Today in American History: March 18th

Today in American History: March 18th


When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, it caused a wave of terror throughout America, particularly on the pacific coast. On March 18, 1942 the War Relocation Authority was created to take all Japanese people into custody and relocate them. They were surrounded by troops and were prevented from buying land. You can read the entire executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt here. The fear and hatred that American's had towards people of Japanese descent was widespread and intense. Like a fire, it continued to grow and intensity in the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. All Japanese, regardless of age or economic class, was suspected of espionage. The suspicion started on Hawaii, but quickly spread to the mainland. 

In February of 1942 President FDR ordered all German, Italian, Japanese nationals, and Japanese Americans be barred from certain areas that could be sensitive to the United States military. About 2,000 men of German or Italian heritage were detained during the war. But, when the War Relocation Authority was put into place, it was specifically aimed at people of Japanese descent. All people with 1/16th or more of Japanese blood was included in the order. Roughly 120,000 Japanese men, women and children on the West Coast were forced into interment camps. Interestingly enough, roughly 15,000 Japanese Americans voluntarily chose to move. These people surely had no idea what they were getting into. They were separated into three categories: Nisei, Issei, and Kibei. The Nisei category was made up of United States citizens whose parents were Japanese immigrants. The Issei category was made up of Japanese immigrants. While the third category, Kibei, was made up of native United States citizens who were majority educated in Japan. There were 10 interment camps scattered across California, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arkansas.  

These camps where crowded, often times dirty, and detainees lived only slightly better than criminals who were in prison. Usually four to five families would share a space no larger than 20' by 25' and were forced to share communal bathrooms. And like prison, razors and scissors were prohibited. Radios were also not allowed, most likely to keep them cut off from the outside world. The children living in these "relocation camps" were sent to special schools within the barbed wire. Food shortages and poor sanitation were common in the camps which led to plenty of preventable deaths. Not only that, but the tight living spaces meant disease ran rampant and easily spread. 1/10th of all deaths in the camps were caused by Tuberculosis. 

Although the majority of Americans supported these camps, there were a few who opposed them. This was including Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the sitting president, who did what she could to support Japanese Americans during the war. She did not want to publicly go against her husband, but did everything she could to try and convince the public that these Japanese Americans were not the enemy. One Japanese American named Gordon Hirabayashi, fought all the way to the Supreme Court. He argued the United States Army was responsible for striping him of his inalienable rights as a citizen. To no surprise, the court did not rule in his favor. The court said the United States had the right to protect itself and that the climate of the world justified the camps. 

In 1943, the population of Japanese Americans who were not sent to camps were allowed to enlist in the armed forces. More than 17,000 Japanese Americans jumped at the chance to fight. The 442nd Regiment was made up entirely of Nisei and fought in the Italian campaign. They became the most decorated unit in American history for its size. They won a total of 4,667 medals, awards, and citations. This included Distinguished Service Crosses, Silver Stars, and 1 Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, when many of these soldiers were writing letters home, they were being sent to interment camps.

The last interment camp was closed in March of 1946, even though the Supreme Court ruled to close them in December of 1944. In 1990, nearly 50 years after the start of the war, the United States issued a formal apology to surviving Japanese interment survivors and their heirs, in addition to reparations and a $20,000 check. 





“War Relocation Authority Is Established in United States | March 18, 1942.” Accessed March 17, 2024.


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