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor!” It seemed at that moment that the entire campus community came to an abrupt halt. My world as I knew it halted also, and a new one began.

Oakland, California, March 1942. This sign, reading “I am an American,” was displayed the day after Pearl Harbor. The store closed and the owner, of Japanese descent, spent the duration of the war in War Relocation Authority centers/Photo by Dorothea Lange

I was a 21-year-old student, majoring in Far Eastern studies there in Berkeley. My parents had come to the United States from Hiroshima, Japan, in the early 1900s. I was born in San Francisco and so was a “Nisei,” or second-generation American, a US citizen. My parents, by US laws then in effect, could never become citizens, only permanent resident aliens.

The parents of us Niseis were concerned too. But, confident in the ways of democracy, they said that whatever happened to them now, we were to carry on in their places at home and at work. They never dreamed that their children–solid American citizens–would be affected.

S.J. Ray, K.C. Star courtesy of http://ww2cartoons.org/nov-1942-internment-of-japanese-americans/

For us Niseis on campus, changes occurred rapidly. One by one, students from out of town were called home. My own college support group quickly disappeared. Soon a curfew for all persons of Japanese descent–aliens and American citizens alike–was proclaimed. I felt as if I were under “house arrest,” since I usually spent my days and most of my evenings in the library or in class.

Now we were confined to our homes between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. Furthermore, we were restricted in travel to a 5-mile radius from our home. I wanted to shout, “Why us? What about persons of German and Italian descent?”

Then came another order: Turn in all cameras, flashlights, phonograph records, short-wave radios, chisels, saws, anything longer than a paring knife, even some items that were family heirlooms. Newspapers and radios daily blared headlines about the dangerous presence and activities of the Japanese. Commentators such as Westbrook Pegler wrote, “Herd them up, sterilize them, and then ship them back to Japan, and then blow up the island!”

Then followed another order. Each family was to register and thereby receive a family number. We were now No. 13533. Our country had made us mere numbers!

In April 1942, Civilian Exclusion Order No. 5 was announced by the Western Defence Command, addressed to all persons of Japanese ancestry. This order was posted publicly and conspicuously everywhere. Everyone in town could see it. I felt like a branded criminal, innocent, yet guilty of something. I was totally devastated. Did everyone have to know? I just wanted to disappear quietly, right then and there, like a ghost.

Parents had accepted our being denied entry to public swimming pools, restaurants, and hotels, as well as being restricted from land ownership or immigration quotas. But criminal accusations sufficient to warrant incarceration of citizens was another story.

Obviously I could not sink quietly under the waters without a ripple. One afternoon, while I was on my way home from my last day at the university, a group of young school children with long sticks in their hands converged about me, shouting, “A Jap! A Jap! A Jap!” I was uneasy, but not afraid. Very Asian thoughts went through my mind. How was it that these youngsters had no respect for an adult? But my second thought was, “Well, I am only No. 13533.”

The date of our departure for internment was announced. Four days later we reported dutifully to the Civilian Control Center. We had, in those few days, hurriedly disposed of our entire household goods. Rapacious, bargain-hunting neighbors and strangers descended upon us. We were at their mercy, and constrained by the urgency of time. They would say, “How about giving me your piano for $5, or your refrigerator for a couple of dollars?” We were helpless. We could only say, “Take it.” I saw my father give away my mother’s prized possessions.

A barracks “apartment” (former horse stall) at Tanforan/Photo by Dorothea Lange

We were instructed to go with our bedding, a tin plate, cup, knife, fork, and spoon, and “only what we could carry.” With these things we waited at the center to be sent to some mysterious “reception center” somewhere out there. I thought, “This is it. I am now an object.”

At the Civilian Control Center I was at first shocked to see armed guards. For the first time I felt extreme anger. Uniformed men with guns were stationed everywhere. “Why?” I wondered. We had presented ourselves peacefully and certainly we would continue to do so. Towering guarded herded us toward the buses. We quietly boarded, not because of the bayonets and guns, but in spite of them.

