I have been trying to visit the Gila River Indian Community for about the last ten years. My parents were incarcerated at the Gila River Relocation Center, located on an Indian reservation belonging to the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC). With Covid, all visits were suspended. I was pleased to hear on October 11, 2022, that I can apply for entry, and visit the grounds with a member of the GRIC. My visit is planned for March 10, 2023, assuming my application for entry is approved. I consider this a very big moment in my life.
I have attached some of the paperwork involved in my application. BTW, it was approved on Feb. 7!!! I am so pleased!
The Gila River War Relocation Center was located about 50 miles south of Phoenix, and 9 miles west of Sacaton in Pinal County, AZ. The site is located on Gila River Indian Tribal land. The site is sacred to the tribe and access to the land is restricted.
Here are some facts about the Relocation Center:
Closed: 9/28/1945 and 11/10/1945
Located on 13,000 acres on BLM and Pima Indian Reservation
Camouflage net factory operated from Fall 1942 to 5/43
Summer Temp: high 125, Winter temp low -35.
The fence surrounding the camp was removed about 6 months after the camp opened.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited on 4/23/43.
Actor Pat (Noriyuki) Morita lived a Gila before moving on to Tule Lake
Population: 13,348 (4th largest city in AZ at the time)
7,000 acres were being farmed with 2000 head of cattle, 25,000 chickens, 2500 hogs, 110 dairy cows.
Baseball was a big deal. The Zenimuras from Fresno built a baseball field. The Sansei baseball that we played was a remnant of the importance of baseball in the camps.
Further, I found this in the National Archives:
I was able to find this information about Relocation Camp data in the National Archives:
Frank Kataoka (my father)
Relocation Project 3, Gila River, AZ
Address: Firebaugh, Fowler, Parlier, San Joaquin, Clovis, Kingsburg
Occupation: Farm Operator
Languages: Japanese, English
Potential Occupation: Semi-skilled mechanic, Repairman, Motor Vehicle
File # 311286
The Center was built on 16,500 acres belonging to the Gila River Indian Reservation, as were many others, also built on Indian reservations. Two camps were built, Canal and Butte, about 3.5 miles apart. Construction began on May 1, 1942, over strong objections by the reservation’s American Indian government. The official opening took place a mere two months later, on July 20. Canal camp was closed on September 28, 1945, and Butte was closed on November 16, 1945.
Most of the Gila River internees were from Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. Another 2000 were added from Jerome (Arkansas Relocation Center, when that camp was closed in 1944. Jerome is where most of my Dad’s family were sent, basically, those Japanese on the west side of Highway 99. Gila became Arizona’s fourth largest city with 13,348 at the peak.
The harsh weather caused some deaths, including the mother of Iva Toguri, the woman later known as Tokyo Rose. She was later convicted of treason, though the testimony was perjured. I am convinced this is where my Mother contracted tuberculosis.
Despite this, Gila River was considered one of the least oppressive, and most relaxed camps among the ten. It had a single guard tower, and the fences were not made of barbed wire. The people who ran the camp allowed the internees access to Phoenix, for activities related to sports and the arts. That explains exactly how my parents were able to get a weekend pass, to elope to Phoenix for the weekend to get married.
It is hard to believe that Butte camp had a baseball field with dugouts that seated 6000 people. It was designed by Kenichi Zenimura, a professional baseball player from Fresno. Internees also built a theater for plays and movies, as well as playgrounds for the children and planted trees for gardens and parks. Baseball was something that kept the boys engaged in sports, competition, and physical activity. As a teenager, I was able to participate in Sansei sports, kept alive through a tradition that began before the Camps.
Gila River had a small medical facility in Butte camp. Butte had 821 buildings, including 627 residential barracks. Canal camp had 404 buildings with 232 residential barracks, and 24 separate schoolhouses. The barracks were made of wood, and white beaverboard. A special double roof with red fireproof shingles were designed to block out the desert heat. Each building had swamp coolers to keep the summer temperatures bearable, though water shortages kept the coolers off for periods.
Each barrack housed four single families in separate “apartments”, though the walls did not reach the ceiling of the barracks. The dust was a constant problem, making housekeeping rather impossible, according to my Mom. Residential sections were divided into blocks of fourteen barracks. Each barracks were 20 feet by 100 feet and divided into four single family “apartments” or partitions.
One resident of each block served as block manager, in a self-governing manner. The internees ran the mess hall and other services. The community-owned store was a cooperative, run by the residents. The Butte camp hospital, though run by a WRA administration doctor, was staffed by Japanese Americans doctors, nurses, and aides. The fire and police departments were also run by internees.
The larger camp, Butte, had six churches, a shoe repair shop, sewing shop, dry cleaning, laundry, barber shop, canteen, store, and kitchen. 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.
The heat was oppressive, with average summer temperatures of 104 degrees F., with temperatures of 125 possible. Despite the heat, this camp was considered the model or showcase. Eleanor Roosevelt made a surprise visit to the camp in 1943, to look into charges that Japanese Americans were given special treatment. Among her comments, I found this of interest: “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.”
Eventually, the camp exceeded its capacity of 10,000, with over 13,000 internees, Some families were forced to live in the mess halls or recreation centers, using blankets as makeshift walls. Water shortages plagued the camp, along with rattlesnake and scorpion bites. My Mom never complained about this!
With large numbers of people, social, sports, and religious activities began to thrive. Organizations like the Scouts formed, along with sports teams, and many churches, including Buddhist, Catholic, and other Christian congregations. People from outside the camp could get a pass the visit their friends inside.
Because of wartime food rationing, the camps grew their own food. The fertile soil, and warm temperatures were ideal to grow beets, carrots, celery, and other vegetables. This included a white radish, daikon, used by Japanese for pickles and flavoring, sent to the other camps. The internees also raised livestock, along with war crops like cotton, flax, and castor beans. Eventually, twenty percent of the food consumed at the camps was provided by Gila River.
Today, public access to Gila River is limited since it resides on Gila River Indian Tribe land, considered scared by them. Most of the main structures are gone. Some artifacts remain, such as roads, concrete slab foundations, manholes, cisterns, rocks, and small ponds. But in 2006, President Bush authorized $38 million (HR 1492) to restore Gila River along with nine other Relocation centers. Many Sansei college students over the years, have volunteered to help reconstruct these facilities over the years as part of their college courses, or own their own.
So, there were some famous people interned here, rather they went on to become famous. They include actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, Kenichi Zenimura, Kazuo Otani (Medal of Honor), Miiko Taka (actress), George Nakamura (Bronze Star), George Hoshida (artist), Tomoko Miho (Aiga Medal), and Paul Terasaki (transplant specialist).
My parents were able to leave Gila River early, to work back east in Chicago. Fortunately for me, they eventually made their way back to California. But they were able to elope to Phoenix on a weekend pass to get married. Upon their return, they were given a “honeymoon” room where they could have some privacy. After that, back to normal barracks life.
Internees were allowed the leave camp early to work in the war effort. My Dad worked at an auto repair shop, and my Mom and the rest of the family worked for Curtiss candy company in Chicago. When the war ended, they came back to their ranch in Kingsburg. The ranch is still in the family, now operated by my cousin and her husband, but leased out to a trusted friend. Interestingly, everyone who farmed on our street has either moved or passed on. We are the last ones standing!
I am so thankful they came back to California. I was born a year later, in October 1946. They provided a great home and family life for four of us, a brother and two sisters. They rarely spoke about this period of their lives. My grandparents never spoke about it. Only in later years have I been able to piece together some information from my Aunts and Uncles, as well as family friends.
The story is ongoing, and I hope, enduring.