They had a week to sell their homes, businesses, and farms, usually at far below a fair price. Packing what they could into trucks and trains, they were forced from their communities into tarpaper barracks in remote desert areas. Surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers, they were guarded by armed military police.
Victims of wartime fear, economic greed, and racism, 120,000 Japanese -- two- thirds of them United States citizens -- spent World War II in deprivation, frustration, and uncertainty.
Now, more than 35 years later, the United States is making official inquiry into what an Army historian today calls "a dark interlude in American history." How should the Japanese-Americans -- not one of whom ever betrayed their country -- be compensated for loss of property and opportunity? How did it happen? More important, how can it be prevented from happening again?
The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians this week began the difficult and important task of answering these questions. Appointed by Congress and the President, it is hearing from government officials who participated in the internment as well as the victims and their heirs.
Retired senior government officials recall the near-hysteria that swept the country in the months between Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, when much of the Japanese fleet was destroyed. Several American ships were sunk off the West Coast, and there were erroneous reports of impending attacks. Three-quarters of the Japanese in the United States lived in California.
Even though FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, as well as military intelligence officials, counseled against it, President Roosevelt signed an executive order allowing military commanders to designate certain areas from which "any or all" persons could be removed. The legality of suspending certain constitutional rights solely on the basis of ancestry was upheld by the US Supreme Court (including such liberals as William Douglas and Felix Frankfurter).
"It is a sad and nationally humiliating story," says former US Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, who held a high post in the Roosevelt administration during the war years. "I cannot escape the conclusion that racial prejudice was its basic ingredient."
Bewildered and fearful, few Japanese- Americans resisted. One who did was Gordon Hirabayashi, who was born in Seattle and now is a professor at the University of Washington. He fought all the way to the US Supreme Court, but lost his case and spent more than two years in prison.
Recalling that episode today, he says: "For me it was a choice of accepting what I believed the Constitution guaranteed for American citizenship . . . or to resign myself to becoming a second-class citizen."
Dr. Hirabayashi feels that interned Japanese-Americans should at least be fully compensated for their loss of property, which the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in 1942 estimated to be $400 million. There was some government compensation after the war, but this amounted to no more than 10 cents on the dollar.
Considering inflation, full compensation could amount to $3 billion. No one expects Congress to approve a sum of that magnitude given these cost-conscious times. Rep. Daniel K. Akaka (D) of Hawaii suggests a "restitution for lost opportunity" in the form of scholarships for the children and grandchildren of the internees.
Japanese-Americans played an important military role in World War II. They served in the Pacific (often behind enemy lines) as language and intelligence specialists. A Japanese-American unit that fought in North Africa and Italy was one of the most highly decorated in US military history.
Despite this latter-day recognition and the civil-rights movement that has grown in that intervening years, there still is concern that a similar racial incident could occur. When Americans were held hostage in Iran, there were calls to round up all Iranians in the United States.
"We need to examine what protections the law offered, and whether those protections need to be expanded," says commission chairman Joan Bernstein. "Few governments ever acknowledge mistakes, much les s authorize serious examinations of them."