Fort McDowell / Angel Island (detention facility)

US Gov Name Fort McDowell Internment Camp
Facility Type U.S. Army Internment Camp
Administrative Agency U.S. Army
Location Fort McDowell, California (37.8500 lat, -122.4167 lng)
Date Opened
Date Closed
Population Description Held Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants from Hawai'i; one Norwegian national; and one Japanese prisoner of war (POW).
General Description Also known as "Angel Island," a 740-acre island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
Peak Population 99 (1942-02-21)
National Park Service Info

Fort McDowell was the name of the U.S. Army base on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and during World War II, it held approximately 700 Issei deemed "enemy aliens" at the former Immigration Station. Nearly 600 from Hawai`i and close to 100 from the West Coast were interned at the "temporary detention center" in 1942, as well as around 80 German and Italian internees. The length of stay was generally a week or two, then internees were transferred to internment camps run by the Department of Justice throughout the country. [1] The site is today a National Historic Landmark and part of Angel Island State Park.

Site Background

The first residents of Angel Island were the Coast Miwok people, who lived on the island for thousands of years. They lived in peace as hunters, fishers, and gatherers until Western settlers such as Russians and Spanish arrived starting the late 1500s. [2] The United States took ownership in 1848, two years before California became a state. The island was used as a military base for the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and even housed a missile base during the Cold War. Angel Island also housed a quarantine station from 1889 to 1935.

From 1910-40, the Immigration Station processed an estimated 300,000 – 500,000 immigrants from 80 countries, the majority from Asia. Contrary to the welcoming image of Ellis Island, the station became known as the "Guardian of the Western Gate" by its staff. U.S. government officials on the island enforced numerous immigration acts including the Page Act of 1875, which restricted immigration of Chinese women; the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 and beyond, not repealed until 1943, which banned Chinese laborers but allowed several exceptions; the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907-08, which halted immigration of Japanese laborers but allowed those in the U.S. to send for their families; the Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917; and the Immigration Act of 1924, among others. Chinese immigrants faced intensive interrogations to ensure they were immigrating legally, resulting in periods of detention from a few days to up to two years as they appealed denials of entry. Many carved poetry on the barracks walls about their despair and hope for release. Some Japanese also left writings with their names and other details.

An electrical fire moved immigration processing back to San Francisco in 1940, and during World War II, the former Immigration Station became part of Fort McDowell and was under the control of the U.S. Army. Lee and Yung estimate that 85,000 Japanese immigrants arrived in San Francisco between 1910 and 1940, the second largest group behind Chinese. Not all were processed on the island—many were questioned on board ship—and those with Japanese passports were generally admitted within a day or two. [3] Some, however, were detained for many weeks. Among those who spent time on the island was Goso Yoneda. Yoneda, a U.S. citizen, was detained for two months because his cousin in Los Angeles was busy with spring planting and could not speak on his behalf. Yoneda was finally released, and later became a labor activist under the name Karl Yoneda.

Among many others, the mothers of Norman Mineta, Kane; and of Fred Korematsu, Kotsui, were picture brides whose husbands came to the island and testified they had the means to support their wives so they could be released.

Arrests After Pearl Harbor

The Justice Department had been surveilling members of the Japanese American community since the 1930s, and it went into action when the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 brought the U.S. into World War II. Even before a formal declaration of war, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and local law enforcement arrested Japanese immigrants in Hawai`i and the West Coast. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Public Proclamation 2525, which invoked the Alien Enemies Act of 1798. [4] The Act specified that those not naturalized were subject to arrest and detention. It is important to note that the Naturalization Act of 1790 prohibited those other than "free white persons" from being naturalized. Although those of African descent were added by the 14th Amendment, Asians were not. The case of Ozawa v. U.S. (1922) confirmed that Japanese immigrants were "aliens ineligible for citizenship."

