Note: This is a legacy article that appeared in the Densho Encyclopedia from 2012 to 2020. You can find the current article for this detention facility at:

Santa Anita (detention facility)

US Gov Name Santa Anita Assembly Center, California
Facility Type Temporary Assembly Center
Administrative Agency Wartime Civil Control Administration
Location Arcadia, California (34.1333 lat, -118.0333 lng)
Date Opened March 27, 1942
Date Closed October 27, 1942
Population Description Held people from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Clara Counties, California.
General Description Located at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, California.
Peak Population 18,719 (1942-08-23)
Exit Destination Poston, Topaz, Gila River, Heart Mountain, Jerome, Rohwer, Granada, and Manzanar
National Park Service Info

Located at the Santa Anita Racetrack, approximately 13 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, this " assembly center " was occupied from March 27 until October 27, 1942, a total of 215 days. Santa Anita was the largest and the longest-occupied of the temporary WCCA camps. Its peak population was 18,719. Over 8,500 Japanese Americans lived in converted horse stalls at the racetrack. It was the only "assembly center" to run a camouflage net factory, operated under military contract. The majority of Santa Anita's inmates were shipped to Heart Mountain , Rohwer , Granada , and Jerome . [1]

Construction and Induction

The area was originally part of "Rancho Santa Anita," owned by the San Gabriel Mission Mayor-Domo. The ranch was acquired by gold prospector Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin, and in 1904 he built the first racetrack adjacent to the present site. Named "Santa Anita Park" it closed in 1909 and was reopened on Christmas Day 1934 after California again legalized betting. Today the Santa Anita Park is the oldest racetrack in Southern California.

The WCCA leased the site from the park operators in mid-March, 1942. Construction to convert the racetrack into a temporary concentration camp was started on March 20. Army engineers renovated the stable area and added some 500 barracks in the former parking lot. The total cost of construction up to May 25 was $2,785,650, approximately $145 per inmate. Spread over 420 acres, inmates at Santa Anita were held both in barracks and in horse stalls converted to living quarters. 8,500 of the total population of over 18,000 lived in stables. [2] The camp was divided into seven districts, with districts 1-3 comprising the stable areas and districts 4-7 comprising the areas with newly constructed barracks. Bachelors were housed in the grandstand building. The camp was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence and several tall guard towers. Two military police companies were stationed at the southern corner of the camp. About 200 soldiers guarded the perimeter.

The inmates came mostly from Los Angeles County with smaller numbers from Santa Clara, San Diego, and San Francisco Counties. The first major group inducted were 587 Nikkei from the Los Angeles Harbor area on April 3. [3] The camp director was H. Russel Amory, a former WPA administrator. He left in mid-August to be replaced by Gene W. Wilbur, former assistant director. [4]

Mess Halls, Sanitary Facilities, Medical Treatment

There were six mess halls, named by color (blue, red, green, white, orange, and yellow). During the first week, "B-rations" were served—food from cans and dehydrated meals that needed no cooking facilities. On April 3, the first mess hall (blue) opened, providing seating for 850 people and serving almost 3,000 people daily. [5] The situation was similar in the other mess halls. Even the optimistic camp newspaper Santa Anita Pacemaker conceded that "limited seating capacity and a lack of equipment" caused serious problems. An inmate wrote: "If one sits near the section where the plates are being washed one cannot hear oneself speak, the noise is so stupendous. [...] We climb in and out of benches to eat. We have one tin plate, one tin cup, and usually one or two silver pieces. Though the food is good, the surroundings make it less savory, and the environment is especially hard on children." [6]

The average budget for feeding one inmate was 33 cents daily. In Santa Anita it was only 30 cents for May. When massive complaints threatened camp peace the army carried out an inspection. Consequently, the allotted food rations were lifted to 41 cents (the average rate in "assembly centers" was 39 cents per person). By the end of May the problems were under control. As a result, however, the civilian WCCA chief Rex Nicholson resigned, feeling unjustly accused by the WCCA of not taking sufficient care of the food supplies. [7]

