Santa Anita camouflage net project
Santa Anita was one of four Japanese American confinement sites—and the only " assembly center "—in which there was a camouflage net factory. Intended for army use, the nets consisted of dyed burlap strips woven into large nets in various patterns. The resulting nets were used to cover military equipment so as to allow them blend into the landscape. These net factories—at which inmates wove the strips into the nets—would both exploit the Nikkeis' labor and allow them the opportunity to contribute to the war effort. Each of the four factories faced disputes over wages and working conditions, and all were short lived.
The camouflage net factory at Santa Anita was set up and managed by a private company under military contract. Located at the grandstand seating area, only U.S. citizens were allowed to be employed in this war-related work. G.W. Fitzpatrick was superintendent and James Wiggs assistant superintendent. At its peak, 1,200 people worked at the plant. The net factory produced more than 22,000 complete nets, varying from 22 x 22 feet to 36 x 60 feet. The savings from utilizing inmate labor more than offset the cost of food for the population at Santa Anita.  The WCCA public relations division had attempted to suppress any information on the project, arguing that it was a "military secret." 
Work started on May 25, 1942, with 125 inmates assigned and trained, who in turn trained others. On May 30, the camp administration received orders from the army to put 800 to 900 workers on the project by June 2. To reach that number, the personnel division simply wrote work orders, leaving out the details of the work. Everybody was to sign a paper stating they were making a voluntary request to work at the camouflage net factory, and most signed it, out of fear of being blacklisted. High school classes where abandoned as both students and volunteer teachers were recruited. By Monday, June 1, 1,061 men and women were officially working on the project.  The army originally expected 2,500 to 3,000 inmates to work when the project was in full swing but was satisfied when 1,100 active workers managed to produce 350 nets per day. 
However, hiring and motivating labor was not as easy as the director or the army had imagined. On June 12, 1,523 were employed at the factory, but only 1,214 were actually working that day. Wages—paid at the "unskilled" rate of $8 per month—were considered too low, and some inmates resented being "compelled to work" and the feeling that inmate labor was being exploited by the private contractor. There were also concerns that the work was detrimental to their health. To hire more workers, the Camp Director Russell Amory suggested paying workers at the skilled wage rate of $12 per month, and to allow them to leave early once a quota was reached. Also, the camp director inquired whether it was possible to employ Issei, whom he deemed good workers. 
On June 16 at 4 p.m., some 1,200 workers staged a sit-down strike after complaints about insufficient food. The next morning the Amory met with the workers. Apart from the lack of food, the main complaint concerned the low pay. Feeling that strike leaders had convinced the workers to strike over the low pay, Amory had Shuji Fuji, the author of a pamphlet urging the workers to strike, and other instigators transferred to another camp. Another 25 "recalcitrant workers" were fired by June 22. On the morning of June 18, Amory addressed the camouflage net workers in a special meeting in front of the grandstand and "clarified many points." He assured the camp population that "legitimate grievances of camouflage net workers will be considered and remedies made." As he had done previously, he pointed out that there was no compulsion to work and there were no "penalties for refusing to work or leaving the job." He announced that he had requested a reclassification from the army and was confident that "a work scale of $12 would eventuate." He also stated that the Los Angeles Public Health Department had made a survey and found that no serious health hazards existed. He agreed to the establishment of two workers' committees, one for men and one for women, that could present any grievances of the workers directly to him. He also praised the workers for their output so far. The main points of his speech were published in the June 19 issue of the camp newspaper, the Santa Anita Pacemaker . 
On June 17, the army agreed to establish the position of weaver in the skilled classification at $12 per month. The decision was to be made by the United States Engineering Department supervising foreman and Amory.  Eventually, most workers were placed in the $12 category. The workers' committee brought further improvements: women could work half a day if they chose (most chose to work full-time anyways), and camouflage workers did not have to wait in the regular lines at the mess halls. Other demands, such as regular army pay of $41 a month were denied. 
On June 18, a ruling from the War Department arrived, stating that Japanese aliens "may be employed in the boxing for camouflage nets but cannot be employed on the weaving of the nets themselves." This ruling was made to address the inmates' request to accommodate whole families being employed on the net project. 
As the project came to a close, all 21 Japanese American foremen addressed a letter to the WCCA director praising the manager of the camouflage net project and his assistant for their "leadership provided in the development and operation" of the project. Despite persistent labor shortages and a strike, the experiment seemed to have been seen as an overall positive and worthwhile effort that could be transferred to the WRA camps. Similar factories at Manzanar , Poston , and Gila River eventually resulted. 
For More Information
Girdner, Audrie, and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II . London: Macmillan, 1969.
Lehman, Anthony L. Birthright of Barbed Wire . Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1970.
Santa Anita Pacemaker in Densho Digital Repostory: http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-146/objects/
- Michi Weglyn, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1976), 80-82; Anthony L. Lehman, Birthright of Barbed Wire: The Santa Anita Assembly Center for the Japanese (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1970), 45-47; John L. Dewitt, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Army, Western Defense Command), 205-206; Audrie Girdner and Anne Loftis, The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese-Americans during World War II (Toronto: Macmillan, 1969), 179.
- Letter, Leslie Feader to Russell Amory, June 19. 1942, Headquarters Hotel Whitcomb, Assembly Center Correspondence, Santa Anita Assembly Center, Microfilm Reel ACB7, NARA San Bruno. Various other documents cited in this article come from the same section of the same reel and will subsequently be cited as "Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno.
- Narrative Report, Russell Amory to Rex Nicholson, June 2, 1942, Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno.; Girdner & Loftis, The Great Betrayal, 181.
- Narrative Report, Amory to Nicholson, May 26, 1942, Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno.
- Memorandum, Amory to Nicholson, June 12, 1942, Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno.
- There was also the suggestion that women should work only four hours a day, but it was found that two-thirds of the women actually preferred to work full-time. Narrative Report, Russell Amory to Rex Nicholson, June 23, 1942, Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno; Santa Anita Pacemaker , June 19, 1942.
- Letter, Ira K. Evans to Rex Nicholson, June 17, 1942, Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno.
- Girdner & Loftis, The Great Betrayal , 181-82
- Letter, Ira K. Evans to Rex Nicholson, June 18, 1942, Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno.
- Letter, (21 Supervisors of Camouflage Project) to Emil Sandquist, August 21, 1942; Letter, Emil Sandquist to G.W. Fitzpatrick, August 29, 1942, both Reel ACB7, NARA, San Bruno.
Last updated Dec. 30, 2020, 8:38 p.m..