Those on O`ahu were taken to the immigration station, then the Sand Island Detention Center. Issei on other islands were held at many locations before being sent to O`ahu. They were interrogated by boards comprised of military and civilian officials to determine their perceived loyalty to the U.S. From December 7, 1941 to March 30, 1942, 489 Issei and 72 Nisei were held in Hawai`i, of which 166 Issei and 55 Nisei were interned in Hawai`i and 323 Issei and 17 Nisei were sent to the mainland on February 21 and March 21, 1942. [5] Their first stop in the continental U.S. was Fort McDowell on Angel Island, with the first ship arriving March 1, 1942. Eventually, a total of 593 people from Hawai`i passed through Fort McDowell on the first seven ships from Hawai`i in 1942. The Nisei from Hawai`i were also sent through Angel Island to Department of Justice camps but were returned to Hawai`i when the Justice Department raised concerns about interning American citizens. [6] Many were then held at sites such as Honouliuli in western O`ahu. Another 105 Japanese Americans from Hawai`i sent to the mainland the following year were sent to Sharp Park, south of San Francisco, on three ships. Another 1,000 or so from Hawai`i were sent directly to WRA camps (Jerome and Topaz) in late 1942 and early 1943, many to reunite with men held by the Department of Justice. At least 150 Issei from Northern and Central California and one from Denver were also apprehended starting December 7, 1941 and through 1942. Initially, many Issei were held in custody at the Silver Avenue immigration facility in San Francisco, which had been established after an electrical fire destroyed the administration building at the Angel Island immigration station on August 12, 1941. Many were questioned at Sharp Park; an estimated 93 from Northern California were sent to Fort McDowell for further processing and 57 were either sent to War Relocation Authority camps to reunite with their families or Department of Justice camps.

Fort McDowell also held prisoners of war from Japan, Germany, and Italy. The number of Japanese POWs held at Angel Island (407 over the entire war out of a total of over 4,800 across the United States) was much lower than that of Italians and Germans. [7]

Angel Island Internees and Their Experience on the Island

Some of the Japanese immigrants sent through Angel Island were in positions of leadership and influence including businesspeople, consular agents for the Japanese government who helped new immigrants, journalists, language teachers; many were people who had contact with Japan, such as judo masters; and others were donors to maritime associations, and members of Japanese community organizations. Some were turned in by neighbors or acquaintances for "suspicious actions" such as possessing photographs of local landmarks like the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Most were aged 50 and over—Nentaro Ide from Concord, California was 75 years old when he was taken away from his wife in June of 1942 because of his alleged involvement in kendo, fencing, and business, and an accusation that he was a member of a Japanese military society. He was reunited with her at Gila River in July of 1943. [8]

No incidents of sabotage or espionage were committed by Japanese Americans, including immigrants, during the war.

Several internees kept diaries or wrote accounts that were published after the war. Many noted the Chinese writings carved into the barracks walls. Isoo Kato was an immigrant from Hiroshima Prefecture who became a coffee farmer on Hawai`i island and served on the board of the local Japanese school and hospital. He recalled taking a small boat to Angel Island, greeted by "dozens of bayoneted guards standing on either side of them. We headed for the Immigration Center up a hill. An iron gate opened and we filed into a room. I heard the steel gate clang shut and locked. Again we were stripped naked and put through another inspection. When will this ever end, I wondered." [9]

Journalist Yasutaro Soga wrote, "Living quarters for all forty-nine of us were two rooms about thirty-six feet by seventy feet on the second floor of an old building that had once been the Immigration Bureau office. Because there were about ninety internees from California already housed there, space was very tight. The beds were trilevel bunks with barely enough walking space in the aisles. There were about ten windows and one ventilator, but with 140 occupants, air circulation was poor. That night I had difficulty breathing and had a headache. The place reminded me of the Honolulu Immigration Office soon after my arrest." [10] The room Soga described had been one of the rooms where Chinese immigrants were housed during the immigration process.

The internees also appreciated the natural environment on the island. Businessman Kumaji (pen name Suikei) Furuya noted, "Birds were singing, and it felt as if spring were here. Then, I saw a bird hovering among the green leaves. It looked like a hanging orizuru [folded paper crane], floating motionless in the air. It reminded me of the hummingbirds I had read about during my school days. I heard the voices of children walking along a road in the middle of the woods beyond. It was the first time I had heard childrens voices since being taken from my home just three months earlier, but it felt as if I had not heard this sound for years. I thought of my own children and, for a moment, I was filled with emotion." [11]

