Japanese railroaded out of San Diego during WWII

The San Diego Union printed 14 editorials calling for their removal o from the West Coast

San Diego internees, Poston, Arizona, mostly old people and children.
  • San Diego internees, Poston, Arizona, mostly old people and children.
  • Image by Collection of Donald Estes

“I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my very background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation. I believe in her institutions, ideals, and traditions....I trust in her future....She has permitted me to build a home, to earn a livelihood, to worship, speak, and act as I please-a free man equal to every other man. ”

-Creed of the Japanese-American Citizens League, 1940

“We have seen the workings of the Japanese mind and the diabolical manner in which it can become twisted and used to perpetrate cruelties which we find difficult to comprehend. Deluding ourselves into thinking that simply because some of them have been born in this country they would remain loyal to us in event of attack is a fatuous delusion and one for which we may have to pay dearly. ”

-The “Fifth Column,’’San Diego Union editorial, January 20,1942

“Our kids today ask us why we didn’t protest when all this was going on. They don’t understand the hysteria of the time."

“Our kids today ask us why we didn’t protest when all this was going on. They don’t understand the hysteria of the time."

Collection of Donald Estes

On April 7, 1942, 1,150 residents of San Diego—men, women, and children—were placed on board a pair of 16-car railroad trains under armed military guard for evacuation to inland concentration camps.

“We got on the train and they drew the curtains down. They had soldiers with bayonets guarding us. We couldn’t leave the train or even peek out behind the curtains.

“You really didn’t believe it was happening at first. Like if someone came to you and told you you had to move out. It was just hard to accept,” recalls Allan Koba, an engineer at Convair who was 13 years old at the time of the evacuation.

“We never really felt we were going to be gone long. We left things in the refrigerator like we were going on a vacation. We didn’t seal up the house like we were going to be gone for years. Nobody thought the war or the evacuation would last that long; we thought they’d just take us off for a little while and when things cooled down we’d come right back.”

For Allan Koba and his family it would be more than three years before they’d see their Coronado home again. Like thousands of others, the Kobas were feeling the effects of executive order 9066, the World War II presidential decree that allowed for the internment of 110,000 United States residents, two-thirds of them native-born Americans. Their collective crime: being born of Japanese ancestry.

Allan Koba: “You really didn’t believe it was happening at first.

Allan Koba: “You really didn’t believe it was happening at first.

But to understand the establishment of concentration camps like Manzanar, Minidoka, and Poston at a time when the United States was supposed to be leading the fight for world democracy, one must begin long before Pearl Harbor. Anti-Oriental prejudice in California was already close to 100 years old when the first Zero fighter plane made its early morning appearance in the skies over Oahu on December 7, 1941.

Chinese first came to California with the gold rush of 1848. Their success panning for gold, along with that of skilled Mexican miners, led to the Foreign Miners License Laws of 1850 and 1852, a pair of restrictive statutes which made it all but impossible for them to continue mining. Insult was added to injury in 1854 when a California court ruled that a Chinese could not testify in the trial of a white.

“Our kids today ask us how come we didn’t protest when all of this was going on. They don’t understand the hysteria of the time. We would have been shot if we’d protested.”

A second wave of Chinese immigration came in the 1860s with the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. When that project was completed, more than 15,000 unskilled laborers, mostly Oriental, overwhelmed the California job market. During the depression of the 1870s, Denis Kearney, head of the California Workingman’s Party, blamed the state of the economy on “coolie labor,” and led violent attacks on the Chinese quarter in San Francisco.

In 1882 Congress passed a ten-year, renewable Chinese exclusion act (suspending immigration), the Chinese immigrants’ usefulness to the railroads having come to an end.

Although Commodore Perry had opened Japan to the world in 1854, it was not until 1884 that the Emperor permitted his subjects to emigrate. The first emigrants went to Hawaii to work the sugar fields, but by 1890 more than 2,000 had reached the mainland with many more en route.

In 1892 labor leader Kearney voiced a new variation on an old theme when he told a San Francisco audience, “The Japs must go!” By 1900 the mayor of San Francisco seemed to be in agreement. “The Chinese and the Japanese,” he claimed, “are not bona fide citizens. They are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made. They will not assimilate.”

In 1905 the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in California. In 1908 a related group, the Anti-Jap Laundry League, was organized among various San Francisco trade unions.

California then passed the Alien Land Law (1913), preventing Japanese from purchasing land or leasing it for more than three years. However, while the law could be applied to Issei (Japanese aliens), it could not be used against Nisei (Japanese born in America). Many families circumvented the law by transferring land titles to their U.S.-born children.