Sanitary facilities were inadequate and overcrowded. Until the beginning of July, for example, there were only 150 showers available for over 18,000 detainees. Six new shower buildings with 75 shower heads each brought the shower-inmate ratio to 1:30, still well below the average ratio in WCCA camps of 1:22. [8] Summarizing the mess hall and sanitary situation an inmate reported: "Shortly after arrival one had to stand from forty-five to seventy-five minutes for a meal [...]. Then we had to get in line for showers and washing. And what facilities! Not only [was] the number very limited but a great change in privacy, cleanliness, aesthetics and convenience from our homes [...]. Early every morning one can hear [...] the rumble of wagon wheels about 5:30 a.m. What is it? It is the sound of women going to wash. Why so early? Because if they don't go at that early hour, they have to wait in line." [9]

As in all WCCA camps health care was marred by the lack of medical supplies. Fever and digestive problems were the most widespread medical conditions due to the unbalanced diet and the unfamiliar heat. By June 2, 235 inmates were employed as medical staff, the number rising to 304 during August, including 8 physicians, 11 dentists, 29 nurses, 56 dieticians and aids, and 200 other employees. Dr. Norman Kobayashi was named physician in charge of the hospital. By mid-September, 8,262 patients had received 25,245 treatments in the out-patient clinic. The mental clinic counted more than 3,000 patients with an average of five treatments each. [10] According to the army's Final Report there were 37 deaths and 194 births. [11]

Work and Employment

The army set monthly wages at $8, $12, and $16 for unskilled, skilled and professional workers, respectively. Eventually, over 30 percent of the total population was employed in tasks necessary to run the camp. By June, the Mess Hall Division alone employed more than 2,200 persons, while Maintenance and Works employed over 700. Some 300 teachers provided schooling for children and adults. The Medical Division counted 235 employees, the police and fire departments 280 and 54 persons, respectively. [12] Due to the danger from fire, ten fire guards were on duty at any time during the day or night.

At Santa Anita, the army set up a camouflage net factory, managed by a private company under military contract. Located at the grandstand seating area, only U.S. citizens were employed on this war-related work. At one point the workers conducted a sit-down strike complaining about weakness due to lack of food as well as low pay and unfair production quotas. 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. [13]

The camp newspaper repeatedly called for inmates to volunteer for work at the camouflage plant, but as the rumors of bad working conditions prevailed and only the nominal wage of $16 per month was paid, the plant remained understaffed. Later in WRA camps wages were set on a piece-work basis at the rate of $4.80 per 1,000 square feet of net garnished, which led to an increase of the daily average from 1,000 square feet, as achieved in Santa Anita, to up to 1,500 square feet.

Everyday Life in Camp

Handicapped throughout by a lack of funds and equipment recreational activities were nevertheless tremendous in scope. The diverse program ranged from marble contests, dances and community sings to concerts, talent shows, model airplane contests and more. Wrote one inmate: "Various recreational activities are constantly going on. Many softball and hardball leagues have been functioning; various clubs have been organized and entertainment of one sort or another is continually going on. The different departments [...] all have their private socials." [14]

The "Japanita Jive" was Santa Anita's first band and orchestra, from which the " Starlight Serenaders " developed, a 12-piece dance band that was coached by Larry Kurtz who was allowed in the camp for that purpose twice weekly. All but the pianists used their own instruments. Saturday night dances took place in front of the grandstand. Santa Anita had half a dozen Boy Scout troops and a PTA. Three Boy Scouts conducted daily flag-raising and lowering ceremonies atop the main entrance of the grandstand.

Despite the summer heat, sports were very popular. Softball, hardball, basketball, badminton and sumō stimulated rivalry and competition and attracted hundreds of visitors to the Anita Chiquita field daily. The camp had more than 70 softball teams, organized in three leagues, and even a female judo team. By mid-August, a golf-driving range had been built.