Records and accounts note that internees stayed on the island from one to two weeks. Some left their own writings on the walls, but most are hidden inside what is now an elevator shaft. Soga and others complained about living conditions but were told that their stay was only a temporary one. He wrote that he left his own graffito on a wall, "So we are Japs. Let us stomp defiant over sea and mountain." [12]

After that, for the most part those from Hawai`i went to various Department of Justice (DOJ) camps depending on which ship they arrived on, stopping at sites including Fort Missoula in Montana, Camp McCoy in Wisconsin, Camp Forrest in Tennessee, Camp Livingston in Louisiana, Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and Camp Lordsburg in New Mexico, with many ending up at the Santa Fe Internment Center in New Mexico. Internees from California generally went directly to Lordsburg and Santa Fe, with many then rejoining their families at War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps.

After many months of separation, many wives of internees from Hawai`i were encouraged to uproot their families, leave the islands, and join their husbands at WRA camps or in Crystal City, Texas, but they would sometimes arrive at the camps and their husbands would not be released from their DOJ camps for as long as a year. Others would not see their husbands until well after the war was over.

Aftermath and Current Status

After the war, the facility where the internees were housed was left vacant, with plans to tear down the buildings, until Alexander Weiss, a park ranger who also was a student at San Francisco State University, told Asian American professors there about the writings on the walls. This effort sparked a movement to save the former Immigration Station barracks and other buildings which resulted in government and individual contributions totaling millions of dollars to renovate the former barracks and hospital. The Immigration Station was granted National Historic Landmark status in 1997, the second Asian American site to get this designation after Manzanar.

Today, visitors can walk through the buildings and grounds and see the barracks rooms and the Angel Island Immigration Museum, opened in 2022, which tells the story of West Coast immigration to the present day. The Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and Angel Island State Park developed a permanent exhibit, "Taken From Their Families," that also opened in 2022 in the World War II Mess Hall where the internees ate, next to the barracks where they were housed.

For More Information

Many internees have extensive files in the National Archives in College Park, which will email scans of records for a nominal fee. Visit https://catalog.archives.gov to search for a name and to see what is available and whom to contact. The Japanese Cultural and Center of Hawai`i has an extensive searchable directory detailing the journeys Hawaii internees took at https://interneedirectory.jcch.com/ .

An online version of the Mess Hall exhibit is available at https://www.aiisf.org/taken , which also has a list of many other resources such as books by internees and scholars. The online exhibit includes a list of those known to have been interned on the island, short biographies of many of the internees, maps of different journeys internees took, and a section on internees who had children who served in the U.S. war effort. AIISF has a spreadsheet of West Coast internees available by emailing [email protected]

Authored by Grant Din

Footnotes

  1. Please note that Densho's terminology guide says that the term "internment" is the one exception to the preferred use of the term "incarceration" for wartime detention, for the specific case of Japanese Americans detained by the Army or Department of Justice. "Internment" refers to the legally permissible, though morally questionable, detention of "enemy aliens" in time of war.
  2. "Cultural History," Angel Island Conservancy, https://angelisland.org/cultural-history/ , accessed on June 16, 2022.
  3. Erika Lee, and Judy Yung, Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 113.
  4. Tetsuden Kashima, Judgment Without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 49.
  5. Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 78.
  6. Kashima, Judgment Without Trial , 79.
  7. Arnold Krammer, "Japanese Prisoners of War in America" Pacific Historical Review 52.1 (1983), 76.
  8. National Archives Case File for Nentaro Ide, College Park, Md., retrieved January 15, 2015.
  9. Quoted in Gail Y. Okawa, Remembering Our Grandfathers' Exile: US Imprisonment of Hawai`i's Japanese in World War II (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2020), 80.
  10. Yasutaro [Keiho] Soga, Life behind Barbed Wire: The World War II Internment Memoirs of a Hawai`i Issei , translated by Kihei Hirai (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 2008), 68, 71.
  11. Suikei Furuya, An Internment Odyssey: Haisho Tenten , translated by Tatsumi Hayashi, foreword by Gary Y. Okihiro, introduction by Brian Niiya and Sheila Chun (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, 2017), 52.
  12. Soga, Life behind Barbed Wire , 71.

Last updated Aug. 12, 2022, 7:49 p.m..