On July 20, 1942, the War Relocation Authority opened the Gila River WRA Camp. They did so over the objections of the Gila River Indian Community elders. It was a violation of Indian sovereignty, made in order to violate the Constitutional rights of the thousands of Americans of Japanese ancestry who were imprisoned at the Gila River Camp.
At its peak, Gila River imprisoned 13,348 Japanese Americans. There were two Camps, Butte and Canal.
A portion of the Gila River Camp, early days… The photo shows the layout of a typical Block. Each Block had two rows of 16 barracks buildings with 14 residential barracks. Two barracks were set aside, one for a recreation/administration building and one for a mess hall. The smaller buildings between the two rows of barracks were the for men’s latrine/shower, women’s latrine/shower, boiler, and laundry room. [National Archives]
“Well, when we first got there, of course, we didn’t know where we were. [Laughs] All we knew that it was a desert. But Gila River, it was… I suppose, a shock. Barrack half-finished. We were assigned, my wife and I was assigned to a room to share with a family from San Leandro, California, who happened, one of those that evacuated into central California. They were about fifteen years older than we were. So we had to share a room with them because they couldn’t give us the room to ourselves, no two-person room. So we put up sheets and blanket for privacy, and that was our room.”
Yoshimi Matsuura, Gila River [Densho Digital Repository]
Making do in a bad situation…
Internees packing their mattresses with straw, immediately upon arrival at the Camp. [azcentral]
“Then my brother made a cooler, I guess. You wonder, where did they get this and where did they get that? They bought a fan and they got some excelsior that was like shredded wood thing they use for packaging, they put that behind the, between a net, wire net like, and then they put the excelsior in there and have a drip system that wets that excelsior and the fan goes through it. And that was our cooler. You’d make a big hole on the side of the barrack to allow this fan to sit there. And it was, like, so sticky. It was humid. …they tried to do all kinds of things. And like I say, if somebody starts something, just everybody else hears about it… everybody’s very innovative…”
Yasu Koyamatsu Momii, Gila River [Densho Digital Repository]
A sunrise service [National Archives]
A celebration of some sort. [National Archives]
“(was it) just like everyday things still went on?”
“I think pretty much so. The only difference was you didn’t live as a family. Maybe you slept as a family, but when you got up, you were on your own. You didn’t have to eat together or anything, at the mess hall. And everybody had their own separate friends, and you went their own separate ways.”
George Murakami, 8 years old, upon entering Gila River. [Densho Digital Archive]
Kids playing baseball… [Source Unknown]
Dry humor, poking fun at the government. [Los Angeles Public Library]
Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the outspoken opponents of the detention of Japanese Americans.
The First Lady visited Gila River in April of 1943. [Densho Digital Repository]
Over half of the adults at Gila River worked in one job or another. The wages were low. Nearly 900 men and women worked in agriculture on the 820 acres set aside for growing (mostly produce). Another 450 men and women worked in war production jobs (including the making of camouflage nets). All of the rest worked in the various jobs necessary to keep the WRA Camp running. [Source: Densho Encyclopedia]
Taking care of the stock… [PBS]
Picking cauliflower… [Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley]
Harvesting daikon [Modern Farmer]
Running the Camp flower nursery [Modern Farming]
Harvesting spinach [Modern Farming]
Life at Gila River was filled with so many ironies…
A soldier visits the Camp where his family is imprisoned, and shows his Purple Heart to his little brother. [WRA]
That’s Gila River as it was. Next, opportunity lost at Gila River.
Thanks for coming with me on the journey!