Religious freedom was guaranteed by the WCCA, though services in the Japanese language required the camp director's permission. By mid-April each weekend five religious groups met for services and Sunday school in the recreation hall and the grandstand: Seventh Day Adventists, Catholics, two Protestant groups (Federated Protestants and the Holiness Association), and Buddhists. A month later, the number had risen to eleven. All denominations had their own Sunday school classes. Caucasian preachers were allowed to conduct church service every other week, sometimes weekly.

Schooling was another issue that concerned many inmates. Unprepared, the army had no formal system of education set up and the inmates needed to improvise in order to complete school terms that had been interrupted by the exclusion. In Santa Anita, high school, middle school, and elementary school classes were taught by volunteer inmate teachers in the lobbies of the grandstand. Art classes were taught by Isamu Noguchi , an internationally known sculptor. Thanks to contributions from city and county schools, sufficient textbooks arrived for most grades. The Los Angeles school system arranged for a mass graduation on June 26 for their former junior high and high school students. Grammar and high school classes continued after graduation until they were disbanded late in August. Since there were no classrooms of any sort, all classes were held in one large hall so that "teachers had to shout so much that they become hoarse." [15]

The camp's newspaper was the Santa Anita Pacemaker . It was published every Tuesday and Friday. The editor was Eddie Shimano, formerly an active member of the WPA Writers Project. The first issue appeared on April 21 with a circulation of 1,800, rising to 5,000 by June. Biweekly publication continued until October 7, 1942, making it a total of fifty issues, each four to six mimeographed pages, plus a final issue comprising 26 pages. It was the longest running of any of the purely "assembly center" papers. Explaining the name, Editor Shimano stated: "This newspaper is supposed to set the pace for the Japanese at the center [...]. A pacemaker in a horse race is the horse that leads the way for the others to a certain point, and that's what we are going to do." [16]

The library was a cubicle in the grandstand. It had several thousand books on its shelves—5,000 alone donated from the Los Angeles Public Library—and served 500 persons daily. The ban on Japanese literature resulted in the removal of countless books. (Sacramento was the only "assembly center" with a Japanese-language section. [17] ) Initially, only magazines were available to the public, but later people could check out four books per week. The head librarian was Anna Morikawa. [18]

Visitors could be received at the Baldwin Avenue gate. Due to the great number of visitors visiting was severely restricted: only direct relatives and business representatives were allowed to apply for a visitor's pass, and visiting hours were only 2-4 p.m. In order to meet the demand for space a "visitors house" was opened on June 24, with a capacity of 150 persons. Visiting hours were extended to 1-4 p.m., with no more than one-half hour visiting time. With the visitors house operating there were an average of 100 visitors weekdays and 150 on weekends. [19] Still, the official American Red Cross report criticized the Santa Anita detention center, along with Puyallup, for not providing sufficient visiting opportunities. [20]

The Santa Anita post office received at its peak 397 money orders daily, as well as 612 COD, 800 parcel post articles, plus 3,500–4,000 letters. The number of outgoing letters was approx. 5,500 daily. Also, by June 12 the post office had sold approximately $5,000 worth of war bonds, despite the inmate's lack of income. [21]

As other WCCA camps, a municipal police officer was employed as "chief of interior security" by the army. In Santa Anita, chief Sherman F. Carter supervised 19 police officers who inspected all incoming and outgoing parcels for contraband, supervised the visiting room, and patrolled the camp grounds. They were aided by 80 inmate "officers" who formed an "auxiliary police". [22] One of the concerns of the internal police at Santa Anita was organized gambling. During a gambling raid on May 24, 35 persons were arrested and ten found guilty at the Monrovia township court. Most were sentenced to a $100 fine or 50 days in jail. [23]

