Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Wick Fisher
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Relocation Authority Center or Concentration Camp?

Wick's World

 

March 28, 2019



Shortly after the United States entered WWII, Relocation Authority Centers were established to house people of Japanese-American descent. Because of their ancestry, politicians felt they could not be trusted to remain loyal to Uncle Sam. This flawed thinking by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others led to the confinement of many thousands of members of Japanese descent. Ironically, not one single Japanese-American was found to betray their country. Their slogan “We are Americans Too” fell on deaf ears. Lest one thinks that these Japanese-Americans were simply confined to relocation centers in the West, let’s call them what they really were; concentration camps.

In 1942 the Poston Relocation Center opened for business. Located near the California border in southwest Arizona, this concentration camp would eventually house 17,814 Japanese prisoners and 107 draft resisters. Included were several Japanese families that worked for my wife’s grandfather, Roy Westmoreland.

Grandpa Roy was born in the late 1800s in Roy, Oklahoma. His mother was the postmaster when the town was being incorporated so she named it Roy, after her son. In 1908, teenage Roy headed for Mexico to find some land and raise a family. When he reached the Imperial Valley of California, he decided the nearby Colorado River would be adequate to support a ranch. Eventually, he would farm 1,000 acres and feed some 3,000 to 4,000 head of cattle each year. Roy Westmoreland, one of the pioneers of Imperial Valley, California, lived until 1974 at the ranch located a few miles north of Westmorland, California. His grandson is still at the ranch and it remains one of my favorite out-of-the-way places to visit in America.

During one of my first visits to the ranch, I was honored to meet one of Roy’s hired hands. He was a Japanese-American descendent of one of the several families that were sent the Poston Relocation Center in 1942. Family lore tells the tale of how these families were rounded up without prior notice and taken to nearby detention centers. Each person was allowed one suitcase for their belongings. Anything that didn’t fit was either left behind or destroyed on the spot. The families were held for years without due process with no idea if or when they would eventually be released. Sound familiar? Their incarceration is cited in today’s immigration debate.

The Poston camp was located out in the middle of a very hot desert. I have visited this area several times when the temperature was 110-118 degrees. Because Poston was located near the Colorado River, this is not the dry heat that desert dwellers are so proud to claim. This is heat with a humid vengeance that can lay down the best of us. The wind is also something to take notice of. The place is a perennial dust storm. Due to conditions at the camp, the Japanese referred to Poston as Toaston, Roaston, or Duston.

In 1942 FDR signed Executive Order 9066, giving military leaders broad power to round up and incarcerate, “all persons of Japanese ancestry.” U.S. Army soldiers soon began knocking on doors and posting evacuation orders using data quietly provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Japanese-American prisoners were confined in small buildings that would hold four families. Most families virtually lost everything but the clothes on their backs. The few that were allowed to place their belongings at storage centers returned after the war only to find these looted and ransacked.

One morning, the U.S. Army knocked on Roy Westmoreland’s door. Armed with the information that the ranch employed several Japanese-American families, Grandpa Roy had no choice but to say goodbye to his loyal employees. Although they too were allowed to take only what they could carry with them, Roy, at risk to himself and his family, stubbornly refused the Army access to his worker’s possessions. Instead, he gathered all of their belongings and stored them in buildings located on the ranch so that they were able to reclaim that part of their lives once the war ended. In addition, he had learned that one of his employees had become pregnant. Roy loaded up a bassinet, blankets, and a crib and somehow was able to get them into camp.

Following the war and after release of all Japanese-American prisoners, every single family returned to the Westmoreland Ranch. Grateful members were able to reclaim their possessions and began life anew thanks to the thoughtfulness of a brave and courageous American. Eventually the Japanese-American Imperial Guild of California awarded Roy Westmoreland their highest honor of gratitude for “taking care of his people.”

I recently attended the memorial service for Roy’s son, Charles. Until he passed the Westmoreland Ranch to his son, Charles raised crops and cattle with the aid of several Japanese-American descendants from those first families. Many of them were in attendance to honor the family that had taken them in as “one of their own.”

 

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