Bainbridge Island: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans in WWII - Ranger Kevin Mahe
The flourishing immigrant community at Bainbridge Island was home to people from all over the world looking for a new start in America. People from Finland, Japan, Italy, Austria, Hawaii, China and other countries came together to form an American melting pot of cultures and traditions. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans tore apart the community of Bainbridge Island. On this episode of Podcasts with Park Rangers, we explore the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

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About Ranger Kevin Mahé

Ranger Kevin’s been with the Park Service for 10 years, both as an employee and a volunteer. Specifically, he’s been with Bainbridge Island for 1 year.

Kevin’s background in education gives him a unique perspective of the parks. They’re a place where people can learn in a hands-on environment and he’s still been able to apply his expertise. Additionally, the NPS gives Kevin the opportunity to be a lifelong learner — a reason why many end up in the Park Service.

About Bainbridge Island Japanese Exclusion Memorial

Bainbridge Island is located just west of Seattle across the Puget Sound — part of Minidoka National Historic Site located in Idaho where they imprisoned many of the Japanese Americans during World War II.

The Japanese Americans on Bainbridge Island were the first community forced from their homes after Pearl Harbor. They initially imprisoned many at Manzanar in California. Then, they were later transferred to the prison in Minidoka, Idaho which is why Bainbridge Island is part of Minidoka NHS.

Unfortunately, the expulsion of Japanese Americans went so well at Bainbridge Island, they ended up interning over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Japanese Immigrants on Bainbridge Island Pre World War II

Bainbridge Island drew both Chinese American and later Japanese American workers to form the labor force for two of the largest sawmills in the world in the late 1800s. As the Japanese immigrate, they set up Japan towns near the lumber mills. The lumber trade begins to die off in the early 1900s. As a result, many of the Japanese became farmers and on Bainbridge Island, they grew strawberries.

In cities like Seattle, immigrants tended to isolate across racial and cultural lines. However, on Bainbridge Island, a Japanese American immigrant’s farm would be right next door to Filipino Americans, Swedish Americans or any other number of ethnic groups.

The neighborhood had a diverse number of backgrounds and compared to the cities the Japanese Americans felt a huge part of the local community on Bainbridge Island. In cities, racism against Asian Americans in general existed — starting with those of Chinese descent in the late 1800s and later shifting against those of Japanese descent in the early 1900s.

Racism During World War II

The racist sentiments against Asian Americans boiled under the surface at first and news stories about those issues were rarely seen in newspapers. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the undercurrent of racism became much more obvious.

In World War II, America fought Japan, Italy, and Germany. But, only racism against the Japanese ran rampant — the racism didn’t happen as much with Italian or German immigrants to the US. Obviously, those of Japanese descent could be identified easily by how they looked and their last names, while many people of Italian or German descent governed the country or acted in movies at the time and rarely underwent scrutiny.

Laws wouldn’t allow first-generation Japanese immigrants to become citizens. In fact, immigrants from several Asian countries couldn’t gain citizenship. However, Germans and Italians could easily naturalize when they immigrated. It goes to show how deeply the racist sentiments ran before the bombing of Pearl Harbor even occurred.

FBI Investigations of Japanese Immigrants

In the 1930s before the war began, the US determined we could go to war with Japan in the near future. So, the government launched an FBI investigation into Japanese immigrants in the country.

During that investigation, they had a file on nearly every single immigrant and determined no real threats existed amongst those of Japanese descent. However, they determined Japanese Americans were the most anxious to become Americanized and become accepted in their local communities.

Arrests Made Without Probable Cause

The FBI went door to door to Japanese American homes after Pearl Harbor and entered without a warrant or probable cause. They asked if the families had firearms or dynamite — and for most farmers, dynamite played an important role in destroying tree stumps to develop farmland.

When the FBI found either firearms or dynamite, they arrested the head of household without a warrant. Additionally, they also arrested anyone with a prominent business or newspaper.

We expect the FBI to uphold the constitution and due process. However, they ignored the rights of Japanese Americans and arrested prominent leaders of the community. They refused to tell their families where they took them. Many wives and children were left without the patriarch of their family for 6 months up to a year — when they were also imprisoned in the camps.

The FBI and armed forces all knew from their own investigations the Japanese Americans weren’t a threat. However, they did it anyway. The government, including the presidential administration, employed the logic that since no treason has yet to occur within these communities, they must be planning something big. Much of the fear and racist sentiments were fueled by propaganda published in newspapers on the west coast.

Executive Order 9066

Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066 — out of military necessity people can be excluded from military areas at the discretion of the government. Essentially, he handed a blank check to the military and understood what they would do next. Even though Japanese Americans weren’t called out explicitly, this leads to them being relocated and incarcerated.

The government creates the War Relocation Authority (WRA) as the west coast becomes a militarized zone. Japanese Americans are no longer allowed to live on the west coast because it’s now an exclusion zone. However, they did not exclude Italians and Germans.

The administration justifies the order by saying the US was under threat of imminent invasion. However, the military knew an invasion would not occur because supply lines existed too far across the ocean.

The Supreme Court upholds the Executive Order because they didn’t have all the facts. The military held back the information which indicated no imminent threat of invasion and Japanese American communities were already investigated and found to be harmless.

