San Francisco — Although over 40 years have passed, the evacuation and detention-camp experience during World War II remains the reference point for many Japanese-Americans today. ''Everything (in the community) here is dated before or after the war,'' says Ron Wakabayashi, national director of the Japanese American Citizens League.
Following the issue of Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 Japanese-Americans were prohibited from living, working, or traveling on the West Coast. Initially, relocation was voluntary, but the Army soon took more definite measures.
Japanese-American families were assigned numbers and systematically taken to temporary assembly centers, where they lived for months while more permanent camps were set up. Families were allowed to take only what they could carry after selling their homes, cars, and other personal goods for a fraction of their value, or after leaving property in the hands of friends or neighbors. County fairgrounds, race tracks, or stockyards served as assembly centers where families lived in tar-paper-roof barracks or horse stalls.
The families were then transported to one of the 10 permanent camps farther inland, entering them through cordons of armed guards. Camp life was highly regimented and often put a strain on family relations. According to the congressional report ''Personal Justice Denied'': ''In the mess halls the evening meal, when values and manners were traditionally taught, was no longer a family affair, and lack of privacy even in living quarters made it difficult to discipline children.''
As noncitizens, the Issei (the immigrant generation from Japan) were stripped of their authority as community leaders and heads of the household. The government dealt only with the Nisei (first generation of ethnic Japanese born in the United States) in decisions regarding internal camp life. At an average age of 18, says Mr. Wakabayashi, these young people were suddenly responsible for weighty decisions affecting the future of their families and their communities.
According to the report, ''At the root of it all, evacuees resented being prisoners against whom no crime was charged and for whom there was no recourse.''
The ''loyalty review program'' caused further discontent. According to the commission report: ''After almost a year of what the evacuees considered utterly unjust treatment at the hands of the government, the loyalty-review program began with filling out a questionnaire which posed two questions requiring declarations of complete loyalty to the United States. Thus, the questionnaire demanded a personal expression of position from each evacuee - a choice between faith in one's future in America and outrage at present injustice.'' The questionnaire aroused conflicting emotions and split families. According to the report, ''It became one of the most divisive and wrenching episodes of camp detention.''
By early 1943, Nisei volunteers were allowed to enlist in the armed services. The new recruits served in military intelligence positions in the Pacific theater and fought in Europe. The 442nd regimental combat team of Nisei soldiers in Europe returned to the US as one of the most decorated combat teams of World War II. Ironically, Mr. Wakabayashi says, a Nisei combat unit opened the gates of Dachau.
After release from the US detention camps, the evacuees struggled to recover lost property and rebuild their lives. Some of the older Issei never regained their pre-war financial status and remained impoverished. Some Japanese-Americans who had built up substantial businesses before the war found themselves on the streets doing menial jobs for the city. The Nisei were able to attain financial stability and success, but the obstacles to overcome were not all financial. According to Mr. Wakabayashi, ''Everyone felt a sense of loss.'