Japanese American internment camps created 75 years ago Sunday

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Sunday, February 19, 2017
Day of Remembrance: 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066
Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into interment camps.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Sunday marks 75 years since the signing of a presidential executive order that sent nearly 120,000 innocent Japanese Americans to internment camps.

Executive Order 9066 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Feb. 19, 1942, and showed an incredible display of a president's power.

"Roosevelt with a stroke of the pen, with his signature, changed the history of a people in the United States, most of whom were citizens, forever," Jennifer Jones with the Smithsonian Institution said.

It was an executive order that, to borrow a line from Roosevelt himself, "will live in infamy." The anniversary of its signing is now referred to as the Day of Remembrance.

With the current political climate, many famous Americans who have a deep understanding of Executive Order 9066 are explaining why it should never be forgotten.

"This country was swept up in war hysteria and racism. And we were seen as equal to the enemy just because of our face," said actor George Takei, who was 5 years old at the time.

Even though there wasn't a single act of espionage, thousands were rounded up. Many were taken by truck first to the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia and forced to sleep in horse stalls.

"Each family was assigned a horse stall to sleep in," Takei recalled. "For my parents, they told me later, it was a degrading, humiliating thing to be told to sleep in that horse stall. It still stank of horse manure."

"My mom would tell about living in horse stalls that had been cleaned out, but you could still tell that obviously it was a horse stall," explained Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Sen. Alan Simpson was 10 years old at the time in Cody, Wyoming, where one of the communities was built. The government called them internment camps, but in reality, they were prisons.

"The thing that made us all concerned was the barbed wire fence and the guard towers and the guards and the guns and the tower. All aimed inside. It wouldn't matter who was out there. That would spook you up," Simpson said.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta recalled seeing the devastation on his father's face.

"As the train was pulling out of San Jose, I looked around and looked at my dad and all these tears were coming down," Mineta shared.

Both strong and resilient, many adjusted to their situation, no matter how demeaning the circumstances may have been.

"I adjusted to living in imprisonment. It became normal for me to go to school in a black tar paper barrack and begin the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry towers right outside my schoolhouse window as I recited the words 'with liberty and justice for all,' too young to really feel the stinging irony of those words," Takei said.

"The fact that you could take a whole group of people identified only by national origin, order them from their homes and hold them in a very desolate place for an indefinite period of time, is a violation of due process of law. It's a violation of your right to have a trial. It's a violation of so much of our constitution," Ito said. "And somebody needs to stand up when those rights are violated."

In 1988, the U.S. government admitted that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.

A special commission called it the result of "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

"Out of this tragedy comes this great lesson, and to me, when I think of that legislation and it says, 'And on behalf of the American people, the Congress apologizes to those of Japanese ancestry for the gross violation of their constitutional rights,'" Mineta said while holding back tears.

"Hate, there was hate here," Simpson said. "And hatred corrodes the container it's carried in."

That hate and imprisonment would have a lasting impact on the Japanese American community.

"It changed how they thought of themselves, not just as Americans, but now isolated as looking like the enemy as being Japanese, and yet it also moved them to make sure that this never happened again to another minority group in the United States," Jones said.

Most of the families forced into the camps lost everything, including their homes, jobs and possessions. Even after the war ended, it took many Japanese Americans more than a generation to earn it back.