Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Moving Day: May 17, 1942

ABOVE: The Pacific Electric Railway station was at the foot of the Huntington Beach pier, Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street, in 1942.  The majority of Japanese Americans in the Wintersburg Village and Huntington Beach part of Orange County were instructed by the U.S. Army to gather at the P.E. station to wait for the military-guarded buses that would take them to the Arizona desert.  Some were instructed to wait at the Japanese Language School building, off Sherman Avenue in Garden Grove.  Japanese Americans in north Orange County departed from Anaheim by train. By May 17, 1942, all Japanese Americans in Orange County, California, were gone. (Photo, Pacific Electric Railway station circa 1941, City of Huntington Beach archives)

Note: In 2022, it is the 80th anniversary of the forced removal from Orange County.

            "I remember the regulations being posted on Edison Company poles."
             "And this was the only notification you had--the public posters?"
             "When you got to Poston, what did you think of it?"
             "I had a real deep sinking feeling when we saw the place."
                          ~ Hitoshi Nitta, February 7, 1966. Born in Santa Ana, California, in 1917.

   In Orange County, "moving day" was seventy-five years ago: Sunday, May 17, 1942.  All persons with Japanese ancestry--including U.S.-born citizens--were instructed to report to various Civil Control Stations or designated departure sites around the County by that date.  In Huntington Beach, the departure site was the Pacific Electric Railway station at the foot of the Huntington Beach pier.

 LEFT: The Santa Ana Register provided an update at the bottom of their front page about the "expulsion" of Japanese Americans from Orange County. By May 17, 1942, all persons with Japanese ancestry--whole or partial--were gone. (Santa Ana Register, May 18, 1942)

   On May 18, 1942, the Santa Ana Register reported a total of 1,543 from Orange County were now at "a concentration camp near Parker Dam, Arizona, as a result of expulsion of all persons of Japanese ancestry under Army orders."

   "We left from the Huntington Beach Pacific Electric station, but we left on a bus. It was a PE bus," recalled Henry Kanegae in his 1966 oral history with Richard Curtiss for California State College, Fullerton.  He and his family farmed about 45 acres near Talbert (Fountain Valley).

   Kanegae was 25 at the time he left for the Colorado River Relocation Center (Poston), in Arizona. His wife, two small daughters, and his parents, were part of the Kanegae family group that gathered in Huntington Beach, before their journey to Arizona.  He told his interviewer in 1966 that his children "wouldn't eat or sleep the first two or three days" when they got to Poston.  He found baby food at a small market in the camp and made soup with it so his daughters would be comforted and sleep.  

   Kanegae was interviewed again--at age 75 in 1992--by Dean Takahashi with the Los Angeles Times ("Half a Century Later, Relocation Pain Persists", February 16, 1992).  Then retired from farming and living in Santa Ana, Kanegae vividly remembered the blowing sand of Poston "hit like it was coming from a fire hose, making all kinds of noise. All we saw was dust."

LEFT: New arrivals at the Colorado River Relocation Center, Poston, Arizona, filling mattress cloth with straw left in piles near the barracks. The barracks behind them were built by the Army with green lumber and black tar paper.  The green lumber dried rapidly, shrinking and opening cracks through which blew the endless dust of Poston. (Photo snip, National Archives and Records Administration, Colorado River Relocation Center, Poston, Arizona, May 21, 1942)

   Kanegae's interviewer in 1966 asked if the federal government provided them with food or supplies for the journey on the day they left Orange County.  Since no one knew for certain where they were going, it was hard to know how long their journey might take.  Kanegae did not recall provisions for food for his bus during what turned out to be a minimum nine-hour journey, but remembered a group of women who showed up at the Pacific Electric station in Huntington Beach.

   "No, the government did not (provide food), but there was a group of--I believe they were Baptist--ladies who were from the western portion of the county that had coffee and donuts for us," recalled Kanegae, born in the peatlands of present-day Fountain Valley and a lifelong resident of Orange County.  "And after I arrived at camp, I wrote them a letter thanking them for it."

    The temperatures in Orange County were rising in mid May, the Santa Ana Register reporting on "mid-summer heat" of 88 degrees by noon.  The buses leaving for Arizona had no air conditioning and it got hotter as the day progressed.  The barracks that would be their living quarters in Arizona had no cooling systems, the dark tar paper walls only absorbing more heat.  As people arrived in the Sonoron desert--where average heat in May is in the mid to high 90 degrees--the temperatures were well above 100 degrees.

