Japanese Alaskans interred during WWII
Aunt Phil's Trunk
February 1, 2024 | View PDF
Following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and six months later at Kiska and Attu, wartime hysteria and fear of sabotage and espionage ran rampant across the country.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. It ordered the removal of more than 112,000 Japanese Americans – also called Nikkei-from the West Coast. Those with Japanese ancestry were taken from their homes, businesses and schools and put in internment camps.
Alaskans were not immune to the order. After a short stay at Fort Richardson near Anchorage, the territory's 193 detainees were transferred to the Puyallup Assembly Center in Washington. They then boarded trains bound for the Minidoka Relocation Center.
The Minidoka internment camp, 20 miles northeast of Twin Falls, Idaho, was built on a dry, desolate, sagebrush plain. It housed those of Japanese ancestry from Alaska, Washington and Oregon, as well as 50 seal and whale hunters who were half Alaska Native, according to the National Park Service.
When the detainees arrived at the camp in August 1942, they found it still under construction with no running water or sewer system.
"When we first arrived here, we almost cried, and thought that this is the land God had forgotten," one evacuee said. "The vast expanse of nothing but sagebrush and dust, a landscape so alien to our eyes, and a desolate, woebegone feeling of being so far removed from home and fireside bogged us down mentally, as well as physically."
The camp's superintendent of education saw the despair in the detainees, as well.
"... these people are living in the midst of a desert where they see nothing except tar paper covered barracks, sagebrush and rocks. No flowers, no trees, no shrubs, no grass," wrote Arthur Klienkopf in a diary. "The impact of emotional disturbance as a result of the evacuation . . . plus this dull, dreary existence in a desert region surely must give these people a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair which we on the outside do not and will never fully understand."
There were shortages of food and medicine in the camps, which meant many sick people were left untreated. Some died. At least five other internees were shot and killed because of illness or because they tried to escape, according to government records.
For almost two years, the country detained them because the government questioned their loyalty. But even though these Japanese Americans endured hardships while being interred, their loyalty to the United States remained steadfast. About 1,000 volunteered to serve in the military – dozens died for their country.
And when it was all said and done, only 10 Americans were convicted of spying for Japan during the war-all Caucasian.
Most Alaskans could not believe their Japanese neighbors were enemy spies. So in the spirit of friendship and caring, they watched over the homes and businesses of those removed from the territory. But only about 80 of the almost 200 Alaska detainees returned north after the war ended.
This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.