Nyssa, Oregon (detention facility)
From May to November 1942, Nyssa [pronounced NISS-a], Oregon, served as the site of the first farm labor camp organized during the wartime Japanese American experience. Established as a result of the "Oregon Plan" for the forced removal and confinement of the state's Nikkei residents, the camp held approximately three hundred fifty laborers at its peak. These workers provided critical agricultural labor in eastern Oregon's Malheur County. By the summer of 1942, the camp became so well known that the Pacific Citizen referred to it as "the camp without a fence."
Organizing the Nyssa Tent Camp
In the spring of 1942, Malheur County, Oregon, desperately needed laborers to cultivate 12,000 acres of recently planted sugar beets. State and local officials appealed to the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to provide Japanese American laborers from assembly centers. On May 20, 1942, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt issued Civilian Restrictive Order Number 2, allowing for the movement of four hundred Japanese Americans from the Portland Assembly Center to Malheur County to work as agricultural laborers. This document marked the beginning of the WRA's seasonal leave program. Between 1942 and 1944, approximately 33,000 Japanese Americans left assembly and incarceration centers for agricultural labor.
On the same day DeWitt issued the Civilian Restrictive Order, representatives from the United States Employment Service and the Amalgamated Sugar Company began recruiting volunteer laborers at the Portland Assembly Center. The recruiters secured an initial group of fifteen men—eight Issei and seven Nisei. Most were bachelors and they agreed to serve as scouts, to gauge the relative safety of eastern Oregon as well as the living and working conditions. The group left Portland by train on the evening of May 21, escorted by armed guards. The group arrived in Nyssa the following day, where they were taken to a local hardware store to purchase work clothes, a straw hat, a short-handled hoe, and a steel lunchbox. The men were then taken to a Farm Security Administration (FSA) tent camp, just south of Nyssa, in an area known locally as Garrison's Corner.
The initial group of laborers was so small due to several factors. First, it was unclear as to how the communities in Malheur County would receive the Japanese Americans. That spring citizens in the town of Vale threatened violence against any Japanese Americans who voluntarily evacuated from the West Coast and settled in the county. In May, Governor Chase Clark of Idaho delivered a vehement speech in which he declared that the solution to the Japanese problem would be to "send them all back to Japan and then sink the island." Given Nyssa was but a few miles from Idaho, many were apprehensive to travel to communities that were known to harbor hostile attitudes against Japanese Americans. Second, though many in the Portland Assembly Center had experience in agriculture, it was as farm operators, not as laborers and nearly none had worked in sugar beets, a particularly laborious crop. Finally, many were interested in remaining in eastern Oregon, but early recruitment efforts and work contracts only allowed for temporary movement to the county.
The first contingent of laborers sent positive reports back to the Portland Assembly Center and on May 27, a second group, numbering fifty, left for Nyssa. The third group to leave for eastern Oregon marked the first time families joined single men. By the mid-summer, preference was given to families, provided they were willing to live and work in Malheur County for the remainder of the war. Many were families from Gresham, Troutdale, and Hillsboro in Oregon and Yakima, Wapato, and Toppenish in Washington who owned and operated truck farms before the war. A steady stream of volunteer laborers left the Portland Assembly Center for the beet fields of eastern Oregon until the end of the summer. Additional laborers were recruited from temporary assembly centers in Puyallup and Marysville and later from Minidoka and Tule Lake.
Living and Working Conditions
The Nyssa camp consisted of approximately one hundred canvas tents set on wooden platforms. Each tent contained a wood stove and single light bulb. The camp had electricity and running water and maintained laundry and sanitary facilities. Some camp residents built traditional Japanese bathtubs, to be used in addition to the showers provided by the FSA. The FSA furnished clinic services from a medical trailer staffed by a full time nurse while a local doctor visited the camp twice per week to provide additional medical services. A recreation tent hosted club meetings, dances, and church services, the latter of which were organized by Methodist missionary Azalia Peet. Once per week, the sugar company provided transportation into Nyssa where Japanese Americans visited the local movie theater, soda fountain, and bowling alley.