Fear of the “yellow peril” continued to grow until 1924, when Congress passed a Japanese exclusion act, a companion piece to the existing Chinese Exclusion Act. During the 1930s, anti-Japanese sentiment on the coast seemed to subside, only to surface once again in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

“The day after Pearl Harbor, Monday, I went to school. I was a student at San Diego State at the time. It was a weird feeling, you know, I mean especially for us Japanese. Japan had started the war now. Still, nobody said anything; everyone was still kind of shocked, I guess,” remembers Nobe Takashima, a member, along with Allan Koba, of Post 4851, the Japanese-American Memorial Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in National City.

“January first I got a notice to go into the service. Well, we didn’t know what was going to happen, anyway. My folks just kept on farming. I went into the service and then they took my mom and dad away for questioning.

“They went to a special camp in Crystal City, Texas that was run by the Immigration Service. So here I was in the service, my brother was in the camp in Poston (Arizona), and my folks were being held down in Texas.

“See, my folks used to go to Japan about once a year. They’d visit for about a month or so, and they’d been doing that for several years. But they were only going back there to visit their relatives and they were fairly religious in one of the Buddhist sects, so they used to go to the main temple over there, but that’s all they were doing. That brought them under suspicion.”

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the FBI and local police began visiting Japanese homes throughout the West. Japanese community leaders were arrested and held incommunicado. In San Diego the FBI arrested 45 Japanese on the night of December seventh. After being held in county jail for a week they were transferred to Missoula, Montana, for immigration hearings. (Friends and relatives had trouble attending these hearings because “enemy aliens” were now required to carry federal travel permits if they left their community.) Those San Diegans not released after the Montana hearings were shipped by prison train to Fort Livingston, Louisiana, for incarceration.

On December tenth, the treasury department issued a directive forbidding banks from doing business with Japanese nationals (as opposed to noncitizen aliens). The order made no mention of German or Italian nationals. Likewise, the FBI requested that the major airlines not carry Japanese passengers or packages for fear of sabotage, but said nothing of Germans or Italians.

“The FBI searched everybody’s homes for contraband,” Allan Koba recalls. “Kitchen knives, firearms, any radios with a shortwave, cameras—they really searched the homes. Anyone who was considered a leader in the community, even a deacon of the church or the president of any kind of club— they were all taken right away.”

The very day the treasury department announced the banking restrictions, 200 San Diego members of the Japanese-American Citizens League pledged to support the U.S. with their lives. But it was too late; the tide of public opinion was already turning against them. The week following Pearl Harbor, newspapers had urged tolerance toward Japanese-Americans, but as the Imperial Japanese Forces scored new victories in the Pacific, anti-Japanese sentiment grew at home.

On December 15, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox said, “The most effective fifth column work of the war was done in Hawaii (where one-third of the population was Japanese-American).” In 1943 the Office of War Information would reveal that the only sabotage in Hawaii at the time of Pearl Harbor had been carried out by white Nazi agents, not resident Japanese. But by then the myth of Japanese betrayal at Pearl Harbor would be too deeply ingrained in the American psyche to be easily uprooted.

On December 19 rumors swept through San Diego that vegetables grown by local Japanese truck farmers in Chula Vista had been poisoned. The county’s commissioner of agriculture was forced to broadcast reassurances to the public on the radio.

The American Legion, meeting in Los Angeles January 7, called for the placement of all aliens in concentration camps for the duration of the war. That same night, the San Diego chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West called for legislation requiring that fishing boats be owned and manned by U.S. citizens. (Approximately 30 San Diego fishing boats were then owned by first- and second-generation Japanese.)

On January 18 the California legislature passed a resolution urging the state personnel board to investigate the loyalty of state employees of Japanese ancestry.

Two days later, the San Diego Union printed the first of 14 editorials calling for the removal of the Japanese from the West Coast. They also noted that Japanese fishermen in the Gulf of California represented a particular threat because they might be preparing Baja as a Japanese base from which San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boulder Dam would be open to attack. (One of the strongest advocates of removal was California’s attorney general, Earl Warren, who made “relocation of the Japanese” a major issue in his successful bid for the governorship in 1942.)

On January 21, the San Diego City Council passed a resolution submitted by councilman Fred W. Simpson recommending that enemy aliens, especially Japanese, be removed from the area because of the “known subversive elements” among them.

And on February 13 the West Coast congressional delegation sent a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt urging the removal of all Japanese from California, Oregon, Washington, and the territory of Alaska.

“Our kids today ask us why we didn’t protest when all this was going on,” says Michael Ishikawa, a retired San Diego liquor store owner. “They don’t understand the hysteria of the time. We would have been shot if we’d protested. It was like what was happening with the Jews in Germany.”