Perhaps you wonder why and how thousands of persons of Japanese ancestry, over 70 percent of them American citizens, so willingly and nonviolently left their homes in haste and entered into 10 concentration camps located in the barren, unproductive areas of the United States. All through my childhood, my parents encouraged me to integrate American values. I learned them well in the public schools–the beliefs and concepts of democracy, equality, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Yet, simply by observing my parents’ responses and behavior, I inherited their communication and relationship values, which were a mixture of Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian religious concepts. I felt enriched for I was a product of two worlds. I do not remember ever wishing I were other than Japanese and American.

Now I was confronted by this near impossible balancing of two different viewpoints–1) belief in liberty and the freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution and 2) the precept that respects authority, offers subservience, and accepts “what will be will be.” This was difficult to face at that point in my life. I was deeply affected and agitated, more than I was able to acknowledge…until decades later.

Recent studies have proven helpful to me. Japanese and Western cultural values were compared in the areas of communication, personal relationships, and perception. In contrast to Westerners, the Japanese generally are more receptive than expressive, listen more than confront, show emotional restraint, exhibit humility and self-sacrifice, favor harmony and conformity, and have an unusually high respect for authority.

I was the product of a typical western educational system, but I held many Asian cultural values. Thus there had been a war waging within me. One side said, “Be assertive, verbally expressive, believe in equality, exercise the freedom to be an individual.” The other side said, “Be in unity, be humble, remember harmony and conformity, respect authority first, consider the welfare of the group and community rather than that of the individual. In this is your strength.” In this struggle the second side won, but at a heavy price. We followed all the proclamations and orders issued by both civilian and military authorities.

At the “reception center” I experienced added insults to my psyche. I could hardly believe that my new home was Horse Stall No. 48 at the Tanforan Race Track, in San Bruno. Manure had been shoveled out, hay removed, and the remaining debris–including spider webs–was whitewashed over. There was a semblance of cleanliness. We slept on mattresses that we filled with straw. Up in the grandstand there were functioning flush toilets with signs posted that proclaimed, “For whites only!” We had latrines. We had to go out in the weather for everything. We ate in mess halls. I wondered if anyone could imagine the depth of my pain.

New arrivals to Tanforan Assembly Center, a former racetrack in San Bruno, California/Photo by Dorothea Lange
Horse stalls converted into “apartments” at Tanforan (San Bruno, California)/Photo by Dorothea Lange

We were there at the race track, behind barbed-wire fences, watched day and night by armed guards in sentry towers. There was roll call twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. I refused to be counted at 6 a.m. All our mail was opened and censored. Edible gifts brought in by outside friends were cut in half, in search of smuggled weapons. Under armed guard, there were two unannounced, unexpected raids to uncover subversive materials and weapons. None were found. Indeed, we had become simply prisoners.

By the fall of 1942, children, youth, young people, and the elderly were located in one of 10 camps in bleak, isolated desert lands. No one was accused of any crime, and yet no one was able to call upon the protection guaranteed us by our country’s constitution.

Relocated in Topaz, Utah, out in the desert, I taught in the upper elementary grades for $19 a month. My “appointive” Caucasian colleague told me she made $300, plus living expenses, for the same work. I had repressed feelings about that situation too.

Relocation center in Topaz, Utah/Photo by Dorothea Lange

One day I strolled over to see how my colleague lived. A large sign was posted boldly in her block, “For appointive staff only.” I wondered what would happen to me if I were apprehended. I even stopped and used their restroom before leaving. I confess that my resentment was showing.

It jarred my very personhood and integrity to be:

  • accused unjustly of being a dangerous citizen, forcibly moved to this remote area of the United States, while hundred of thousands of Hawaiian-Americans of Japanese descent, as well as German and Italian-Americans, were not;
  • confined behind barbed-wire fences, together with 10,000 persons in one square mile, with families living in accommodations meant for single men, in military barracks with mess halls and latrines;
  • watched day and night by armed guards who were ordered to shoot on sight anyone appearing or attempting to leave the area (it did happen in Topaz: A guard shot an elderly man who thoughtlessly stepped too near a fence to pick up an arrowhead);
  • incarcerated as a potential saboteur and then nine months later have the armed services begin to recruit volunteers from these camps;
  • asked to swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and also at the same time foreswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese emperor or any other foreign power.