Inmate-Keeper Relations

Santa Anita was the only WCCA camp in which a "disturbance of serious proportions occurred [...]." [24] On August 4 a routine search for contraband (including Japanese language books and phonograph records), and an unannounced confiscation of hot plates turned violent. Rumors and complaints spread as crowds gathered. The internal police were harassed and one suspected informer was severely beaten. 200 military police were called in to silence about 2,000 protesters. Once the soldiers entered the camp the crowds dispersed quickly. Martial law was declared and that night the residents were confined to their barracks with no meals served. Military police patrolled inside the center for three days, withdrawing from the camp on the evening of August 7. It was the only instance in which the army declared martial law in any of the "assembly centers," and it was concluded that the disturbance was spontaneous, a result of overzealous officers and poor liaison that prevented the chief of interior security from reacting in time. [25]

A move to improve inmate-keeper relations was the election of inmate representatives. They were supposed to act as a liaison between the incarcerated and their custodians, defuse tensions, and lend more leverage to the inmates' voices. However, once the district councilmen had been elected Santa Anita's director refused to confirm them. Thus, in mid-June, the movement for a formal representative body was stopped. This distinguished Santa Anita from other "assembly centers" where the short lifespan, the upcoming relocation and inmate apathy caused the movement for self-government to end. [26]

Overall, inmate-keeper relations in Santa Anita seemed to have been more tense than in other "assembly centers". The official Red Cross report noted, for example, that while "in most centers the evacuees spoke well of the management," in Santa Anita they observed "distrust and sullenness." [27]

Moving on and Postwar Developments

On August 26 the evacuation of the Santa Anita detention facility began with 901 detainees (235 by bus, and 666 by train) being the first to be transferred for long-term confinement, leaving for the Colorado River (Poston) WRA camp. During the next two weeks, 4,500 detainees, formerly from Santa Clara and Los Angeles, left for the Heart Mountain incarceration camp in Wyoming. [28] WRA camps receiving inmates from the Santa Anita "assembly center" were: Heart Mountain (4,708), Rohwer (4,419), Granada (3,062), Jerome (2,913), Colorado River (1,503), Gila River (1,271), Central Utah (550), and Manzanar (65). [29]

After the closing of the "assembly center," the site became "Camp Santa Anita," a training facility for 20,000 army ordnance troops. It was the largest army ordnance training center on the West Coast and more than 100,000 soldiers were trained here until November 1944. Later, it served as a POW camp holding captured German soldiers.

Santa Anita Park reopened in 1945 and continues to be one of the world's premier thoroughbred racecourses. The 1960s brought about a major renovation of Santa Anita Park, including a much-expanded grandstand as well as major seating additions. The Santa Anita Racetrack was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006, but continues to be threatened by developer's plans.

The Santa Anita Racetrack has been designated as a California Historic Landmark (No. 934, one for both the Santa Anita and the Pomona WCCA camp). However, there is no plaque specifically for the "assembly center" but a plaque remembering "Santa Anita during World War II," erected in 2001. [30] In 2000, Santa Anita was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Most Endangered Sites list because of historically unsympathetic renovations being undertaken by the private owners. Although further study of the historic integrity of buildings related to the Santa Anita Assembly Center is needed, Santa Anita does appear to be the most intact of the surviving "assembly centers." [31] The massive grandstand and other racetrack buildings present in the 1940s remain, as do the horse stalls of districts 1 and 2. The stables, of wood, are the same as in aerial and historical photographs. Japanese Americans occasionally return to see their former homes. [32]

In November 2009, the Arcadia Historical Museum featured the camp in the exhibition, "Only What We Could Carry: The Santa Anita Assembly Center" (November 10, 2009 to January 16, 2010). [33]

Authored by Konrad Linke

For More Information

Sources Online

Bell, Alison. " Santa Anita racetrack played a role in WWII internment ." Los Angeles Times , Nov. 8, 2009.

The California State Military Museum. " Camp Santa Anita ."

Harrison, Scott. " Japanese Internment: Santa Anita Assembly Center ." Los Angeles Times , April 19, 2012.

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives (JARDA)

" OTL: Dark History ." 2010 ESPN Outside the Lines segment on Santa Anita Assembly Center.

Oyama, Mary. " This Isn't Japan ." Common Ground , Sept. 1942, 32–34. [Contemporaneous account of life at Santa Anita by an inmate.]

