Home is a Horse Stall

Monday, March 10, 2014

General DeWitt initially favored a “voluntary” removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. It was only voluntary in the sense that they would get to choose where to relocate outside the restricted area, however. There was nothing voluntary about leaving.

Unfortunately for General DeWitt’s plans, many Japanese Americans had no where to go, and those who did try to leave often had to turn back after being denied service at gas stations and threatened with violence in supposedly unrestricted states. So the policy changed to one of forced removal into hastily assembled incarceration camps.

While the permanent camps were being constructed, General DeWitt sent most of the West Cost Japanese Americans to temporary camps.* These assembly centers, as they were called, were built primarily at race tracks and fair grounds, where there was enough land to squeeze in thousands of men, women, and children. They contained three basic types of housing.

·       Horse stables, shown in the picture, were converted into family housing, often with six people crowding into a stall with two “rooms” separated by Dutch doors. (The back room was for the horse and the front room for the fodder.) Linoleum was laid directly over the manure-covered floors, and the rooms smelled of urine. The walls had been whitewashed so hastily that the painters hadn’t even swept off the cobwebs or the insects, which were now part of the interior decoration.

·       Cow barns with concrete floors were divided into miniature units using flimsy wooden partitions that didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling.

·       Tar-papered barracks designed for soldiers were constructed with green lumber that quickly shrunk, leaving gaps in the floorboards with grass and dandelions growing through them.

All three types of housing were short on privacy. Males and females had to share sleeping rooms, and the thin walls (most of which didn’t reach to the ceiling) guaranteed that your neighbors knew your business and that the crying baby four units away would keep you up at night.

And the furnishings? An army cot and straw ticking for each member of the family. Period. As time passed, people managed to make their quarters livable, but that was due solely to their own resourcefulness.

The inmates ate their meals at picnic tables in a huge mess hall. Badly cooked oatmeal was standard breakfast fare, and dinner might consist of two canned sausages, a boiled potato, and a piece of bread without butter. They didn’t starve, but they didn’t eat their fill, either.

The bathroom situation was even worse. Dozens or perhaps hundreds of people shared a common latrine with no doors on the stalls. In some locations, it was just a row of seats with no partitions between them. The showers were also communal. And there were no bathtubs for the Issei, who were unused to showers.

What if there was a storm? If they wanted to eat, they went out in the rain. If they needed to use the bathroom, they went out in the rain. Or mothers took empty coffee cans from the mess hall garbage and used them as chamber pots for their young children, requiring them to empty and rinse the cans during the day. Those were their choices.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to live like that.


*    Some Japanese Americans were sent directly to Manzanar, which was the first permanent camp to be “completed.” Even that word is a misnomer, however, as construction continued long after the inhabitants arrived. The next post will cover these permanent camps.


The photograph at the top of this post shows a row of converted horse stalls at Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on June 16, 1942 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.

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