Montreat, North Carolina (detention facility)

US Gov Name
Facility Type
Administrative Agency State Department Special Division
Location Montreat, North Carolina ( lat, lng)
Date Opened October 29, 1942
Date Closed May 1943
Population Description Held German nationals from Latin America who were to be exchanged for Americans held by the Axis, as well as a number of Nikkei families from Hawai'i who intended to go to Japan
General Description Mountain retreat leased by the federal government for use as a detention site
Peak Population 264
Exit Destination Crystal City, Texas and other internment camps in Texas

The Assembly Inn in Montreat, North Carolina, served as a detention site during World War II for Japanese American families from Hawai'i who were being exchanged to Japan for U.S. citizens, as well as German families from Latin America who were similarly being exchanged to Germany. The families were confined there from October 29, 1942 to April 30, 1943. This site was administered by the Department of State's Special War Problems Division, with transportation and transfer from other detention sites arranged by the military.

History of the Site

Christian leaders in the late nineteenth century worked together to buy land in western North Carolina to create a mountain retreat and town, shortened to the name "Montreat." This land, formerly the territory of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, was purchased from the state of North Carolina at a rate of $8/acre for the four thousand acres in 1897. In 1906, it became an exclusively Presbyterian venture, and building and growth continued. The Assembly Inn was built in 1929 after the first hotel burned down, located on a small lake called Lake Susan, with Montreat College directly across. Facilities were staffed by both white and African American workers and had segregated rooms for the guests and staff.

Dr. Robert C. Anderson, the Presbyterian minister who served not only as the president of the Montreat Retreat Association but also the Normal School and Montreat College during the war years, sought to create what Benjamin Brandenburg dubs a "wartime sanctuary," so the Assembly Inn did not become a recruiting or training ground for the military as many large facilities did, though students and faculty participated in some war efforts. In 1942, word spread of the need for comfortable but economical facilities to house Axis diplomats and Japanese and German nationals and their children, who had been given a kind of special status because they were designated for the exchange of U.S. nationals in those countries. This process was colloquially referred to as "prisoner exchange," President Franklin D. Roosevelt having ended formal civilian exchange in August 1942. Dr. Anderson offered the Assembly Inn as a possible site to the State Department (though in his own postwar account, he wrote that he had been approached). He announced this decision as motivated by "Christian hospitality," and it also seems to have been born out of patriotism and the hope of financial benefit, which would be fulfilled. He did meet with some recorded opposition and complaints, but persevered in his course.

Family Incarceration

A total of 264 incarcerated Japanese Americans and Germans stayed at Montreat for about six months while the details of exchange were being worked out. Some of the Germans, at least, appear to have had diplomatic status. This was the second and last major exchange of non-combatants, a lengthy and diplomatically very complicated process due to the U.S. and Japan each asking the other to also coordinate return of citizens in allied countries and each side's concern with making sure not to return military personnel or those with any classified knowledge. The logistics of transportation, shipping, and finding safe sites of exchange and placement for the individuals were very difficult, as was the intransigence of various U.S. agencies. For example, the navy and the Secretary of War Henry Stimson particularly opposed the return of any Japanese Americans from Hawai'i on the grounds that they would "undoubtedly convey accurate and vital information to the Japanese government" about Hawai'i's territory and defenses. Their detention on the mainland seems to have been at least partly the result of a plan to keep them away from Hawai'i for a few months in order to render their knowledge outdated. Japan also delayed this exchange for unknown reasons, assumed to be military. The Japanese Americans at Montreat, it seems, were told that the delay was because of the unsafe conditions in Singapore, which was originally intended as their destination.

The incarcerees consisted of 40 different families from Hawai'i, mothers and children, and Germans who had been in business or possibly in the diplomatic service in Latin America, including some families. The Japanese American group consisted of 37 women and 96 children, including at least one set of minor children whose parents had both been arrested, and the rest of whom had husbands/fathers who had been arrested after Pearl Harbor and, facing indefinite imprisonment without trial, taken the option to be "repatriated" to Japan. This group left Hawai'i on the SS Republic on August 18, 1942, and arrived in San Francisco on August 26, having to remain below decks the entire time. They were accompanied by the married couple of U.S.-born Dr. Ernest Murai and Hazel Murai, who returned to Hawai'i immediately afterwards; Murai was a dentist and a co-founder of the Emergency Service Committee , which sought to mobilize the Japanese American community in Hawai'i to support the war effort and demonstrate their Americanness and loyalty. Four Red Cross volunteers and two registered nurses also accompanied the group from San Francisco to North Carolina. After being held at the Grove Park Inn for some months, they were bussed to the far more economical quarters at Montreat at the end of October.

