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Poston War Relocation Center the largest American concentration camp

The Poston War Relocation Center, located in Yuma County (now in La Paz County) of southwestern Arizona, was the largest (in terms of area) of the ten American concentration camps operated by the War Relocation Authority during World War II.

poston war relocation center

The site was composed of three separate camps arranged in a chain from north to south at a distance of three miles from each other. Internees named the camps Roasten, Toastin, and Dustin, based on their desert locations. The Colorado River was approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) to the west, outside of the camp perimeter.

Poston was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, over the objections of the Tribal Council, who refused to be a part of doing to others what had been done to their tribe. However, Army commanders and officials of the Bureau of Indian Affairs overruled the Council, seeing the opportunity to improve infrastructure and agricultural development (which would remain after the war and aid the Reservation’s permanent population) on the War Department budget and with thousands of “volunteers.”

Peak population of the Poston camps was over 17,000, mostly from Southern California. At the time Poston was the third largest “city” in Arizona. It was built by Del Webb, who would later become famous building Sun City, Arizona and other retirement communities. The Poston facility was named after Charles Debrille Poston, a government engineer who established the Colorado River Reservation in 1865 and planned an irrigation system to serve the needs of the Indian people who would live there.

A single fence surrounded all three camps, and the site was so remote that authorities considered it unnecessary to build guard towers.

Poston was a subject of a sociological research by Alexander H. Leighton, published in his 1945 book, The Governing of Men.

As Time Magazine wrote, “After fifteen months at Arizona’s vast Poston Relocation Center as a social analyst, Commander Leighton concluded that many an American simply fails to remember that U.S. Japanese are human beings.”

Recalling the confusing times after Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan, Sato stated notices were every where stating Japanese American families had 10 days to prepare to move and you could only bring what you could carry.

Namba recalled, “Camp I had 11,000 and Camp II and III had over 3,000 in each. Poston was the third largest town in Arizona at the time. ”

Sato said her parents had a main rule, “Kodomo no tameni—for the sake of the children. ”

She said the adults worked on trying to make the conditions better for the children by making basketball courts, toys and baseball fields.

poston war relocation center

Kiyo Sato, is the chairperson of the Poston Memorial Monument Committee; Jim Namba, treasurer; Ted Kobata, chief of construction; and Sid Arase, committee member.

Namba recalls a pool was dug between Camp I and Camp II so the kids could go swimming.

He recalls it was very hard to adapt to the heat.

Kobata said the internees wanted to make a memorial so no one would forget what happened to those who had to live in the camps.

“There were 10 camps and nine had markers, only Poston didn’t have a marker, so we focused on Poston,” Kobata said.

Kobata said advertised the project to get funding and volunteers in San Francisco, Sacramento and other west coast newspapers.

Architect Ray Takata volunteered to design the monument, even though he wasn’t at Poston but Tule Lake.

Arase said he got recruited and helped with the construction of the monument.

The Poston Memorial Monument was dedicated Oct. for the future include according to Namba “We need the younger generation to step in. ”

Sato stated, “I’m so glad we got the monument, our parents navigated through these difficult times. Their first concern was kodomo no tameni, for the sake of the children. ”

She added, “The Japanese have a saying shikataganai—can’t help it. Let it go and focus on what you have. ”

At age 80 Sato wrote a book of her family’s experience of life before internment, living at the camps and returning home again in “Dandelion Through the Crack. ”

poston war relocation center

Besides the interviews there is a slideshow of the construction of the monument and kiosk and additional comments by the former internees.

Architect Ray Takata is quoted “The design of the monument starts out as a search for the essence or spirit of the people. As an internee I was always struck by the spirit of oneness, the unity of the people. ”

The monument is 30 feet high and 7 feet wide with a hexagonal base in the form of a Japanese stone lantern. Each side tells the story of monument and the history of the Colorado River Indian Tribes who gave the Poston camp internees a 99-year lease for the land the monument is erected.

On one side was the list of former internees who joined US Army, the 442nd RCT, who died in combat.

It was private contributions from Poston Camp I, II and III internees and friends who wanted a memorial and the Poston Memorial Monument Committee was created.

Ted Kobata was construction chief and his Camp II crew consisted of Mas Sunahara, Sid Arase, Jim Kobata, Jim Namba, Susumu Satow, Jun Sunahara, Duke Takeuchi and Kay Urakawa. 1995 a kiosk was built, led by Ted Kobata and fellow volunteers.

Camp I was located in the Poston area; Camp II was located two to three miles south; and Camp III was located near Le Pera Elementary School.

A number of buildings built for the concentration camps are still in use today.

Others, while still intact, are seriously deteriorated and in desperate need of maintenance.
The majority were removed after the camp closed and the land returned to the Colorado River Indian Tribes, and many are still in use as utility buildings in surrounding areas, while the former residential areas have been largely converted to agricultural use.

The Poston Memorial Monument was built in 1992, on tribal land with tribal support, and still stands today.

poston war relocation center

Notable Poston internees:

  • Jack Fujimoto (born 1928), the first Asian American to become president of a higher education institution in the mainland of the United States.
  • Tak Fujimoto (born 1939), an American cinematographer.
  • Frances Hashimoto (1943–2012), an American businesswoman and community activist
  • Satoshi Hirayama (born 1931), a Japanese-American baseball player who played for the Hiroshima Carp in Japan’s Central League.
  • Yosh Kawano (born 1921), a clubhouse manager for the Chicago Cubs
  • Robert Kinoshita (1914–2014), artist, art director, and set and production designer who worked in the American film and television industries from the 1950s through the early 1980s.
  • Doris Matsui (born 1944), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • George Matsumoto (1922–2016), an American architect and educator
  • Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), a prominent Japanese American artist and landscape architect.
  • Vincent Okamoto (born 1943), a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War
  • Sandra Sakata (1940–1997), an American fashion designer and fashion retailer
  • Roy I. Sano (born 1931), a retired Japanese-American Bishop of the United Methodist Church.
  • Hideo Sasaki (1919–2000), an influential American landscape architect.
  • Noriko Sawada (1923-2003), a Japanese American writer and civil rights activist
  • Teru Shimada (1905–1988), a Japanese American actor.
  • Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz (born 1933), a Japanese-American artist and art educator.
  • Shinkichi Tajiri (1923–2009), was a Japanese-American sculptor.
  • Ronald Phillip Tanaka (1944–2007), was a Japanese-American poet and editor.
  • A. Wallace Tashima (born 1934), the first Japanese American to be appointed to a United States Court of Appeals.
  • Hisako Terasaki (born 1928), a Japanese American etcher.
  • Hisaye Yamamoto (1921-2011), a Japanese American writer of short stories.
  • Wakako Yamauchi (born 1924), a Japanese American playwright.
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