On February 14 General John L. DeWitt, West Coast military commander, recommended evacuation of the Japanese, commenting, “The Japanese race is an enemy race...one hundred-twelve thousand potential enemies are at large in the area.” In one of those great leaps of logic for which Californians are periodically noted, he went on to state, “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.”

Finally, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 on February 19, 1942.

It allowed military commanders to establish military areas and exclude people from them.

On February 21, the Tolan Committee of the House of Representatives began hearings in California on the subject of mass evacuations. Earl Warren suggested that the presence of Japanese farms near military posts, oil fields, power lines, and strategic roads was “more than a coincidence.” On March 6 the San Diego Union editorially agreed, going on to note, “The Japanese infiltration along the Pacific Coast has been planned for years and executed with a cunning that now makes us look not unlike a trusting tribe of Rip van Winkles.”

In March, General DeWitt established the western half of the Pacific states as “Military Area Number One,” and ordered the Japanese to voluntarily evacuate the area. About a third of San Diego’s 2,000 Japanese left during the following month, heading east in search of jobs and a more tolerant area in which to live. But voluntary evacuation was deemed too slow, and after the first three weeks, orders were passed down for a forced evacuation. On April Fool’s Day, 1942, Civilian Exclusion Order Number Four required that all Japanese aliens and citizens below the San Dieguito River would be excluded on or before noon, Wednesday, April 8, 1942. One member of each family was ordered to report on April second or third to the Civil Control Station located at 1919 India Street in San Diego, where they learned they had six days to dispose of a lifetime’s worth of property.

“My father’s farm was seized under the Alien Land Act,” recalls Henry Tani, who was in army basic training at the time his family was evacuated. “After the war we sued the State of California to regain our land and finally won it back after the state failed to file legal papers to contest our claim.”

“We left our home in the care of a real estate agent,” adds Allan Koba. “He took care of it for us. We lost two cars. You see, you had to sell things on your own. This one neighbor said he’d take our new Ford. We gave him the pink slip and he never paid us for it. He was supposed to send us the money in the camp, but he never did.”

“Our property stayed intact,” Nobe Takashima remembers. “We leased our farm out to a Caucasian farmer, a Dutch man who lived nearby. Of course, a lot of people lost their property. You know, most farmers will borrow against their crop, so when they got interned and couldn’t bring in their crops, they lost everything.”

Michael Ishikawa recalls talking with friends from the San Pedro area. “They were only given 24 hours’ notice to evacuate. They’d be forced to sell a new refrigerator for five dollars, a new car for fifty, or a house for one or two hundred.”

(The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, which was authorized to help the Japanese dispose of their belongings, estimated the value of lost property at $400 million, yet after the war the government paid less than $40 million in property claims to Japanese-Americans. These claims did not include the loss of wages, income, interest, or appreciation for the years of internment.)

On April 7, 1942, 1,150 Japanese-Americans, formed into 306 family groups, left the Santa Fe depot for an unknown destination. “We thought we were going to the Manzinar camp, which had just been opened up in the Owens Valley,” according to Allan Koba. “Twenty-four hours later we found ourselves at the Santa Anita raceway.”

Santa Anita racetrack assembly area, 1942

Santa Anita racetrack assembly area, 1942

Santa Anita was one of a dozen race tracks and fairgrounds converted to temporary assembly areas for the Japanese internees. Allowed only what possessions they could carry in one hand, the Japanese tried to make liveable homes out of the horse stalls into which they had been crowded while the army and the War Relocation Authority (with help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs) pondered their future.

After six months of inadequate food and sanitation, the San Diego internees were shipped to the half-completed Colorado River Relocation Center in Poston, Arizona.

“The internees worked to improve the camps,” says James Toda, minister of the Japanese Holiness Church at 1920 E Street and a former internee, “but there’s just not much you can do with a barracks. We hung blankets to separate different families’ living spaces.

“There were fences and guard towers around the camps. There was schooling in the camps for the children, elementary through high school. Later on, some people were allowed to leave the camps to go out and help in the harvest for sugar beet and fruit.”

“My second year in the camp they sent us out to Idaho for farm labor,” Allan Koba remembers, “but we were physically beaten up there. Gangs of high school kids would come into the labor camps and want to fight—throw rocks and stuff like that. That was hard work, farm labor. It didn’t pay well. The Relocation Authority placed me back East the following year. I worked as a houseboy for a Quaker family, then I joined the army.”