The arrested family members, usually the adult men with positions of some responsibility in the Japanese American community, went through incarceration at different island camps in Hawai'i, then usually funneled through Sand Island and various Department of Justice or army-run camps in California, Wisconsin, Louisiana, and other sites. Of available accounts, Jane Asami's father, an editor at the bilingual Nippu Jiji , and Tomo Izumi and Ella Tomita's fathers, both Buddhist priests on Hawai'i island, had been arrested the night of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Real estate in Hawai'i was confiscated. Adults were permitted to take only $200 cash each, or perhaps $250 (accounts differ); Jane Asami recalled that this was entirely insufficient to purchase warm clothing for the cold mountain winters as well as other necessities, a common problem for incarcerees sent to harsh climates with small amounts of luggage and funds. The Asamis were aided by relatives in Hawai'i who sent them money. Tomo Izumi's younger brother had to go around in shoes with the front ends cut off because they could not afford new ones. The Red Cross provided yarn and instruction books for knitting and the State Department spent some funds on winter gear, though apparently not enough to equip everyone.

Germans were put on the second floor of the Assembly Inn and Japanese on the third. Incarcerees recall the obviously less luxurious conditions relative to the Grove Park Inn, but fairly good conditions and good treatment, nonetheless. Izumi remembered eating macaroni and cheese and pancakes with maple syrup, and vividly described trying ketchup for the first time and disliking it intensely. According to the Montreat College Dialette , all the rugs, good furniture, and tablecloths were removed in preparation for the detention, and rope swings were constructed for the children. A parlor upstairs was designated as a schoolroom, half for Japanese and half for German children. Older Japanese American children instructed the younger ones. The inn's parking lots were used for outdoor games and exercises. Specialized medical treatment for the Germans, at least, was carried out at Mission Hospital in Asheville. Throughout their stay, the prisoners were watched by FBI agents and locally hired guards, whom Asami and Izumi recalled as unobtrusive and polite. This may have been as many as twenty-five guards, housed on site but separately, with their meals served restaurant-style.

Their arrival on Thursday, October 29 was a subject of great local curiosity, reported in detail in the Dialette , highlighted by the excitement of a young Japanese American boy getting trapped in an elevator immediately upon arrival for half an hour. The writers remarked with amusement on a young Japanese American boy wearing a shift "on the front of which was the picture of an Eagle and a tank with the letters 'Let's Go America—Keep 'em Flying'" and a little Japanese American girl picking out the Marine hymn on the piano. Combined with the description of the incoming group as Japanese and German prisoners, the writers evidently had no understanding that many of these individuals were U.S. citizens caught up in a much larger incarceration.

While Asami and Izumi remember mostly good food and conditions—though their standard of comparison is unclear—it seems that the confinement at Montreat did not initially live up to the expectations of government officials. The State Department representative on site in November 1942 wrote, "I have been complaining ever since I arrived...there was absolutely no heat in my room, every room was filthy, the food we were served was exactly the same as that served the aliens...the dishes...were not washed properly, our waiter was a bus boy who also tended the furnace during meals and served us with very sooty hands. Maid service of the Americans consisted of having one's bed made up and nothing more." He complained that the "hosts were out to get every dime they can," putting college employees to perform tasks such as serving meals rather than hiring help. (These complaints are about his own treatment rather than that of the detainees.) A Swiss diplomatic official (Switzerland was the neutral country mediating exchange) specified that the incarcerees should be given better food, better cleaning, and new washtubs. The difficulty of the negotiations of the first civilian exchange and some unfavorable reports from returned Japanese nationals made the State Department acutely concerned about good treatment, though balancing this concern with the economizing which had prompted the move from the Grove Park Inn in the first place. In contrast with these official complaints, the Dialette reported "splendid food" for the prisoners and "extra large portions of rice...prepared for the Japs."