RIGHT: In early 1942, a group of University of California social scientists began studying the forced removal and confinement of Japanese Americans. In a report published in 1946, The Spoilage, there are details about camp conditions, atmosphere, social relations, and the inconsistency of policy or management among the different camps. This excerpt describes the scene at the "intake" for Poston, Arizona. (The Spoilage, University of California Press, Dorothy Swaine Thomas and Richard S. Nishimoto, 1946)

   After the day-long journey, some fainted from the heat, lack of water and food, and pure exhaustion.  Volunteers handed out salt tablets, ice, and wet towels.  The Spoilage notes, "at long tables sit interviewers suggesting enlistment in the War Relocation Work CorpsMen and women, still sweating, holding onto children and bundles try to think."

   A Poston project director is reported as saying, "he thought the people looked lost.  He once found a woman standing, holding her 4-day-old baby and sent her to rest in his room."  An associate project director recalled seeing "an elderly mother who had been in a hospital some years propped on her baggage gasping and being fanned by two daughters, while her son went around trying to get a bed set up for her. The old lady later died." 

LEFT: Men incarcerated in one of the Department of Justice prison camps in Santa Fe, New Mexico, heard about the conditions at Poston and appealed to the Consulate of Spain.  By July 1942, it was reported at least four had died from heat. Spain acted as the neutral country under the Geneva Convention for prisoners of Japanese ancestry classified as non-citizen enemy aliens (Issei were not allowed to become U.S. citizens until 1952). In this instance, prisoners appealed to the Spanish Consulate on behalf of their families incarcerated at Poston, rather than themselves.  The Consulate requested of the U.S. government an opportunity to inspect the relocation centers as a result. (Letter to Hon. Francisco De Amat, Consul of Spain, from Japanese detainees at U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Station, Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 9, 1942)

   Upon arrival at Poston-- as well as the other camps--each adult was required to answer questions about their occupation, in order to fill camp jobs.  Then, fingerprinting.  Then off to another barrack to stand in line for a housing assignment.  Then, registration, again, and a physical examination.  Only after all this, were families loaded into trucks and driven to their barrack to take stock of their new "home".

RIGHT: Civilian Exclusion Order No. 61, which was issued for the region of Orange County including Wintersburg Village and Huntington Beach, provided a list of what each family was allowed to bring with them. Belongings were to be labeled with the identification number they had been provided during registration the prior week at the Civil Control Station.  Prior to departure, families tried to find homes for their pets, who were not allowed to come with them. A teacher in northern California allowed her students bring their pets to school so other students could volunteer to take them in. (Excerpt, Civilian Exclusion Order No. 61)

   The space allotted to each family in a barrack was a 20 by 25-foot barren room, dust blowing inside through the knotholes and growing cracks of the green lumber drying rapidly in the desert heat. The four family "apartments" in each barrack would be divided by hanging cloth partitions.

   For each person, there was one Army cot, one blanket, and one piece of cloth for a mattress.  That meant one more task at the end of a never-ending day: find a pile of straw left by the camp administration and fill the mattress cloth, or, go without a mattress that night. And, only then, try to sleep.  Listening to the collective silence.  Wondering why they were there.

ABOVE: Luggage and bags with family identification tags at the interpretive center at the Manzanar National Historic Site tell the story of what people were allowed to take with them.  And, how much was left behind. (Photo, Exhibit at the Manzanar National Historic Site interpretive center, Owens Valley, California. M. Urashima, July 2015) © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

MOVING DAY, MARCH 23 - AUGUST 11, 2017 - In conjunction with the exhibition Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066, the Japanese American National Museum presents Moving Day, an outdoor public art installation in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. The work consists of a series of projections of the Civilian Exclusion Orders that were publicly posted during World War II to inform persons of Japanese ancestry of their impending forced removal and incarceration, a series of dialogues and events grappling with the legacy of the WWII incarceration of Japanese Americans. Learn more at

© All rights reserved.  No part of the Historic Wintersburg blog may be reproduced or duplicated without prior written permission from the author and publisher, M. Adams Urashima. 

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The Historic Wintersburg blog focuses on an overlooked history in Huntington Beach, Orange County, California, in the interest of saving a historic property from demolition. The author and publisher reserves the right not to publish comments. Please no promotional or political commentary. Zero tolerance for hate rhetoric. Comments with embedded commercial / advertising links or promoting other projects, books, or publications may not be published. If you have an interesting anecdote, question or comment about one of our features, it will be published.