While the camp maintained two FSA staff members, camp manager Ormond Thomas and secretary/treasurer Bill Murphy, it was self-governed by a camp council and supervised by a squad of eight volunteer police officers. Some camp residents were permitted to return, with escorts, to their homes in Military Area Number 1 to retrieve automobiles, home goods, and other needed items.
While neither enclosed by a fence nor guarded, Japanese Americans could only leave the camp if escorted by an official or farmer. Additionally, Japanese American laborers were subject to a curfew during the hours of 8:00 pm to 6:00 am. Two days a week, though never on Saturdays, the curfew extended until 11:00 pm.
The camp's laborers organized themselves into work crews, each with its own crew boss. The boss was responsible for negotiating wages with local farmers. On average, a laborer earned the prevailing local wage of $9.50 per acre of sugar beets. Farmers, who had previously communicated with local United States Employment Service representatives, picked up crews early in the morning from the camp. Laborers worked across the county, sometimes traveling in upwards of thirty miles to a particular farm. Much of the work was stoop labor, with a worker bent over for much of the day weeding and harvesting sugar beets, picking potatoes, or topping onions. The farmers returned the laborers to the camp in the early evening.
As winter approached, the tent camp was no longer sufficient to house the Japanese Americans. In early November, the laborers moved into an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp ten miles southwest of Nyssa, in an area now known as Cow Hollow Park. Many who volunteered from the assembly centers for work in Malheur County were able to secure employment and stayed in eastern Oregon for the duration of the war. Some lived in Farm Security Administration camps while others lived in housing on private farms across the county. The Nyssa tent camp closed in November 1942 and never reopened for Nikkei occupation for the remainder of the war.
Impact on the Japanese American Community in Malheur County
The presence of the Nyssa tent camp as well as other camps established in Malheur County led to a significant increase in the number of Japanese Americans residing in eastern Oregon. In 1940, Malheur County was home to 137 Japanese Americans. A decade later that figure totaled 1,170, or roughly five percent of the county's total population.
In 1940, Ontario featured a community hall for its Japanese American residents. Following the war, the outskirts of Ontario had two Japanese restaurants, a tofu manufacturing plant, other small businesses, and both Methodist and Buddhist churches to serve the Nikkei community. In addition to the presence of labor camps and employment opportunities in agriculture, Ontario developed a reputation as the friendliest city to Japanese Americans in the Snake River and Boise Valleys, so many Nikkei settled in the region. Malheur County continues to be home to a significant Japanese American community.
For More Information
National Archives I. Washington, D.C. Record Group 210.
National Archives II. College Park, MD. Record Group 211.
National Archives II. College Park, MD. Record Group 224.
National Archives. Seattle, WA. Record Group 96.
Oregon Historical Society. Portland, OR. Marvin Gavin Pursinger Collection on Japanese American Relocation, circa 1942-1946.
Oregon State Archives. Salem, OR. Governor Charles Sprague Papers.
Smith College. Northampton, MA. Sophia Smith Collection. Azalia Emma Peet Papers, 1902-1974. http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/sophiasmith/mnsss47.html
Books and Articles
Daniels, Roger. Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Fiset, Louis, and Gail M. Nomura, eds. Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005.
Fiset, Louis. "Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II." Pacific Northwest Quarterly 90.3 (Summer 1999): 123–39.
Kodachi, Zuigaku, Jan Heikkala, and Janet Cormack. "Portland Assembly Center: Diary of Saku Tomita." Oregon Historical Quarterly 81.2 (Summer 1980): 149–71.
Mershon, Clarence E. Along the Sandy: Our Nikkei Neighbors. Portland: Guardian Peaks Enterprises, 2006.
Myer, Dillon S. Uprooted Americans: The Japanese Americans and the War Relocation Authority during World War II. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1971.
Nakata, Deena K. The Gift: The Oregon Nikkei Story…Retold. Portland: Deena K. Nakata, 1995.
Nishihara, Janet Seiko. "Japanese Americans in Eastern Oregon: The Wartime Roots of An Unexpected Community" in Ed. Jun Xing, Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, Patti Sakurai, Robert D. Thompson, Jr., Kurt Peters. Seeing Color: Indigenous Peoples and Racialized Minorities in Oregon. New York: University Press of America, Inc., 2007. 44–58.