As with many separated families (including in famous accounts such as Farewell to Manzanar ), the labor of caretaking fell hard upon mothers and older children. Izumi recalls her older sister Junko lugging the vacuum, ironing board, and laundry around, including the baby's diapers (certainly explaining the crucial need for better washing tubs). Junko also took the younger children down for the standard cafeteria meals but brought her mother's and another neighboring mother's meals upstairs on trays for them. Izumi, though young, bore her part of babysitting and light work such as knitting.

Despite some behind-the-scenes initial opposition, the courtesy and even friendliness that locals extended to the incarcerees appears to have been a memorable feature on both sides. Izumi recalls friendly treatment at the Assembly Inn and distinctly remembered that they were never called "Japs" by any of the employees, though the Dialette employed the word very freely. Izumi particularly remembered a friendly employee named Elizabeth, almost certainly Elizabeth Barr Bowers, a college secretary who became one of the clerks managing the incarcerees. Izumi recalls "Elizabeth" giving her candy and asking her to do a traditional Japanese dance in a kimono. Photographs show them interacting with apparent affection and enjoyment, embracing and smiling. Bowers described the children as "very friendly, well dressed, attractive, and polite," recalling that they were allowed to play quite freely, which seems borne out by Izumi and Asami's recollections. Anderson likewise wrote of playing with the children every time he visited, praising their remarkable obedience to rules. Izumi also remembered Montreat College students swimming across the lake in warmer weather to chat with them through the fence.

Skirting the State Department's prohibition on religious programming, Anderson determined to promote Christian influences while the Japanese were in their care, though not as much as some of his constituents wanted to do. (Most of the interned Japanese were Buddhist or belonged to other non-Christian religions.) Individual rooms and the lobby were supplied with Bibles, hymnbooks, and other Christian literature. The prisoners were gifted the Bibles upon their departure, and Anderson recalled with satisfaction a few who accepted them. A Christian choir, seemingly from the Normal School or Montreat College, sang to them on different occasions. Conversely, detainees' requests for Buddhist statues and religious texts were consistently denied by the State Department. In particular, the request for texts was denied partly out of revenge because an American who had been held in Japanese-occupied territory had been denied a Christian Bible, and likewise out of suspicion that "these tricky snakes may be able to get more than religious inspiration out of these books." "Can't see why we should send to Hawaii to get 'em—and help these Japs," wrote one of the agents stationed at Montreat. [1]

Christmas 1942 was the culmination of these efforts in festivities that loomed large in local stories and Anderson's own account, though it was considerably less jubilant in the memories of Japanese American incarcerees. Asami recalls presents and carol singing; Izumi, who was younger during her confinement, even less, writing, "I don't recall anything special happening to us as a group during the months we spent there." The presents were the result of a college fundraising operation as well as donations of $40 each from the Presbyterian Church in Spartanburg and, perhaps, Anderson himself. The association supplied Christmas trees, and the German and Japanese groups each created their own performances. A moment of simultaneous carol singing from the Germans on their floor, the Japanese Americans on their floor, and students and/or locals on the lake bridge, was spoken of in epiphanic terms, with a Southern Presbyterian publication dubbing it a "thrilling story" and the Dialette claiming that "not since the popular Christmas Truce has there been such a jubilant moment of unity in Christ." This account once again emphasized the enemy identity of the incarcerees by comparing this to the famous camaraderie across the trenches during World War I.

For the most part, the Japanese American and German groups appear to have been kept separate. The adults only had varying abilities in English as a second language in which to communicate. Izumi and Asami seem not to recall any real contact with German children, but Ella Tomita became very close friends with a German girl from Bolivia after teaching each other English and German, and recalled other friends from Peru.

The Japanese American and German families were transported in May 1943, along with one Japanese man, a German woman and her two children who had come from another site, to camps in Texas ( Crystal City , Kennedy , and Seagoville ), most of them to Crystal City. Most sailed on September 2, 1943, to the neutral port of Goa, India, on the MS Gripsholm , along with several hundred other Japanese Americans and Latin Americans.

