Barbed Wire and Deserts

Monday, March 17, 2014

After spending several months in the temporary camps, the Japanese Americans were sent to more permanent “relocation centers.” There were ten of these permanent incarceration camps, and all were built on land that was isolated and unusable. The easternmost two were built in the Louisiana swamps. The other eight were built in the western deserts. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard towers, even though only a fool would have tried to cross the desert to freedom.

The temperature ranged from 120 degrees in the summer at Poston, Arizona to -30 degrees in the winter at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Yes, even deserts can be cold at the higher elevations. At Poston, the residents dragged their cots outside to sleep during the summer months because the tar-papered barracks retained the heat from the daytime sun. But if a dust storm came up, they fled back indoors. During the spring and fall, the residents at many camps bundled up on their way to breakfast and shed their extra layers in the heat of the day.

In the deserts, the Japanese Americans were at the mercy of violent windstorms. The dust-sized sand particles blew in their eyes and noses and blinded them so that they couldn’t see where they were going. The dust even blew into their homes and the mess hall through cracks in the walls and floors, forcing them to eat and drink it. And in many camps the residents were triply cursed—dust blizzards in the summer, snow blizzards in the winter, and mud the rest of the time.

Housing in these more permanent camps was similar to that of the barracks used in the temporary camps. Each “apartment” was a single room used for sleeping and living, although most of the living occurred out of doors or in the mess hall. As in the temporary camps, residents had to leave their rooms and go to a mess hall for their meals and to another central location to do their laundry, use the bathroom, and take a shower. 

There was some improvement over the temporary camps, however. The food got better as the cooks became more experienced, and the latrines were eventually fitted with partitions between stalls and showers. School opened, and life settled into a routine. But it was a routine lived in deserts or swamps behind barbed wire fences. 

As in the temporary camps, the only furnishings provided by the government were an army cot and mattress (or straw ticking) for each member of the family. The government also provided two army blankets for each person, but those blankets often ended up as privacy walls. People managed to make their quarters livable, but they had to do it on their own.

The camp administration and some of the teachers were white, but the Japanese Americans who were forced to live there held most of the jobs in these newly created cities. At Topaz, Utah, professionals such as doctors made $19 per month, skilled laborers and semi-professionals made $16 per month, and unskilled laborers made $12–$14 per month. This was many times less than they had made outside or than white colleagues made at the camps.

The college-age and young adult residents left as soon as they were accepted into colleges or jobs away from the west coast and could get sponsors. But the older people and the young children stayed until the government forced them to move yet again. Why did they stay in a prison after they were given a chance to leave?

As I will explain in my next post, they had nowhere else to go.


The photograph at the top of this post shows the interior of a barrack apartment at Manzanar. It is typical of the “apartments” at all of the permanent incarceration camps. Notice the bareness of the room and the cloth partition used by the residents to create a little privacy. The picture was taken by Dorothea Lange as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

No comments:

Post a Comment