Mike Ishikawa tells of a visit to his father, brother, and older sister while on leave from the army in 1943. It was while visiting them behind the barbed wire at Poston that he met the woman who would become his wife. “I decided to go get them some Cokes and stuff, so I went into the PX—the commissary they kept for the army guards there— and I asked for some Cokes and candy. The guy behind the counter says, ‘Sorry, we’re not allowed to sell this stuff to the Japanese.’ Well, I got real angry. Then the C.O. comes in and says to him to give me the stuff because I’m a soldier. I won the friendship of my future little brother-in-law right away after that when I gave him all these Cokes and candy. The kids in the camp never got to even see stuff like that.”

In the Fall of 1943, protests over camp conditions led to rioting at the Manzanar and Tule Lake concentration camps. Shortly after, the San Diego Union published an editorial in reaction to the protests. It read: “Troops armed with bayonets and a determination to use them if necessary are the proper guards for these confessed traitors. If the Japs have any requests or demands to make from now on they can be answered in a language which they understand.

“The War Relocation Authority must stop its ridiculous policy of releasing Japs simply because some big-hearted, inexperienced case worker has decided that certain ones are loyal.

“Imagine what would happen to an American in Japan who protested against the food, shelter or treatment he received! Imagine an American being allowed outside of a concentration camp in Japan!”

That same year, Japanese-American soldiers were taken out of noncombat camp details and formed into the 442nd Battalion. Men like Allan Koba, Henry Tani, and Nobe Takashima served with the 442nd in Italy and France, while others like Michael Ishikawa served as interpreters and intelligence operatives in the South Pacific.

The 442nd lived up to its motto, “Go For Broke!” by becoming the most decorated unit in the U.S. Army. It suffered .more casualties and received more decorations than any other unit of comparable size in the army’s history. (More than 25,000 Japanese-Americans served in the armed forces during World War II.)

By late 1944, two and a half years after the trains left San Diego, the camp at Poston was full of old people and children. The younger people had either entered the army or had been assigned to nonmilitary jobs in the East.

With the war’s end in sight, with news of the heroic actions of the 442nd in the newsreels and on the radio, with the FBI’s admission that not a single act of sabotage or espionage could be traced to a Japanese-American, pressure began to build for the release of the remaining internees.

On December 19, 1955, the San Diego Union ran an editorial entitled, “Time For Calmness,” in which the paper claimed that not all opposition to the return of the Japanese to the West Coast had been based on prejudice of race or nationality. “Many thoughtful Californians have felt a basic factor of the problem was the safety and the welfare of the Japanese themselves. They have considered that overt acts against returning Japanese would invite reprisals on the part of the Japanese government against American prisoners of war.” The editorial concluded on a balanced note: San Diego had an obligation to maintain order, while the returning Japanese had an equal responsiblity to demonstrate their loyalty and good faith.

Henry Tani: “After the war we sued the State of California to regain our land and finally won it back."

Henry Tani: “After the war we sued the State of California to regain our land and finally won it back."

By August, 1945, only about 300 of the more than 2,000 Japanese evacuated from San Diego had returned.

“After ’45, people began to trickle back into San Diego,” says Reverend Toda. “Many didn’t return because either they were bitter or because financial opportunities were better elsewhere, people having sold all their property and having no job opportunities here.”

“People were scared to come back,” Michael Ishikawa adds. “We heard so many stories about houses being burned. Some people were shot at. I stayed in Minneapolis for about a year working as a presser in a dry cleaning plant. Then we got word from San Diego that they were hiring fishermen again, so I relocated my family back to San Diego. En route back we’d stop at motels and my wife would hear so many things. We were afraid to go out to eat, as a matter of fact. We’d go out to a supermarket, buy bologna and so forth, and eat in our motel room.” “I was very bitter. It makes you bitter,” Henry Tani now says. “I served in the army while my family was in a concentration camp. Then arriving back here in San Diego we found this hostility very apparent. I’d say it was at least five years before it began to die down. I’d say some of it is still around.”

“My dad was the first one back,” Allan Koba recalls. “He was the only one in the family left in camp at the end of the war. My sister had gone on to New York, I was in the army, and my brothers were all in the army. Then as we got discharged we came back to Coronado.

“The people had become hostile; even those that we thought were friends wouldn’t speak to us. As a matter of fact, there’s still some. People I went to school with in Coronado before the war, I see them at work now and they still don’t speak to me. It’s like the fact that we were evacuated proved we were guilty.

“For a long time we wouldn’t talk about it, even among ourselves. It’s only in the last five or ten years with books written about it and so forth that people are willing to talk about it. But I don’t think there’s too much bitterness about it. We lost a few years. It’s something that happened.”

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