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Japanese communities sent to camps during WWII, including two in Arizona

Internment Camp Auction
Posted at 4:53 AM, May 03, 2021

With the stroke of a pen, the lives of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans would never be the same.

Through Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942, the federal government forced Japanese communities across the west to leave their homes and lives behind during WWII.

"We were scapegoated," explains Chizu Omori. "Let's face it. We were the face of the enemy...it was only later that I could put all of that into context and gain a better understanding of what happened to me and my family and my community and how it fits into American history."

In May 1942, just days after Chizu's 12th birthday, she, along with her parents and younger sister, boarded a train near their home in Oceanside, California, and headed for an unknown future.

JAPANESE GATHER
Japanese citizens gather at a train which will take them from the Santa Anita assembly camp in California to the internment camp at Gila River, Ariz. in 1942. (AP Photo/National Archives)

"We didn't know how long we were going, we didn't know how long we'd be there."

Over the years, there has been some debate over what the camps are called. The U.S. government still refers to the camps as "internment camps" or "war relocation centers." But today, groups like the Japanese-Americans Citizens League call them "incarceration camps" or "concentration camps."

There were 10 of these camps, mostly scattered across the western U.S. Two were located in Arizona -- The Gila River War Relocation Center roughly 30 miles south of Phoenix and the Poston War Relocation Center located in La Paz County, south of Parker.

According to historians, any individual who was at least one-sixteenth Japanese would have been required to go to one of the camps. Government records show more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to live in these camps and according to estimates, two-thirds of the Japanese-Americans sent to the camps were actually U.S. citizens.

Chizu says preparing for her family's departure wasn't easy with just about a week to gather her things.

"'Only what you could carry' was the phrase, and so it was mostly suitcases. I do remember having to sell all of our belongings."

But the sacrifices for Chizu were just beginning. She left behind her home, the strawberry farm her family worked on, her school, her friends -- even her identity.

"It was kind of forced on us that if you want to be integrated then you have to dump your culture and your part of your identity. That really was the big lesson from what the government did to us is that being Japanese was bad and that if we wanted to make it in this country, we had to assimilate."

Travel Trip-Camp Amache
This Jan. 18, 2015, photo shows a rebuilt watchtower at Camp Amache, the site of a former World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp in Granada, Colo. From 1942 to 1945, more than 7,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were forcibly relocated to what was then called the Granada Relocation Center. They were part of the more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans ordered to relocation camps in California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah and Arkansas. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras)

Adjusting to her new life in the camp was far from easy. Chizu still remembers that first day, living in Block 22, Barack 10.

"We were kind of in survival mode in the beginning because of the raw quality of it all the barracks. They were just giving us cots and canvas bags to fill with hay and straw and that would be our mattress."

Even basic things like going to the bathroom in private became a luxury.

"Going to the toilet...you were very exposed because it was all in a row and you could see everyone...there was a real disconnect between our former lives and our lives in the camp."

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