Heart Mountain Internment Camp
Heart Mountain Internment Camp
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Forced Homelessness of an Ethnic Group


We tend to think of homelessness as an individual matter, with inward-turning men and abused women finding a spot to bed down. Some homeless advocates and activists, though, emphasize the importance of individuals acting more like protons staying within a nucleus than like far-away electrons orbiting in cold space.

One outstanding example of community importance came after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which directed the Secretary of War to “prescribe military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded.” Based on that order, not even an act of Congress, the Army rounded up 110,000 Japanese Americans who lived on the west coast — including U.S. citizens by birth — and transported them to barracks in remote areas.

I visited one of the forced homeless sites: Last year it received official status as the Amache National Historic Site. It’s in southeastern Colorado near the town of Granada, home now to only 560 humans, and about 342 then, according to the U.S. Census. In 1942, 7,600 Japanese-Americans arrived, mourning the loss of their California homes. Each of the newly-homeless gained assignment to one of 29 blocks housing 200-350 individuals. Each block had twelve barracks. Each barrack had six small apartments into which an average of 3.6 people had to fit.

It was a recipe for misery. Residents had to line up three times each day to eat in communal mess halls. Shared bathrooms and thin walls offered little privacy. Blowing dust, severe thunderstorms, and extremes of heat and cold made residents yearn for their California homes. Barracks were not insulated. Roofs leaked. Paths to the mess hall and bathhouse were often muddy or snowy.

The forced incarceration was not only depressing but racially discriminatory: The east coast did not witness similar offenses against people of German or Italian heritage. The justification at the time was that with key parts of the U.S. Pacific fleet destroyed, Japanese forces might invade the United States. (Five hundred Japanese soldiers on June 6, 1942, did take over Kiska, a small and largely-unoccupied island near the end of the Aleutian chain that extends westward from Alaska. They took prisoner Kiska’s only inhabitants, ten men and six dogs of the U.S. Navy Weather Detachment.)

Decades of laws directed against Japanese immigrants and their children became the foundation for one of America’s ugliest chapters. Milton Eisenhower, the academically-oriented brother of President Dwight Eisenhower, later wrote that he “brooded about this whole episode [for thirty years] for it is illustrative of how an entire society can somehow plunge off course.”

One child resident, Carlene Tanigoshi Tinker, wrote in The Washington Post (October 5, 2021) about the “wretched” climate so different from that of “my family’s home in Los Angeles…. I remember waiting outside with hundreds of other Japanese American families… for our meals that were served out of mess tents. During these times, my father would hoist me up on his shoulders to protect me from the never-ending sandstorms that would pelt our eyes, hair, noses, and clothes with grit.”

But Japanese-American life at Amache was also a tribute to the power of community. All the Amache buildings are now torn down, and the barbed wire that surrounded the camp is gone, but issues of the Granada Pioneer, a newspaper largely written by internees, show residents working together to create gardens and construct playgrounds. One block built a sumo wrestling ring. The camp included nearly 10,000 acres of farmland along the banks of the Arkansas River. Japanese-Americans used their farming expertise to increase agricultural production on that land.

Dennis Fujita, a chemistry professor born at Amache in 1943, recently went back with others and found items such as a Log Cabin syrup can, a hand-held insecticide sprayer, and an usu — a mortar used to pound cooked white rice into a very sticky mass so as to make Japanese rice cakes known as mochitsuki. Although the rules did not allow any alcohol products, residents worked together to produce for each block two gallons of sake for celebrating New Year’s Day, and officials overlooked the offense. One researcher, Sharon Hasimoto, found a bright side: residents “influenced the landscape with their horticultural skills—be it with trees, rocks, local flora and fauna and philosophical outlook.” A sense of community helped residents stick it out. When all they had was sand, residents created sand gardens. They took pride in living out the Japanese concept of gaman: enduring bad times with patience and dignity.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.