While we are in Sedona and Scottsdale, I visited the Gila River War Relocation Center. Most of my Dad’s family (west of Highway 99) were incarcerated in Jerome, Arkansas shortly after Pearl Harbor. My Mom’s family from Sanger (east of Highway 99) was sent to Gila River, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. My Dad stayed behind to make arrangements for the family farm. He met up with some bachelor friends in Fresno, and was shipped out to Gila shortly. My Mom and Dad met there, and were married during their year in the desert. They received a weekend pass to elope to Phoenix.
But how much do you know about the “Relocation Camp” in the Arizona desert?
The Gila River War Relocation Center was built on the Gila River Indian Reservation, over their objections. Gila River is about 20 miles south of Phoenix. When Gila River’s population reached 13,348, it became the fourth largest city in the state, between May,1942, and September, 1945.
Construction of the camp began on May 1, 1942, and consisted of the Butte camp and the Canal camp. Despite the strong objections of the Gila River governing council, the camp was opened two months later, on July 20, 1942. Both Canal (September 28), and Butte (November 10) were closed in 1945. The Gila tribe was promised construction jobs that never happened.
Most of those incarcerated were from the Fresno, Los Angeles, and Sacramento areas. When Jerome, Arkansas Relocation Center closed, another 2,000 evacuees arrived in 1944.
Compared to the other Relocation Centers, Gila River was one of the least oppressive, except for the harsh summer and winter weather. The fences did not use barbed wire, and the camp had only a single watchtower. The camp’s administrators were sympathetic to the evacuees plight and were lenient in giving them access to Phoenix and recreational activities in the surrounding desert.
Canal Camp had 404 buildings, with 44 for administrative purposes, 232 barracks for living quarters, 16 mess halls, 17 ironing rooms, 17 laundry rooms, 34 latrine and shower buildings, 24 school buildings and 20 community service buildings. Residential sections were divided into blocks of 14 barracks. Each barrack was 20 by 100 square feet and divided into four single-family apartments.
Butte Camp had 821 buildings, including 22 administration offices, warehouses, and staff housing. There was a post office, garages, mimeograph buildings, warehouses, police office, court, water filtration plant, refrigerated warehouse, laundry, gas station and various other staff buildings, most of which were built by the evacuees. Butte Camp had 627 residential barracks of which 46 were used for the schools, 6 for churches, and 29 for other services, including a shoe repair shop, sewing shop, laundry and dry cleaning, barber shop, beauty shop, canteen, store, and a kitchen.
Sports were a big deal here. Vacant blocks were used for basketball courts, football fields, playgrounds, sumo arena and other facilities, which were leveled and built by the internees themselves. Butte Camp was known to have had the WRA’s finest baseball diamond. Designed by professional baseball player Kenichi Zenimura (known as the Father of Japanese American baseball), it had dugouts, bleachers and could seat up to 6,000 spectators. The residents also built an outdoor theater from scrap lumber for entertainment such as talent shows, plays, and movies. The evacuees landscaped elaborate gardens and planted trees to add an aesthetic sense to their daily life. They also built numerous ponds in interesting shapes near or under barracks that helped cool the structures.
What else did the evacuees do with their time?
Because of food rationing the War Relocation Authority wanted the camps to grow their own food. Agriculture was a priority at Gila River, and the naturally fertile soil and warm climate provided ideal farming conditions. By August 1942, vegetable farms were growing acres of beets, carrots, and celery and other vegetables. One of the earliest crops was daikon, the long, white radish widely used by the Japanese. Gila River would eventually produce 10 acres of daikon that was shipped to all the other camps.
During the peak harvest season, from 1943 to 1944, nearly 1,000 internees worked in the farmland around Canal Camp growing vegetables and raising livestock. In the first nine months of operation, 84 train carloads of food were shipped to other relocation camps. In all, 20 percent of the food consumed at the other camps came from Gila River. Evacuees also produced 150 acres of flax, cotton, and castor beans as war crops.
The WRA also decided that livestock should be part of the agricultural program at Gila River, and internees began raising cows, hogs and chickens in May 1943. Although the task of raising the chickens was especially challenging because of the extreme daytime heat, workers successfully used double-roofed structures to keep the chicken houses cool and ventilated. By the end of the year there were 1,377 cattle, 1,106 hogs, and 8,584 chickens, with 60 hogs and 60 cattle butchered for the mess hall kitchens each week.
When the war turned in favor of the Allies, many Japanese Americans were allowed to leave camp for eastern cities. They were needed to work in factories supporting the war effort. My parents left for Chicago, where they worked in various jobs until the war ended. I assume they made their way back to the family farm on Bethel Avenue, which is still owned and operated by my Uncle’s family.
My parents and relatives rarely talked about it, my Father and grandparents never talked about it. How I wish I could ask them questions about it now that I am so interested in this dark period of their lives.
But, I believe their story is mostly a happy one. Why? Because they met and married there. They came back to California, started a new life, and a family, for which I was fortunate to be the oldest. Others were not so fortunate. Many lost property, loved ones, and never recovered.
Judge for yourself. The photos are self explanatory.
As I walk the grounds here, I can only imagine what they thought. Would they ever be released? Would like ever be normal again? How would people treat them? Yes, it brings some tears to my eyes. But mostly it makes me happy to be alive, to have parents who raised me in the best possible way.
A memorial at nearby Poston Relocation Center reads: “This memorial is dedicated to all those men, women and children who suffered countless hardships and indignities at the hands of a nation misguided by wartime hysteria, racial prejudice and fear. 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.”