Long-Term Impact

As with many institutions that served as detention or military training sites during the war, the Assembly Inn and its parent association benefited both infrastructurally and financially from the detention. Renovation began immediately to prepare for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. The inn was "extensively remodeled and renovated," with full repainting and reupholstering, perhaps in reaction to those who had openly expressed concerns about the "heathen" damaging the property. There was considerable squabbling by correspondence between the association and the State Department. The Assembly Inn demanded $7,000 for damages, and a State Department agent reported that "Dr. Anderson claimed that the side walls were all badly marked up with pencils and crayons and scratches" and that the detainees had stolen silverware, damaged the floors, and more. However, Anderson himself later wrote in his memoir that "not a single glass in the hotel was broken during six months, nor did I see any evidence anywhere of willful damage done to the furnishings." Chief Special Agent Thomas Fitch wrote, "I share the view that Hotel management is endeavoring to hold us up... The Association has undoubtedly made money out of the Government contract and have found us easy marks from whom they hope again to have a pound of flesh." [2]

Whatever the result of the wrangling, according to Anderson, the association profited by about $75,000 and cleared further profit from the summer season of the newly renovated space. They were able to pay off all their debts, build walkways and steps in the park, and build a library for their Historical Foundation costing $25,000, leaving them with considerable cash reserves that led to more infrastructural improvements later. The announcement of the library's building came only five days after the detainees had left.

Though the recollections we have may show that the treatment at Montreat offered adequate conditions and courteous, even friendly treatment, the great suffering recounted in Asami and Izumi's memoirs of their later experiences show that such temporary amenities could do little to ameliorate the pain of the incarceration as these families suffered a wracking uncertainty, separation, financial hardship, and the long-term effects of repatriation to a war-torn Japan.

Authored by Heidi Kim , University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

For More Information

Allen, Gwenfread. "Interview with Jane Michiko Asami." June 28, 1948. In the Japanese Internment and Relocation Files: The Hawai'i Experience, 1942-1982. Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Anderson, Robert Campbell. The Story of Montreat From Its Beginning: 1897-1947 . Montreat, N.C., 1949.

Brandenburg, Benjamin. "The World at Our Gate: Wartime Sanctuary and Foreign Detention at Montreat College." In Denominational Education During World War II , ed. John Laukaitis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 335-56.

Corbett, P. Scott. Quiet Passages: The Exchange of Civilians Between the United States and Japan During the Second World War . Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1987.

Dunn, Landon Alfriend and Timothy J. Ryan. Axis Diplomats in American Custody: The Housing of Enemy Representatives and Their Exchange for American Counterparts, 1941-45 . Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2016.

Ella Tomita Interview. In " Japanese American Internment Unit " for Modern History of Hawaii. Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, 2008. 55-58.

Gordon, Hildegard Maria Mantel. " The Mantel Family Story ," October 2012. German American Internee Coalition.

Izumi, Tomo. The Crystal City Story: One Family's Experience with the World War II Japanese Internment Camps . CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.

Miller, David. Mercy Ships . New York: Continuum, 2008.

Other historical details are drawn from local newspapers, chiefly the Asheville Citizen-Times , the Montreat College Dialette , and the Burlington Daily Times-News .


  1. Letter to Keeley from [Frederick] Lyon, National Archives Identifier: 2530855. Department of State: Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs, Office of Protective Services, 1952-53. Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, 1763-2002. National Archives at College Park, Container ID: 153. Cited in Landon Alfriend Dunn and Timothy J. Ryan, Axis Diplomats in American Custody: The Housing of Enemy Representatives and Their Exchange for American Counterparts, 1941-45 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2016).
  2. Robert Campbell Anderson, The Story of Montreat From Its Beginning: 1897-1947 (Montreat, N.C., 1949), 119. Letter to Fitch from LCF, May 18, 1943. National Archives Identifier: 2530925. Department of State: Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs, Office of Protective Services, 1952-53. Record Group 59: General Records of the Department of State, 1763-2002. National Archives at College Park, Container ID: 163. Cited in Dunn and Ryan, Axis Diplomats in American Custody .

Last updated July 2, 2021, 8:56 p.m..