Not Exactly Paradise: Japanese American Internment Camps

Banished to the Desert

Civiliam Conservation Corps Camp buildings shown in baren landscape.
Federal officials asked the Oregon governor for information about potential relocation center sites in the state such as Civilian Conservation Corps Camp BR 43 in Malheur County shown here in 1940. (Photo No. OPW0003, Oregon Public Welfare Commission Records, OSA)  Enlarge image
Events moved rapidly in the early months of 1942. The Japanese military scored dramatic victories in Asia and the western Pacific Ocean in their attempt to create a Greater East Asia. Reports of atrocities followed. Fearing an attack on the West Coast, the American public, still reeling from Pearl Harbor, increasingly demanded the internment of people of Japanese descent in the United States. Military officials took action even before President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in late February paving the way for the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The first step was deciding where to put them.

The Search for Oregon Relocation Facilities 

Army Major General Jay Benedict wrote a restricted letter to Governor Sprague on February 5 asking for information about available housing facilities, "in case they should be needed for the use of evacuated enemy aliens and their families." Benedict expressed interest in a variety of state and local facilities such as "prison farms, State parks, migratory farm camps, fairgrounds, pauper farms, and similar installations...." He asked for data to include information such as the location, structure type, housing capacity, water supply, sanitary facilities, and feeding facilities. Betraying the inevitability of the internment process, Benedict stated: "It is probable that domestic Japanese evacuees, including women and children, may be involved at some future time." Sprague immediately put State Parks Superintendent Sam Boardman on the job of compiling reports and blueprints of Oregon facilities such as abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps, county fair buildings, and state park complexes. Oregon f​acilities report Footnote 1

The War Relocation Authority Continues the Search

Once it became publicly clear that Japanese Americans living along the West Coast would be interned, federal government plans moved quickly. On March 18 President Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the War Relocation Authority (WRA). The new agency was directed to cooperate with the War Department to relocate and provide work opportunities to evacuated Japanese Americans. The order also directed the War Department and the Justice Department to provide necessary and related protective, police and investigational services.

Photo of Milton Eisenhower in suit and tie, wearing glasses.
Milton Eisenhower, brother of future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, served as the first director of the War Relocation Authority in 1942. (Photo courtesy Kansas State University)
The WRA immediately quickened the pace of the search for relocation areas, which it defined as the entire area under its jurisdiction surrounding a relocation center. These were designated as military areas and protected by military police. Officials had several criteria for selecting the new relocation areas. During the process they employed "many experts who know the West's resources thoroughly..." as they "combed the country from the border of Military Area No. 1 to the Mississippi River."

Foremost among the criteria, WRA officials sought areas that would provide work opportunities. These were classified to include public works, such as flood control, irrigation development, and soil conservation; agricultural production, such as cultivating and harvesting crops; and manufacturing, such as the production of clothing, ceramic, or wood items. Officials also considered several other factors in locating the camps. They looked for good soil, dependable water supply, a good growing climate and transportation facilities. New areas had to be on public land and needed to support at least 5,000 people to satisfy efficiencies of scale for schools, hospitals and other planned services.Footnote 2 Some areas were located on Native American reservations but Native Americans were neither consulted or compensated in the process.

Camp Locations are Selected

In the end, officials elected to locate all 10 of the new relocation centers outside of Oregon, although the Tule Lake facility was close to Klamath Falls on the other side of the California border. In spite of government claims of searching for places with "climates suitable for people," most camps were situated in barren, desolate locations notable for wild temperature swings from day to night and from winter to summer. Apart from two camps in Arkansas, the facilities were located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming (Map of camps - courtesy bookmice.net).

