Let’s remember Pearl Harbor, not forget those un-American detention camps

On one hand, the Japanese navy’s sneak attack on the United States’ naval fleet at Pearl Harbor 76 years ago today taught us a lesson we must never forget. Never let your guard (defenses) down … “Always be prepared!”
The second lesson we should have learned is not to be willing to surrender our basic belief in human rights as we did when herding Japanese-Americans, German-Americans and Italian-Americans (all legal aliens or citizens) into internment camps.
Over 100,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were suddenly deemed potential security risks, as were Italian-Americans and German-Americans throughout the nation.
I wondered as a child growing up in The Bronx during World War II why our neighbors, named Schmidt, changed their name to Smith. Their two sons were serving overseas, but they still must have felt the stigma of having a German name.
The Fox Movie Tone newsreels show the forced removal of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans from their businesses and homes along America’s West Coast.
They were resettled further east, into guarded internment camps in rural areas, often surrounded by barbed wire, watchtowers and armed patrols. It was an orderly process, meeting little resistance.
Most Americans, shocked by the surprise and success of the Japanese Navy’s attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, were concerned with the possibility of a Pacific coast invasion more than they were with the rights of Japanese-Americans.
When U.S. Army General John L. DeWitt, in charge of the Army’s Western Defense Command, in his report to the president, surmised that all Japanese-Americans, being loyal to their emperor above all, could not be trusted, the president felt justified in implementing a nationwide Alien Control Program, also known as the WRA (War Relocation Program).
“After all, what was to prevent Japanese sympathizers from assisting in a Japanese invasion by spying on military installations and committing acts of sabotage?”
Further quoting General De Witt, “A Jap’s a Jap. There’s no way to determine their loyalty.” Also, “The Japanese race is an enemy race…” Such was the thinking behind the internment camp orders in Final Report: Japanese Evacuation From the West Coast 1942.
In addition to the larger internment camps housing primarily Japanese-Americans, there were a number of special smaller camps operated by the Department of Justice.
One such camp was located 35 miles north of Mexico near Crystal City, Texas. Only complete families of Japanese, Italian, and Germans who had been captured in Central America, South America and Mexico, were held in Crystal City. They were to be traded for American prisoners caught in foreign territory.
The South American roundup even included some Jews who had previously escaped Nazi persecution by fleeing to Columbia.
This little known unique aspect of World War II history is described in Jan Russell’s The Trail to Crystal City. It is a story of family perseverance during the effort to return civilians to their native lands through prisoner exchanges.
Elsewhere in Texas, there were internment camps of various sizes at Fort Bliss, Kenedy, Seagoville and Fort Sam Houston. Some detainees were held until 1948, almost three years after World War II had ended.
While a small number of the “enemy aliens” received some monetary compensation for loss of property, nothing could make up for the disruption of so many lives.
In 1980, in response to the pressure brought by Japanese-Americans, President Jimmy Carter opened an investigation to determine if the decision to force Japanese-Americans into camps during the war was justified.
The appointed commission’s report found little evidence of Japanese disloyalty and concluded that the entire process was based on racism, recommending that the survivors be paid reparations for their losses.
In 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologized to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II.
So, remembering Pearl Harbor, we always need to be prepared and — remembering those camps — we also need to protect civil rights.

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