"Palos Verdes Resident since 1947"

World War II Detention Camps

Nomura & Kurusu leaving meeting with Cordell Hull 12/7/41. Note that reporters are not exactly smiling.

While the commonly held public view of the Government “relocation” of those of Japanese ancestry in the early months of WW 2 is that it was a “disgrace” and “a stain on our national history”, there is another side to this that most Americans don’t know:

While classified information for 50 years following the end of WW 2, it is now commonly known that, in the months leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack, US cryptanalysts had been working feverishly on breaking the Japanese codes. By the time of the attack they were pretty good at “traffic analysis” (origination of the messages and what it indicated about ship movements) and could read much of the diplomatic “Purple” code (which is how FDR and Hull had read the final 14 part message before Nomura and Kurusu showed up post-attack — they were actually able to translate it faster than the Japanese embassy staff!).   And no, the US didn’t know the Pearl Harbor attack was coming, so we can give that one a rest.

After the attack, destroyers Cassin & Downes with USS Pennsylvania behind

Once that attack had taken place, there began a no-holds-barred effort to penetrate the Japanese naval codes, specifically JN-25. The success of this effort was magnificently demonstrated in the US anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Australia (Battle of Coral Sea), the US victory at Midway, the shootdown of Admiral Yamamoto over Bougainville in late 1943, and countless other “incredible victories”, especially in the early days when the Japanese should have been mopping the floor with the Americans. In short the US knew, primarily due to having broken the Japanese codes, roughly when and where the next Japanese moves would come and were therefore able to concentrate their meager forces where they would do the most good. It was similar to the advantage that radar gave Britain during the Battle of Britain. Without being able to read the Japanese codes, Hawaii would almost certainly have been taken and occupied, forcing the US Navy back to the West Coast of the US, with less than salutary implications for the duration of the War and for US casualties.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

So what does this have to do with Detention Camps? Once war was declared and the US really cracked down on breaking the codes, they came across a series of messages from Tokyo to the Japanese Embassy and Consulates in the US requesting that, in the event of war with the United States, they “seek out and recruit” 1st and 2nd generation Japanese with loyalty to the homeland to conduct espionage and sabotage activities against US defense industries, especially on the West Coast. There was some evidence of success based upon those messages. Keeping in mind that, at this point, France had surrendered, Germany controlled the rest of the continent and looked ready to conquer Russia, Britain was on her knees, Singapore was doomed, and the Japanese were running rampant thru SE Asia with seemingly nothing to stop them from taking Australia, it was clear that everything possible had to be done to win a war that, at that moment, looked pretty bleak.

For obvious reasons, the War Department could not publicize their knowledge of the recruitment effort by the Japanese, as any indication that the US was reading their codes would have resulted in their immediate change, with the attendant dire consequences for the US. Changing codes would have been relatively easy for the Japanese at this stage, but nearly impossible later in the war, as it involved physically transporting new code books across a vast (mostly ocean) empire which, by 1944, the US basically controlled. I’ll betchya Mahan never thought of that one.

The amount of damage a few “cells” could have inflicted on US War production on the West Coast is incalculable, along with the feared Japanese invasion of it. In the heat of the moment, there simply was not the luxury of observing all the niceties of interviewing each of the 100,000+ Japanese-Americans to ferret out who had been recruited or might be. Obviously the Japanese diplomatic staffs had burned everything. Thus Executive Order #9066, and the reason the Administration couldn’t explain what was really behind it. The knee-jerk reaction of those since who know little of the details was that “hysteria” and “racism” were the primary causes; while the former certainly contributed, given the above, it is hard to credit the latter.

This was one of those pre-emptive acts which can be hindsighted to death (like the Iraq War of recent years) — sure, the 442nd‘s heroism is achingly poignant in view of the situation, and sure there apparently were no Japanese-Americans who conducted sabotage just like there were no WMD when US troops arrived in Baghdad; but this is the crassest kind of hindsight. One must look at these decisions in the context of what was known when they had to be made and what the consequences were likely to be of doing nothing. In my view, the correct decision was made in both cases.

Less defensible was the confiscation of legitimately owned property of Japanese-Americans with little or no compensation. I am proud to say that my father, CPT Cliff Graham, USMC, who was a Japanese language specialist during the war (he translated intercepts, interviewed prisoners, worked on the codes, etc) assisted internees returning from the camps after the War to regain their property.

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