Shacks sitting in muddy, dirty loaction.
Tarpaper shacks set amid harsh environmental conditions were common in most camps. Enlarged image courtesy of the National Archives​.
Japanese Americans from Oregon mostly went to one of three relocation centers. The center in Minidoka, Idaho (Minidoka camp map - courtesy National Park Service) opened in August 1942 and included internees from Portland and northwest Oregon. The 17,000 acre area saw a peak population of 9,397. The Tule Lake Relocation Area in northern California comprised about 30,000 acres of land when it opened in late May. Most internees from southwest Oregon were sent to Tule Lake (Tule Lake camp map - courtesy National Park Service). Japanese Americans from Hood River traveled by train to Tule Lake after bypassing the Portland Assembly Center for Pinedale, California. It housed a peak population of 18,789 and saw frequent protests and strikes. Some Japanese Americans from Oregon were transferred to the Heart Mountain facility in Wyoming. This camp opened in August 1942 and reached a peak of 10,767 internees.

Camp Layout and Construction

Each relocation center contained 30 to 40 residential blocks separated by open land to reduce fire risk. Officials designed the camps to be self-contained communities. Housing up to 18,000 people, a relocation center was often the largest community in an otherwise sparsely populated region. Circled with barbed wire and guard towers, the centers included schools, post offices, hospitals and warehouses. Buildings in a typical barracks block included a communal mess hall, recreation building, latrines, and laundry. The surrounding relocation areas usually included farm land, however marginal, that internees worked to produce much of the food used by the camp.

While variations existed, the typical barrack contained from four to six one-room apartments ranging in size from 15 by 20 feet to 24 by 20 feet. Each apartment was designed to house one family or a group of individuals, with eight people living in the largest unit. Partitions divided the rooms but did not extend to the ceiling, leading complaints about privacy. One internee at Manzanar, California recalled: "They used cheap pine wood. The knots would fall off so we could see in the neighbor's room, and we could hear the shocking sound of voices, complaining, arguing bitterly. ...and I couldn't shut it out."Footnote 3

Drawing of eskimo & igloo and the word "Alaska."
The harsh climate of some relocation centers may have brought Alaska to mind. (Image: Daily Tulean Dispatch, Oct. 1, 1942, Folder 2, Box 5, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.)
In May officials tried to put the best face on the construction of housing and other buildings at the camps. One description called the initial housing "basic": "That is, the structures are soundly constructed and provide minimum essentials for decent living. As evacuees move in, they will have an opportunity to improve their quarters by their own work."Footnote 4 But feeling pressure from the WRA, civilian construction contractors built the centers very quickly during the spring and summer of 1942. Camp designs were based on military barracks, making them ill suited for family living. Along with the speed came shoddy construction and other deficiencies. A 1943 WRA report described "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." While the spartan buildings may have satisfied international laws, they left much to be desired.

A Harsh Environment

The less than ideal design and construction quality of the housing was magnified by the desert location of the camps. The heat was blistering in the summer and generally came with dust. One internee recalled: "Inside of our houses, in the laundry, in the latrines, in the mess halls, dust and more dust, dust everywhere." Winters could be equally difficult. At Heart Mountain in northern Wyoming, internees endured temperatures of 30 degrees below zero in the winter. Residents resorted to banking the earth against their barracks to block the icy winds.Footnote 5 The situation was made worse by the hasty evacuation process to the assembly center. Evacuees leaving the milder coastal climate had not been told of their destinations, and as a result, many failed to pack clothing for the bitter desert winters.


  1. Letter from Major General Jay Benedict to Governor Sprague, Feb. 5, 1942. Folder 6, Box 1, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA; Letter from Sam Boardman to Governor Sprague, Feb. 10, 1942. Folder 6, Box 1, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  2. "Establishment of Japanese Relocation Areas," National Reclamation Association Bulletin, May 20, 1942. Pages 8-11, Folder 16, Box 4, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  3. "In Desert Camp, Life Behind Barbed Wire," The Washington Post, Dec. 6, 1982.
  4. "Establishment of Japanese Relocation Areas," National Reclamation Association Bulletin, May 20, 1942. Page 11, Folder 16, Box 4, Gov. Sprague Records, OSA.
  5. Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: U.S.A. (Time-Life Books, Inc., 1977), Page 35.