Young, Morgen. "Russell Lee in the Northwest: Documenting Japanese American Farm Labor Camps in Oregon and Idaho." Oregon Historical Quarterly 114.3 (2013): 360-364.
Oregon State Library. "Life on the Home Front: Oregon Responds to World War II." https://sos.oregon.gov/archives/exhibits/ww2/Pages/default.aspx
Oregon State University Libraries. Special Collections & Archives Research Center. "Fighters on the Farm Front: Oregon's Emergency Farm Labor Service, 1943-1947." http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/fighters
- "Evacuee Volunteers Praised for Work in Oregon Fields," Pacific Citizen, July 2, 1942.
- Letter from George K. Aiken to Charles Sprague, April 14, 1942, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR, Marvin Gavin Pursinger Collection on Japanese American Relocation, circa 1942-1946 (hereafter referred to as the Pursinger Collection).
- Civilian Restrictive Order Number 2, May 20, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- Louis Fiset, "Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 90.3 (Summer 1999), 123.
- Letter from Ormond Thomas to R.T. Magleby, May 26, 1942, Box 7, Entry 123, Record Group 96, National Archives Seattle, WA.
- "15 Left for Beet Fields," North Portland Evacuazette, May 22, 1942.
- Author interview with Alice Sumida, Portland, Oregon, August 20, 2013.
- The town of Nyssa is located approximately fifty miles from Boise, Idaho, and 385 miles from Portland, Oregon. The tent camp site was located approximately a quarter mile from the Oregon-Idaho border.
- Letter from Hito Okada to Charles Sprague, May 25, 1942, Pursinger Collection.
- "Beetworkers Leave Wed.," North Portland Evacuazette, May 26, 1942.
- "43- Leave for Beets," North Portland Evacuazette, June 2, 1942.
- "134 Return Today – Beet Workers Anxious to go Back to Fields," North Portland Evacuazette, June 23, 1942.
- Fiset, "Thinning, Topping, and Loading," 128.
- Author interview with Aya Iwasaki Fujii and Taka Iwasaki Mizote, Portland, Oregon, August 9, 2013.
- "Evacuee Volunteers Praised for Work in Oregon Fields," Pacific Citizen, July 2, 1942.
- Letter from Donold D. OBerle to Thomas Holland, June 19, 1942, Box 7, Entry 123, Record Group 96, National Archives Seattle, WA.
- Author interview with Jack Naganuma, Portland, Oregon, September 29, 2013.
- The camp council members included chairman Henry Kato, vice chairman Jack Ouchida, secretary Mary Doi, Kayno Saito, Tuggy Itow, Sumis Sakai, Masato Yamamoto, and Roy Hirai. Itow also served as chairman of police and sanitation. George Doi managed the cooperative canteen.
- Linda Doami oral history interview with George Iwasaki, Portland, Oregon, May 19, 1992.
- Curfew Regulation Meeting Notes, September 4, 1942, Oregon State Archives, Salem, OR, Governor Charles Sprague Papers.
- "Evacuee Labor Sought by Beet Grower," Pacific Citizen, June 4, 1942.
- Christine E. Pfaff, The Bureau of Reclamation's Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy: 1933-1942 (Denver: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, February 2010), A-197.
- According to a 1946 U.S. Department of the Interior publication, 753 individuals were never inducted into the WRA incarceration center to which they were assigned. Included in that figure were 221 from Minidoka, 79 from Heart Mountain, and 23 from Tule Lake. See: United States Department of the Interior, The Evacuated People: A Quantitative Description (Washington, D.C., 1946), 11. According to figures recorded in North Portland Evacuazette articles, 425 individuals went to the Nyssa camp between May and August of 1942, and 45% of that number returned to the Portland Assembly Center.
- Nikkei laborers who did not secure housing on private farms, lived either in the CCC camp near Cow Hollow Park, or in the labor camps in Vale and Ontario. All three were by the Farm Security Administration.
- Robert C. Sims, "The 'Free Zone' Nikkei: Japanese Americans in Idaho and Eastern Oregon in World War II," 249, in Ed. Louis Fiset and Gail M. Nomura, Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).
- J. deYoung, "Japanese Resettlement in the Boise Valley and Snake River Valley," September 30, 1946, 6, 29-30, Pursinger Collection.