VOX POPULI: The Detainment of Alien Japanese and Life at Fort Lincoln, Bismarck, North Dakota

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By CHARLES HAMASAKI

What happened to the Issei 70 years ago? Overall, approximately 2,500 Issei were arrested and detained by the FBI. I’m writing this Vox Populi because I am the only living, original survivor of the Issei “enemy aliens” still living and have experienced the internment at Ft. Lincoln, Bismarck, North Dakota.

Actually, many of the families never knew where their fathers were taken. Letters were forbidden. After a couple of months, it was okay to send letters, but they were censored.

From Feb. 4 to 8, 1942, Terminal Island Issei fishermen were the first to be arrested by the FBI because of security reasons. Throughout  Southern California, merchants, schoolteachers, martial arts instructors, Japanese bank presidents and employees, Buddhist priests and farmers followed. It was a huge loss.

Soon after the arrests, Issei from Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Imperial counties all converged at the Los Angeles train depot. We were all loaded onto the passenger train, approximately 50 prisoners on 20 cars and the main engine car. On each train, there were two soldiers at the front and rear with a rifle and bayonet. Why? For security reasons.

Also, the blinds were down so we couldn’t look outside to see where we were going. Since I knew my geography, I peeked every once in a while and let everyone know where we were. The first stop was Fresno, then Stockton, Sacramento, Redding and into Eugene and Portland in Oregon. The next stop, Tacoma and Seattle in Washington. At every stop, they picked up more Issei, about 850 altogether. We also stopped at Spokane, but it was outside of the restricted zone.

The train was going through Idaho and Montana. Halfway to Montana, the train suddenly stopped for about an hour. I was curious to see what had happened, so I took a peek. Like ants, one by one, Issei were marching into a waiting bus.

I looked around and found out where we were. It was Ft. Missoula in Montana. The group was split in half. We were the other half of the group on the train. Next stop was our destination, Ft. Lincoln, Bismarck, North Dakota. I explained to all the Issei where we were. You know, 95 percent of them didn’t know. I asked them and their reply was, “Who cares?”

I remember most of us were from Southern California and we all felt like we were stepping into a refrigerator plant. It was freezing cold. They told us it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

As soon as we got off, we lined up eight wide and four deep like a squad in the Army. We were freezing. Every morning after that we went through the routine for a couple of months. The reason was for head count. After that, the commandant noticed we Issei were well-behaved and followed orders and were not threatening, so they abolished the routine.

Since the Nisei and Sansei don’t know what their fathers and grandfathers went through and never talked about the lifestyle and the environment at Ft. Lincoln, it was about 10 acres of land surrounded by an eight-foot fence with six guard towers. A wide fence went right through the center of the compound — half for German POWs and the other half for Issei.

The main building, which was like an apartment, held about 560 Issei, and on the south side, there were 25 barracks holding 40 internees. Altogether, about 1,400 internees. Morning and night, two soldiers came with rifles for a head count. They became quite friendly and talkative as the months went by.

The Bismarck internment camp in February 1942. (Photo by Charles Hamasaki)

Next to my barrack, there was a Japanese government group. They isolated themselves and did not converse with the internees. Somehow I got to know one of them. He was one of the Matsudaira clan, known as ping-pong champ in his prefecture. He was my playing partner. One out of ten, he beat me. He was very good. The group was the first to be exchanged for American POWs in Japan, on the exchange ship Gripsholm.

When we first arrived, we had two vaccinations. I don’t know what kind, but I think it was for flu and tetanus. Fifty percent of the elderly got sick due to the vaccinations.

The food wasn’t so good, no taste. So we all got together and complained to the officials. Complaining did the trick. Somehow we contacted the Spanish Consulate. Spain at that time was a neutral country. Result: Everything changed drastically for the better.

For entertainment and enjoyment, we had sumo tournaments, which were the Issei’s most popular event. We had movies, ping-pong contests and, of course, gambling on a small scale. As for sumo, the younger Issei ranged from 30 to 45 years old, so we had several competitors.

Since we didn’t know how to play soccer like the Germans, we challenged them to baseball. We always lost because the German team had players 18 to 30 years old. They had youth on their side, whereas the Issei were older.

The Constitution says there must be a jury trial for each and every one. It started in July 1942 with five lawyers and three Korean interpreters. The Koreans were very good in Japanese, but awful in English. Actually I understood their broken English 25 percent of the time. When my jury trial came up, I told the lawyer to get rid of them. Result: They didn’t know I spoke English fluently. They were surprised.

During the trial, they asked me all kinds of stupid questions. I don’t want to go into detail, but I talked myself out of Ft. Lincoln. The final decision was, “Get the hell out of here … You don’t belong here.” Then I was sent to Santa Anita Assembly Center with other Issei.

The Issei who were considered dangerous to our national security were sent to Ft. Livingston, Louisiana and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

For myself, it was one-in-a-million adventure and experience that I had, meeting and talking to all Issei from different backgrounds, and their history was very interesting and educational.

Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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2 Comments

  1. The author failed to mention that the others interned with him at Fort Lincoln were not German POWs, but German American civilians….yes civilians, who were rounded up just like he was.

  2. Robert L. Seward on

    In Ludecke v. Watkins, a German immigrant who was interned filed an anti internment case. The Supreme Court ruled that when the U.S. goes to war, all immigrants from that country are subject to internment and or deportation at the government’s whim and the immigrant has no due process rights nor can a court intervene in the deportation. It doesn’t matter if you have an American spouse or children or property. Your legal status is now Enemy Alien and you could for no reason other than your ethnicity, be locked up or deported.

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