Portland (detention facility)


US Gov Name Portland Assembly Center, Oregon
Facility Type Temporary Assembly Center
Administrative Agency Wartime Civil Control Administration
Location Portland, Oregon (45.5167 lat, -122.6667 lng)
Date Opened May 2, 1942
Date Closed September 10, 1942
Population Description Held people from northeast Oregon and central Washington.
General Description Located at the eleven-acre Pacific International Livestock Exposition Pavilion in Portland, Oregon.
Peak Population 3,676 (1942-06-06)
Exit Destination Heart Mountain, Minidoka, and Tule Lake
National Park Service Info

The Portland Assembly Center was one of sixteen temporary detention camps on the West Coast. These provided the first points of incarceration for the 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry forced out of their homes by the U.S. Government. The assembly centers were operated by the Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCCA). The Portland Assembly Center operated from May 1, 1942 to September 10, 1942.

Life at the Detention Center

The population of the assembly center was mostly from Portland and northern Oregon. Some 1,250 were from the Yakima Valley and Wenatchee in central Washington. Southern Oregon detainees were sent to Tule Lake, California, before being relocated to Minidoka when Tule Lake became a holding point for repatriates and other types of protesters.

The Portland Assembly Center was formerly the Pacific International Livestock and Exposition Center, located in North Portland on North Swift Boulevard overlooking the Columbia River, slightly west of the Interstate Bridge which connected Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, Washington. It provided eleven acres of space under one roof. It had housed livestock in corrals where animal manure was mixed into the dirt. Living quarters for the assembly center detainees were built over this ground. It was first covered by wood planks for flooring, but the flooring did not diminish the smell of livestock manure. Eight foot plywood walls formed living cubicles measuring about 10' x 15' with no ceilings and a canvas flap to cover the open doorway. Each family cubicle was provided army cots and canvas bags to be stuffed with straw to form mattresses. The cubicles had no interior walls to provide separation for privacy. Because the family cubicles had no ceilings, nighttime noises were easily overheard and disturbing—people crying, giggling, snoring and muffled talking.

Personal privacy was lacking not only in the family cubicles, but also in the restrooms and shower rooms. The men's restroom had six or seven commodes lined up side by side with no partitions between them. Similarly, lavatory sinks were lined up side by side with no partitions for privacy. The shower rooms had five or six showerheads, but no partitions or curtains for privacy. Meals were served in a large mess hall that could accommodate 2,000 people at one seating. There were two seatings for each meal which resulted in long waiting lines. Meals were served family style and included foods strange to many, such as hominy grits or beef tongue. Seating was at picnic-style tables. Another impact of the previous habitation of animals on the property was the swarms of huge black flies that seemed to take advantage of mealtimes to "dive bomb" the food. Some remained stuck in the food.

Mealtimes were no longer family times. Family siblings tended to eat with friends outside of the family. The open, unassigned seating environment discouraged family-centered discussion. The picnic-style tables could seat up to eight individuals, so sitting with strangers to the family could easily occur.

Preparing and serving food to 3,700 people was a challenging task. Most of the food help were non-professionals and those who had operated restaurants were not accustomed to the scale presented by the assembly center. Therefore, it is remarkable that there were only two cases where some of the detainees were affected by food poisoning and dysentery. Those who were affected reacted late at night and headed for the restrooms at about the same time. Due to the limitation of the toilets, those who could not wait had to relieve themselves on the outside grounds.

The servers, cooks and dishwashers were detainees hired by the administration. With a population of almost 3,700 people, the Portland Assembly Center was a small city that needed various services. Medical facilities were under the Public Health Service, but very inadequate. Staff depended upon detainee doctors, dentists and nurses. Recreational equipment and activities were supervised by the Recreation Department which provided bats and baseballs, softballs, basketballs and badminton rackets. Much of the equipment was donated by the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation which was directed by Ms. Dorthea Lensch. She visited during the day several times to give ballroom dancing lessons to the girls.

A security force provided a fire watch during the night by patrolling the living areas built mostly of wood. Local information and news was provided by a weekly newsletter called the Evacuazette. This helped the administration stop unfounded rumors.

Other areas of employment included general maintenance, sign painters, the Evacuazette newspaper and the canteen.

