Freed from one camp, he helps liberate another

by Renita Foster


Public Affairs Office

May it serve as a constant reminder of our past so that Americans in the future will never again be denied their constitutional rights and may the remembrance of that experience serve to advance the evolution of the human spirit….

Plaque at the Poston Relocation Center near Parker, Ariz.


Joe Ichiuji has never forgotten his father’s parting words as he left the Poston Relocation Center to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT).  


“Fight for America! It is your home,” he said.


Ichiuji felt a surge of pride at his father’s advice, but also thought it ironic since that’s exactly what he had been doing until discharged from the Army a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.      


Born and raised in California, Ichiuji was an American citizen and drafted in September of 1941. He graduated from Army basic training at Camp Roberts, Calif. and was sent to an installation near Fort Lewis, Wash.   


“I was an Army corporal when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I felt badly my parents’ country would do such a thing,” said Ichiuji. “Here I am, an American citizen, in an Army uniform, wondering how I’ll face my friends. Soldiers who were now my comrades.”


Two months later, his first sergeant told Ichiuji he was being discharged because he was “Nisei” (second generation Japanese American).


Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, authorized the forcible internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, of which two-thirds were U.S. citizens.


Yellow notices were soon distributed throughout the west coast announcing removal orders of all Japanese personnel.


The posters went on to advise the Civil Control Station would assist with advice and instructions for evacuation, the selling or storage of property, businesses, household goods and livestock.


There would also be transportation with limited belongings to temporary residences. Nothing was said, however, about why or how long.


While numerous Japanese Americans would forfeit and lose all they owned, Ichiuji’s family was lucky.


Close friends guarded their property after they stored their belongings and closed their home. A trusted employee took care of his father’s shoe repair business.


“I was surprised and unhappy because I wanted to stay in the Army,” said Ichiuji. “Before I left, all my Army buddies came to say goodbye.”


His family was already gone when Ichiuji arrived home. Family friends had secured living arrangements for them in a non- restrictive area. But three months later, they were ordered to report to an assembly area and board a train. As to where, they had no idea.


“In the train were Army guards with weapons watching us,” said Ichiuji. “I couldn’t imagine anyone believing we were that dangerous.”


The Poston Relocation Center near Parker, Ariz. became Ichiuji’s final destination.


Located in the desert, Poston was perhaps the hottest of all the internment camps. With a population of almost 18,000, it was also one of the largest.


Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, Poston was composed of block arrangements, each containing 14 barracks, one mess hall and one recreation hall. Towards the interior were ironing, laundry and lavatory facilities.


Ichiuji described the morale of the relocation camp as low. And like the Army, camp life was regimented.


“We each were assigned a number and lined up to eat or use the shower and toilet,” said Ichiuji. “You had a ways to go if you wanted to use the bathroom,” said Ichiuji. “And when the weather was bad it was terribly muddy.”


Houses were mostly wood or tarpaper buildings. There were also dry and cold warehouses, car and equipment repair, a hospital, library, and administrations. Schools were taught by volunteers and college students. And there were “canteens” where Ichiuji remembers dancing to swing music as well as religious services where he practiced his Presbyterian faith.  


There were three parts to the camp with about 6,000 people in each. Ichiuji’s family was assigned to Camp 3. After arriving, they were given mattress covers to fill with hay and old cots for sleeping. There was also a wooden stove and one light.


“We were crammed in there, but we partitioned ourselves to make it more comfortable,” said Ichiuji. “And we tried to maintain a normal life within the barbed wire fence. We made the best of it because we had no other choice.”


Once there, Ichiuji and his fellow Japanese Americans organized themselves with the help of the War Relocation Authorities (WRA).


Jobs were arranged with earnings depending upon the type of position. Ichiuji made the second highest paying as a timekeeper, $16, which became his spending money for items in the commissary like toilet articles. The internees also made camouflage nets for the Armed Forces.


Work procedures were strictly enforced during the week, but weekends brought activities like baseball, basketball and bridge.


Twenty two-year- old Ichiuji even helped form dance groups and his father was allowed to establish his shoe repair business.  


“My parents were very unhappy and sad about the situation. Especially about coming from the country that had done such a thing like Pearl Harbor,” recalled Ichiuji. “But running the shoe repair business kept my father very busy and that helped. He was badly needed since everyone was wearing out their shoes and he taught others how to do it.”


There was also a loss of family structure. It had always been the Ichiuji custom for all family members to eat dinner together. Now, they were separated and just ate with friends. And Ichiuji’s father was no longer the main provider for his family.


“I think parents lost control of their children and that was quite a shock for them,” added Ichiuji.


Six months later came the opportunity to join the 442nd RCT and serve America.


Ichiuji was one of the first to volunteer. He wanted to prove he was a loyal American and welcomed the chance to fight for his country during war.


“Now I could show my loyalties as an American citizen and serve my country,” said Ichiuji. “Even though I was discharged from the Army as an enemy alien and sent to an internment camp, I thought by proving I was a loyal American, the people outside would regain confidence in the Nisei and remove us from there.”


Prior to his internment, Ichiuji had trained in field artillery. As a result, he was assigned to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion that served in Italy, France, and Germany. Ichiuji was once again a corporal by the time he marched through Germany with the 522nd and happened to stumble on a sub camp, part of the main concentration camp known as Dachau.


The irony of barbed wire and block barracks was not lost on him as his parents were still interned at Poston.


“We were moving fast, but as we approached the camp area we slowed down on a dirt road,” said Ichiuji. “After making a turn, I saw the Jewish prisoners, and was so appalled by their appearance. As soon as the gates were opened, they literally began stripping a dead horse on the edge of the road to eat. They were that hungry.”


Ichiuji and other Nisei Soldiers also supplied the Jewish prisoners with rations. Unfortunately, the victims could not digest the food and became very sick.   


Ichiuji knew Germany had lost the war, but Dachau reminded him of his parents and other Japanese Americans still detained in camps in the United States.


He found it ironic he and his fellow Nisei should be the ones to find an enemy’s concentration camp. He wondered about the two races incarcerated during the war for the same reason – racial prejudice.


But Ichiuji also understood the purposes were different. The German camps were designed to exterminate the Jewish race, while the Japanese American centers would only last as long as the war.  


“We were at war with Japan, Germany and Italy, but we were the only ones singled out for that,” said Ichiuji. “I feel discrimination still exists in this country. Which is why I must share this story so it won’t happen again.


In 1952, Congress amended the Immigration Law allowing all Issei, (Japanese who emigrated from Japan before World War II) to become American citizens, something Ichiuji says his parents were grateful for.


In 1968, the United States compensated Japanese Americans for property they lost. And in 1988, surviving internees were awarded formal payments and apologies. Something Ichiuji says makes a difference to the Nisei.


“I’m proud of my heritage, of being Nisei, and my country, America. Because America recognized the mistake of the internment camps and vowed never to let it happen again, that makes it a great country, “ he said.


(Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series featuring the Nisei during World War II.)