May 8, 1942 – Poston Internment Camp for Japanese Opens in Arizona

Throughout American history, some citizens have had more rights and privileges than others.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US (of whom 70,000 were American citizens) were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty.

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The internees were transported to one of ten relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.

The Poston Internment Camp, located in Yuma County (now in La Paz County) of southwestern Arizona, was the largest (in terms of area) of the ten American concentration camps operated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II.

The site was composed of three separate camps arranged in a chain from north to south at a distance of three miles from each other. The Colorado River was approximately 3 miles to the west, outside of the camp perimeter.

Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, over the objections of the Tribal Council, who refused to be a part of doing to others what had been done to their tribe. The U.S. Government, however, had no qualms about abusing two minorities for the price of one.

Frank Mastropolo, writing for ABC News about the documentary, “Passing Poston: An American Story,” explains that Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation for a specific reason: Japanese detainees were brought to the desolate location to provide free, forced labor for the American government.

As the filmmakers observed:

The Japanese were ordered to build the infrastructure — schools, dams, canals and farms — so the U.S. government could consolidate scattered American Indian tribes from smaller reservations in one place after the war.”

The combined peak population of the Poston camps was over 17,000, made up of internees mostly from Southern California. At the time Poston was the third largest “city” in Arizona. It was built by Del Webb, who would later become famous building Sun City, Arizona and other retirement communities. The Poston facility was named after Charles Debrille Poston, a government engineer who established the Colorado River Reservation in 1865 and planned an irrigation system to serve the needs of the Indian people who would live there.

Living quarters of evacuees of Japanese ancestry at this War Relocation Authority center as seen from the top of water tower facing south west in Poston, Arizona on June 1, 1942. (Photo: National Archives)

A single fence surrounded all three camps, and the site was so remote that authorities considered it unnecessary to build guard towers. The thousands of internees and staff passed through the barbed-wire perimeter at Poston I, which was where the main administration center was located. (Sounds reminiscent of Auschwitz…)

Del Webb housing for rich white people in Florida looks a little more upscale than the barracks for the Japanese in Poston

Mastropolo explains:

In the film, internees describe the backbreaking work they performed to accomplish the task. When the Japanese were released in 1945, the government carried out its plan to settle the camps with American Indian tribes from the Southwest.

Colonists, as the government referred to them, from the Hopi and Navajo tribes, as well as other tribes living along the Colorado River, moved into the barracks built for the Japanese detainees.”

Meanwhile, as Mastropolo asks by way of conclusion:

But was the suffering worth it for America? By the end of the war, only 10 people had been convicted of spying for Japan.

And all of them were white.”

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