Santa Anita during World War II". The Historical Marker Database." .

Santa Anita Park website: .

The camp newspaper, the Santa Anita Pacemaker , has been digitized and made available at the Densho Digital Repository, . The Arcadia Public Library also offers some issues online, .


  1. Jeffery F. Burton, et al., Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (Western Archeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, 1999, 2000), Chapter 16, accessed online on August 22, 2013 at ; U.S. Army, Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1943), 158-159.
  2. Burton,et al., Confinement and Ethnicity , Chapter. 16. According to the Housing Section data published in the Santa Anita Pacemaker (Final Issue, p. 8), the numbers were 7,182 in stables and 11,411 in barracks.
  3. Santa Anita Pacemaker , Final Issue, 14.
  4. For a list with Caucasian staff employed in Santa Anita, see Santa Anita Pacemaker , Final Issue, 6-7.
  5. Eventually 11,000 meals were served daily. Santa Anita Pacemaker , June 12, 1942, 3.
  6. Letter, Ikuko Kuratomi to International House, Berkeley, 26 July 1942, National Archives II RG 499, Unclassified Correspondence, Box 3.
  7. See the exchange between Bendetsen and Nicholson in National Archives II, RG 499, WDC, Unclassified Correspondence, Box 63 (Folder "Criticism of Mess Halls").
  8. See Fact Sheets of the Assembly Centers in National Archives II, RG 499, WDC, Unclassified Correspondence, Boxes 56-59; Santa Anita Pacemaker , July 1, 1942, 1.
  9. Letter, Ikuko Kuratomi.
  10. Santa Anita Pacemaker , Final Issue, 16.
  11. U.S. Army, Final Report , 201-202; Santa Anita Pacemaker , June 2, 1942, 3.
  12. Santa Anita Pacemaker , June 2, 1942, 3.
  13. 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; U.S. Army, Final Report , 205-206.
  14. Letter, Ikuko Kuratomi.
  15. Letter, Ikuko Kuratomi.
  16. Santa Anita Pacemaker , April 21, 1942, 1. The newspaper is also accessible online at the Densho Digital Repository.
  17. Andrew B. Wertheimer, "Japanese American Community Libraries in America's Concentration Camps, 1942-1946" (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 2004), 68-69, 74.
  18. Wertheimer, "Japanese American Community Libraries," 76-77.
  19. Santa Anita Pacemaker , June 19, 1942 4; July 22, 1942, 2.
  20. Report of the American Red Cross, Survey of Assembly Centers in California, Oregon, and Washington, August 1942 (WDC and Fourth Army: Bound Volumes Concerning the Internment of Japanese-Americans 1942-1945, Vol. 22), 5, 29.
  21. Lehman, Birthright of Barbed Wire , 30; Santa Anita Pacemaker , June 12, 1942, 1.
  22. Santa Anita Pacemaker , April 24, 1942, 3.
  23. Santa Anita Pacemaker , May 29, 1942, 3.
  24. U.S. Army, Final Report , 218.
  25. Lehman, Birthright of Barbed Wire , 62–63; U.S. Army, Final Report , 218-219; Santa Anita Pacemaker , August 8, 1942, 1.
  26. Santa Anita Pacemaker , April 18, 1942, 3; June 3, 1942, 3; June 12, 1942, 1, 4.
  27. Report of the American Red Cross , 30.
  28. Santa Anita Pacemaker , Final Issue, 14-15.
  29. U.S. Army, Final Report , 283-284.
  30. The Historical Marker Database, accessed on June 3, 2013 at .
  31. Burton, et al., Confinement and Ethnicity , 62.
  32. Burton, et al., Confinement and Ethnicity , ch. 16.
  33. Alison Bell, "Santa Anita racetrack played a role in WWII internment," Los Angeles Times , Nov. 8, 2009, accessed online on June 3, 2013 at .

Last updated July 14, 2020, 7:16 p.m..