Feelings ran high at this point. How could loyalty to the United States be questioned when at the same time the government was seeking among us volunteers for military service?

Over a thousand volunteers joined from these internment camps to become part of the most highly decorated American combat unit in the entire history of our country. These men were determined to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States.


In another area I was hurt to the quick. As a teacher, I saw the effects of this internment life upon the children of the camp community. They roamed about, no longer responsible to their own parents. Why should they be? These parents could not even provide their own children with protection or even support them. In the classrooms I was saddened to see children exhibit discourtesy and disrespect toward teachers, authority, and each other. They seemed lost, indeed. My task was to educate them academically and, in addition, help them regain self-respect.

My mother, a former teacher and an observant person, said that during those years I appeared rather grim. I was. I was unable to confide to her the fact that I was depressed, lonely, overwhelmed, and was facing a frightening future. Suddenly I had become the “head of the family,” for I was the sole American in the family in a country that was treating us hostilely.

To make matters worse, my father was hospitalized with tuberculosis. I was told by the unsympathetic Caucasian hospital administrator that my father would never leave the hospital and that furthermore the doctor did not care about this case. When I reported this incident to my minister, all the evacuee ministers in camp dressed in their Sunday best and made a “call” upon this medical officer. Misdiagnosed, my father lived for 13 years after being released from camp. But my mother died four years after entering internment. She needed medical care and surgery that neither the camp personnel nor the hospital could provide. For us, Father’s hospitalization marked a permanent separation for us as a family.

After we had been interned about a year and a half, the government realized its mistake and began to encourage us to leave. It saw that there was no good reason to keep us interned. The original reason for interning us was no longer valid, as there was no proof that we had done anything to undermine the US war effort. We were not potential saboteurs. But, more important for the government, keeping us in the camps was expensive.

Eventually I went to Chicago, through the Quakers, to work at a Presbyterian settlement house. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, I lived in Lombard, Ill., near the York Center Church of the Brethren. My husband and I were pacifists and we also believed in simple living and in outreach, so we were drawn to York Center church, while Lee Whipple was pastor. In 1978 we moved to Eugene, Ore., and became part of the Springfield congregation.

Florence Daté Smith, 2012/Courtesy of the family

For over 35 years I did not talk to anyone about my internment years and the scandal of it. And I refused all speaking invitations. The reason I now go to schools to give presentations is that we former internees are a dying generation, and when I look at the school textbooks I see nothing about the internment. So I realized that if I didn’t speak out it would be come secondary information; the primary sources soon would be gone. I have created a slide presentation, and dug out pictures from books and old records, relying on the Armed Services and the government archives. We were not allowed to have cameras in the camps, of course.

Not even my children had known my story earlier. They complained that they did not hear about it. They heard their father talk and joke about his prison experiences as a World War II conscientious objector, but I did not make one peep. Of course our children saw this contrast between their parents. But I just could not talk about it. I know now that it would have been emotionally and psychologically healthy to talk and that I should have done it 30 or 40 years ago. But we were such zombies then. We thought it was violent or disrespectful to react like that. The experience was too traumatic; it devastated our personhood. This happened to all of us.

Through the years individuals such as the late Min Yasui and agencies such as the Japanese American Citizenship League have worked to obtain redress for the victims of the internment. The Church of the Brethren Annual Conference and the General Board, over the years, petitioned Congress to acknowledge the wrongness of the internment and to make just redress.

In 1976 President Gerald R. Ford rescinded President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066 of 1942 that sent over 100,000 Japanese-Americans to concentration camps. This past August 10, President Ronald Reagan signed H.. 442, which offers restitution of $20,000 to each surviving victim of the internment and an official government apology.

This is my story. I tell it now, to help people to know about and to understand the pain that the internment caused, so that such an atrocity will never happen in this country again.

First published in the November 1988 issue of the Church of the Brethren magazine “Messenger.” 

Florence Daté Smith lives in Eugene, Ore. She has been a long-term member of Springfield Church of the Brethren.