On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which gave permission for the War Department to relocate Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in the western United States to concentration camps. In March 1942, with the aid of US Census data and military support, the newly minted War Relocation Authority (WRA) forcibly moved more than 100,000 people into hastily conceived “evacuation” camps.
In Arizona, the hurriedly constructed Poston and Gila River Centers emerged: the Poston camp near the town of Poston in the Colorado River Indian Reservation, and Gila River camps south of Phoenix in the Gila River Indian Community. Built on Native American reservations, without the approval of Tribal Governments, the Gila River camps took only a few months to construct. Although the Gila River Indian Tribal Council rejected the Federal Government’s proposed lease twice, it narrowly approved the contract and the occupation of the land by the WRA camps. The lease agreement indicated that in lieu of payment, the WRA agreed to cultivate 8,500 acres of tribal land--a commitment the WRA never completed.
The camps at Gila River came to be known as the Rivers Camps--named after Jim Rivers, the first Akimel O'otham killed in the First World War. Canal Camp opened in May of 1942. Several hundred uniformly constructed tile roofed wood structures were to be the homes, offices, and entertainment spaces for approximately 14,000 people over the course of the next three years. No insulation or air cooling units were provided to the majority of the structures, along with rudimentary furnishings. The barracks buildings were 20 x 100 square feet, with each building separated into four apartment rooms, each room large enough to house 3 to 4 people as a family unit. As the smaller of the two Rivers camps, Canal was only intended to house 5,000 people.
As soon as the camp was complete, approximately 6,700 internees were transported by train from the Turlock Assembly Center near San Francisco to the town of Casa Grande. The train cars available were old and frequently had no air conditioning or other comforts. Internees were then crowded into old buses and trucks for the 16-mile trip from the train station to Canal Camp. With only a few vehicles available, multiple round trips had to be made from train to camp, leaving those on the trains under armed military guard during the heat of the day to wait for the last leg of their journey.
Conditions were miserable. Water, gas, and electricity shortages plagued Canal camp throughout the summer. Dust storms and monsoons were common through the hottest months and the overcrowded population struggled to adapt. Summer daytime temperatures soared, regularly exceeding 100 Fahrenheit through the months of July and August. With little relief from the scorching heat, some internees dug out cellars under their barracks while others collected scrap materials and built rudimentary evaporative “swamp” coolers they installed onto the buildings. Ice water was supplied from the mess halls through a spigot sticking out of the wall. Ice was in short supply, so mess hall workers would put ice blocks inside the drinking water tank allowing a supply of cool drinking water without risk of the ice being stolen.
Many of the internees were farmers from California. While unfamiliar with the climate and soil of the Arizona desert, they worked with local farmers and learned to grow vegetables. With plenty of open land and access to the Gila River water from a nearby canal (for which the Canal camp is named), a successful agricultural program developed. By mid-1943 local newspapers reported that Rivers camps produced about $1million worth of food, the majority of which supplied fresh produce to camps throughout the US. As a result of the camp’s farming success, a drying plant was created to preserve excess produce and was added to the list of camp-based industries.
Over the first year, the Rivers camps were praised repeatedly in local papers for their successful industries. The US Navy praised a small plant of 50 men at the camps for their efficient model ship manufacturing plant. Turning out around 100 ships per month, the models were used by the military in training exercises.
Over time, conditions in the camps improved, largely through the coordination and efforts of the internees themselves. With the relative freedom to self-govern inside the camp, block councils were developed to focus on day-to-day issues. A leadership council consisting of one representative from each block also convened for the purpose of working with the administration. Also, administrators of the camp hired internees to organize recreational activities. A library and school provided limited educational opportunities and a movie theater and a baseball diamond provided entertainment and recreation. The community planned festivals and events; they organized church services, theater groups, scout troops, and women’s clubs. Such activities fostered a sense of community for the interned Japanese Americans.
Playing sports became a very important pastime, with baseball being a particular favorite. Kenichi Zenimura, a baseball player who set about building a baseball diamond on a vacant patch of land at the camp, became instrumental in developing a 36 team league in camps throughout the country. His passion for baseball and his influence in the community earned him the title Father of Japanese-American baseball. A memorial to him and the league stands at Nozomi Park in Chandler, AZ.
In 1943, as a response to continued accusations of special treatment by the WRA, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Rivers camps to see the conditions for herself. She found the conditions uncomfortable and commended the internees on their resourcefulness. Not long after her visit, she began campaigning to disband the internment camps as soon as possible.
The First Lady’s campaign was not well received by many, including Arizona’s congressional representatives. Because the Military Zone 1 was designated the coastal states, if released, the internees would be unable to return to their homes. As alternate resettlement plans were discussed many Arizona residents, spurred by prejudice and fear, became distressed over the prospect of Rivers internees settling in Arizona. As a result, an appeal was made to the Undersecretary of War by Senators Carl Hayden, E. W. McFarland, and Representatives John R. Murdock and Richard F. Harless, requesting that Arizona be added to the Military Zone 1, thus blocking Japanese-Americans from settling within the state’s borders, citing a possible risk of violence.
In the end, the camps did not close until after the war was over. By November 16, 1945, all Japanese-Americans who had been incarcerated in the Rivers camps had returned to their home states to rebuild their lives only to find their homes and businesses sold off. The buildings and all re-usable materials were removed from the camps, leaving little of value and broken concrete slabs behind, making the sites difficult for the tribes to redevelop. Former internees erected a memorial, but access to the site is limited. As the Gila River Indian Reservation holds sovereignty over the land, permission must be granted before visiting. In 2001 the US Park Service recommended an off-site memorial be erected to commemorate those Japanese-Americans who died in World War II, as well as those who survived the harsh years in captivity in Arizona. An official Federal monument has yet to be built.