The Executive Orders Effects on Bainbridge Island

March 24, 1942, the army shows up with notices indicating Japanese Americans need to vacate Bainbridge Island in 6 days to their new homes with only what they could carry. In such a short amount of time, families prepared and carried at most 2 suitcases of possessions with them.

Additionally, the day the army shows up with the notices, the Japanese Americans help to post the notices within their own communities because they want to help. They saw what was happening and trusted the government needed to relocate them for some reason.

In Japanese culture, a big part of getting through rough times is to shoulder the unbearable and survive what cannot be helped. The amount of inner strength they had to leave and survive the camps must have been immense.

Effects on Property Owned by Japanese Americans

Japanese Americans also needed to vacate their homes in the big cities as well. The Cadillac Hotel in Seattle, now home to Klondike Gold Rush NHP, was owned by the Takitas — a Japanese family. When they left they had to entrust their home to their Italian American neighbors who also owned a restaurant in the building.

In cities where Japan towns thrived, Japanese Americans’ neighbors were often other Japanese which meant they had no one to watch over their homes while they were imprisoned. Unfortunately, many had to sell everything they owned, including the property.

On Bainbridge Island, with such a tight-knit diverse immigrant community, many were fortunate enough to come back to their homes because their neighbors could look after their property.

Camps at Manzanar and Minidoka

The first Japanese Americans incarcerated from Bainbridge Island were sent to Manzanar in the California desert. Later, folks from Los Angeles and San Francisco come to the camps and those from Bainbridge Island find they had little in common with those from the cities.

Eventually, they complete the camp at Minidoka and other rural Washingtonians are sent there. Those from Bainbridge Island ask to be transferred because they had more in common other rural farmers and were often friends with them.

Life in the internment camp was difficult. People had a limited amount of space and often shared beds with family members. Little to no privacy existed in the bathrooms and sand from their surroundings worked its way into clothes and food. The military surrounded the camps by barbed wire and guard towers.

People in the camps needed to come up with ways to pass the time. They begin to farm in the camps and grow a wide variety of food to supplement the canned food supplied to them. Additionally, they built baseball diamonds, an important pastime for those from Bainbridge Island where they had a baseball team.

Do Those Incarcerated Talk About It Today?

According to Ranger Kevin, they don’t have many concrete stories about what happened in the camps. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated means over 120,000 stories.

However, many of those alive today were quite young and have vague memories of the camps. The older generation who have now passed away often pushed down their feelings and didn’t talk about what happened. They “shouldered the burden” to deal with a complex time.

An End to Incarceration

With the successful uprooting of those at Bainbridge Island, the military uprooted all Japanese Americans on the west coast. They were sent to 10 different camps across the US and forced to live for a couple of years. In general, no one protested this practice or rioted over it.

In 1944, some people could leave camps under very specific circumstances. Students could go east to go to schools and some farmers could work on local farms if they had an agreement with the WRA.

In 1945, the government dissolves the exclusion and allows the Japanese Americans to return home. However, what kind of home could families expect to find? Some even dealt with anti-Japanese groups and were held at gunpoint on their return to the west coast.

Representatives returned to scout the situation back home and reported back if they could return safely. Generally, Bainbridge Island inhabitants found little problems beyond vandalism on their property. Others who inhabit cities choose not to go back because people in the city may have become hostile to their return.

A Formal Apology

In the 70’s, the US government determines they should issue an apology and award reparations. The Ford administration begins to figure out what that should look like. And in 1988, Reagan issues a formal apology from the government and awards $20,000 to each survivor of the Japanese American incarceration.

Many Japanese Americans who were incarcerated had passed away by 1988. And, if the family lost their livelihoods, does $20,000 really cover that? For many, the apology was more significant than the check.

The Memorial on Bainbridge Island

How do we ensure this will never happen again? In the early 2000s, the local Japanese community on Bainbridge Island decides to build a memorial, and by 2011 it’s complete. The entire community came together to fundraise for the memorial and approached Congress to have it added to the National Park Service. Today, it’s now part of Minidoka National Historic Site.

The community at Bainbridge Island always stood behind those incarcerated during World War II. Their newspaper was one of the few on the west coast speaking out about the camps and racism against Japanese Americans. The community looked out for each other’s rights and stand as an example of what other communities could have done during that time.

The memorial itself is 276 feet long for the 276 inhabitants of Bainbridge Island incarcerated. Plans for a memorial deck overlooking the water and a larger visitor center are in the works — all of which will be built with funds from the community.

Kevin’s Interest at Bainbridge Island and the NPS

Ranger Kevin feels fortunate to tell the story of the Japanese American Exclusion at Bainbridge Island. The people of the island have told their story for years, and are actively involved in the Memorial.

He hopes visitors at Bainbridge Island learn we need to be active defenders of the constitution and our neighbors. The internment of 120,000 innocent loyal Americans occurred because no one stepped up and took a stand. It’s not enough to only believe in the constitution, we must defend those values. And, when we find excuses to take away people’s rights, it’s a slippery slope for what the future could hold.

When Kevin talks to descendants and elders connected to the site, they have hope things are getting better. Compared to the past, people are now more outraged when rights are taken away. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’ve gone far enough, but we are in a better place and will hopefully get to where we need to be in the future.

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