Daily life was not a problem for youngsters because of supervised and non-supervised recreation. The arena area where rodeos and animal displays were held was covered with wooden flooring and was spacious enough to paint in two basketball courts, two tennis courts and a badminton court. Outdoor recreation was possible on a softball diamond and a baseball diamond built with volunteer detainee labor. It was also possible to walk outdoors around the assembly center, but within the limits of the barbed wire fencing.

Another recreational activity in the assembly center was possible through ballroom dancing. After a period of time, weekly dances were possible in an area that had been occupied by a restaurant concession run by Henry Thiele, a well-known Portland restaurant owner. That area was the only part of the assembly center that had hardwood flooring ideal for dancing. Dance music by the big bands was on 78 RPM records purchased by the Recreation Department.

For the older generation, the Issei, detention center life had to be a big frustration. They came to the U.S. in the early 1900's and worked industriously for 30 or 40 years. Many had small businesses that required 24 hours of attention, seven days a week such as small hotels. This came to an end with their forced removal from the West Coast. Suddenly there was no future, there was no tomorrow, only a huge unknown which was the U.S. Government. The forced inactivity of the incarceration was boring and demoralizing. Family life was shattered because the assembly center environment allowed youngsters to be away from family supervision for most of the day.

Life under detainment was aggravated by the physical and visible presence of barbed wire fencing all around the assembly center. North Swift Boulevard was a major arterial highway connecting various Portland neighborhoods. On weekends, particularly on Sundays, highway traffic volume was heavy as curious citizens of Portland drove by the assembly center to see what they could see.

One detainee was temporarily permitted to avoid confinement and reside in the family hotel because his father was ill and hospitalized. This allowed the son to attend to his father's needs as well as be independent of confinement in the assembly center. He occasionally borrowed a car to visit family and friends in the assembly center. On those occasions, he would conclude those visits by delivering hot dogs, hamburgers and other items, as requested.

Sometime in mid-August 1942, it became known that the permanent camp for most Portlanders would be the Minidoka detention center in southeast Idaho near Jerome and Twin Falls. The Recreation Department organized a Farewell Ball and hired a local big band, the Woody Hite Orchestra, to provide the dance music.

From September 6 to September 10, 1942, the Portland Assembly Center detainees boarded antiquated railroad coach cars for the transfer to Idaho. Each car was under the surveillance of an armed military guard. The shades of the cars had to be pulled down so passengers could not see the outside. Incarceration continued.

Current Status

The former Portland Assembly Center site now houses the Expo Center where trade shows, conventions and home shows are held. There is a plaque in the main hall of the Expo Center which attests to the fact of the forced housing of 3,676 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II.

On February 19, 1979, the first Day of Remembrance in Oregon was held at the Expo Center making the memorial ceremony a very strong and emotional event. The day was sponsored by the Portland Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League.

On May 1, 2004, there was a dedication and Grand Opening ceremony for the MAX Rail Expo Center Station. Artist Valerie Otani, wanting the public to be aware of the historical event that took place at the Expo Center site, designed a monumental "torii" gate with large timbers. Torii gates usually identify sacred places, but this torii gate identified a place where a significant historical event took place. Three thousand metal replicas of the ID tags worn by the detainees at the assembly center are suspended from ropes strung across the gate. Etched in steel wrapped around the base of the gates are inflammatory newspaper articles from 1942. Passengers waiting on the platform of the Expo Center Station can learn and think about the incarceration and denial of civil liberties.[1]

For More Information

Burton, Jeffery F., Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites. Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999, 2000. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. The Portland section of 2000 version accessible online at http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/anthropology74/ce16g.htm.

Cormack, Janet, ed. "Portland Assembly Center: Diary of Saku Tomita." Trans. Zuigaku Kodachi and Jan Heikkala. Oregon Historical Quarterly 81.2 (1980): 149-71.

"The Expo Story," on the Portland Expo Center website, accessible at http://www.expocenter.org/about-expo/the-expo-story.

"Oregon Nikkei: Reflections of an American Community," Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center website, accessible at http://www.oregonnikkei.org/exhibit/index.html.

Footnotes

  1. Josephine Bridges, The Asian Reporter, May 18, 2004, 11.