Japanese-American Internment Camps in New Mexico 1942-1946

By Suzanne Stamatov

The U.S. government operated two internment camps in New Mexico. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, and the roundup of Japanese-Americans began in California, the Justice Department named New Mexico as a site for internment camps. Between March 1942 and April 1946, the US Federal government, in a Department of Justice Internment Camp in Santa Fe, incarcerated 4,555 men of Japanese ancestry. The Army operated a prisoner of war camp in the southwest corner of New Mexico in Lordsburg where men of Japanese ancestry also found themselves imprisoned. Racial hatred and war hysteria created an inhospitable atmosphere for Japanese Americans already residing in New Mexico. Many Japanese-Americans lost their jobs and feared imprisonment.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941, Americans blamed the debacle on espionage committed by Japanese Americans instead of the lack of preparedness by American military forces. The federal government actually had proof that no espionage had occurred, but chose not to contradict the circulating rumors. Indeed before Pearl Harbor, Curtis B. Munson, a special representative to President Roosevelt, had studied whether the Japanese Americans of the west coast posed a threat to the country, but had concluded that they did not. Nevertheless, officials in the administration chose to ignore the evidence and succumbed to war hysteria. The federal government operated on the assumption that Japanese-Americans would form a fifth column and aid in the expected Japanese invasion. Hence the government believed that people of Japanese ancestry needed to be removed from the west coast. Secretary of the Department of War, Henry Stimson, and Secretary Frank Knox of the U.S. Department of the Navy advised the President to inter Japanese-Americans. Attorney General Francis Biddle opposed the plan citing concerns about the violation of individuals’ constitutional rights. Stimson and Knox prevailed, however, and Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, declaring the western coast a military zone and that all people deemed suspect be removed.

The Wartime Civil Control Administration (WCAA) ordered Japanese Americans to report to assembly centers. The WCAA allowed them to bring what they could carry in a suitcase. The quick removal forced many to sell or store their properties on short notice, and their subsequent economic losses reached an estimated 400 million dollars. Once the government realized how many soldiers would be needed to handle the relocation process, it created the War Relocation Authority (WRA), a civilian operated organization. The WRA built ten relocation centers to imprison Japanese-Americans families. The authorities in charge of the relocation efforts believed that some Japanese-Americans posed greater danger than others and decided to isolate these men in internment camps or in camps for prisoners of war. These high-risk detainees were mostly Issei men, first-generation immigrants born in Japan. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the U.S. Department of Justice ran four internment camps.

The one located in Santa Fe on the site of an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp was about a mile from the center of Santa Fe (current site of the Casa Solana neighborhood). The Santa Fe internment camp began operating on 14 March 1942 when it accepted its first Japanese “alien enemies.” Between March and September, the government held hearings to determine the extent of the loyalty to the U.S. of the 826 prisoners. The government deemed 303 men as “undesirable enemy aliens,” sending them to army prisoner of war camps. The remaining prisoners received permission to join their families in the relocation camps or to live away from the military zone.

After the last prisoner left on 24 September, the camp accepted another wave of internees on 23 March 1943. By 30 June the camp held 1,894 men. The internees from 1942 had mostly been farmers and fishermen, but in the second wave of internees, there were men from a greater variety of occupations, including college professors, doctors, actors, and journalists. Twelve of the new internees of Japanese descent came from Central and South America. The average age of the internees was fifty-two years old.

Separated from their families, the men made the best of life in prison. One in four men had the opportunity to pursue some type of employment in the camp, serving as bakers, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, barbers, tailors, and firemen. Others found ways to lessen the boredom and enforced incarceration by caring for pets, growing gardens, and attending informal internee-taught classes. The camp had a small library where men borrowed magazines, books and newspapers. The camp personnel censored all of the library’s material that “could tend to incite the internees against the [U.S.] Government and its policies.” Nevertheless, the enforced imprisonment proved very hard on these industrious men. One internee, Yoshiaki Fukada, described their time behind barbed-wire fences as akin to “fencing a thousand free-spirited mustangs.”

For the most part, the camp ran smoothly due to the experience and tolerance of the camp administration. The camp officers, INS veterans such as Ivan Williams, Bundy Avant, and Abner Schreiber, made no attempt to penalize the internees for their cultural heritage and showed them respect. Camp officials often supported the internees’ desires to practice their Japanese customs. The officials allowed Japanese baths to be constructed and made efforts to purchase favored foods for the mess-hall meals. They also permitted internees to celebrate Emperor Hiroshito’s birthday. The administration recognized that their tolerance led to cooperation from the internees and it rejected the idea that officials might by “coddling” the prisoners. Although some conflicts occurred in the Santa Fe internment camp during its four years of operation, overall it ran smoothly, and prisoners, never complacent about their plight, had little to complain about regarding their treatment.

Prisoners in the Lordsburg Internment Camp, on the other hand, felt persecuted by the army officials running the camp. Many of the problems arose from the inept leadership of the camp and the inexperience of the guards. The federal government viewed the prisoners in both Santa Fe and Lordsburg as enemy aliens and as such it viewed them as prisoners-of-war (POWs). Under the Geneva Convention that the U.S. government signed in 1929, prisoners did not have to work and had to receive a certain amount of food daily. A protecting third power, in this case Spain, enforced the provisions. During their tenure at Lordsburg, Japanese prisoners appealed to Spain saying that they were being mistreated. On 1 and 11 July 1942, some internees sent wires to the Spanish ambassador. An intercepted wire of 17 July read:


At this time of heightened tension on 27 July, a camp guard shot and killed two Japanese men.

This was the first evacuation of an entire people—the first since the Indian Removal of the mid-nineteenth century—to occur in the United States. Few questioned the legality of the removal, let alone the moral implications. The Californian press championed the policies of the government and lent the policies legitimacy. War hysteria and race prejudice prevailed over common sense and decency. The same atmosphere existed in New Mexico with only a few New Mexicans expressing their outrage at the racism and disregard for American citizens' constitutional rights.

In March of 1942 a plan by Mr. L.E. Detwieler of New York began circulating in New Mexico. Mr. Detwieler proposed buying land to help colonize between forty and sixty thousand Japanese-Americans in Maxwell, New Mexico. An immediate outcry from the citizens of New Mexico began, and letters flowed into the governor’s office protesting the proposal. A petition signed by 111 people stated: “We the people of Maxwell and vicinity do hereby petition the Honorable Governor John E. Miles that we the people do not want a colony of Japanese on our peaceful community. As most of our boys are in the army fighting the Japs, we do not feel that we want the Japs to take their place.” Another citizen wrote: “All Japs are skunks. And no matter where a skunk is born, or under what star or flag, he is still a skunk—same stripe, same odor, same charcterists [sic].”

A group of thirty-six large landowners, on the other hand, approved the plan and sent a petition to the governor. “The undersigned property owners of the Maxwell Irrigation District in order to make our position clear on the question of locating a colony of Japanese farmers on the Maxwell tract, do hereby certify that we have no objection to the sale of land in said Maxwell tract to Japanese farmers who are American citizens now being evacuated from California and we feel that such sales will benefit the community.” They also claimed that many of those who had signed the petition opposing the plan were not property owners in the vicinity. One of the landowners, F.A. Brookshier, wrote: “During my twelve years of teaching school including nine years here as superintendent, I have taught racial tolerance and the rights and duties of American citizens. This is a part of the democratic process.”

More people opposed the plan than approved it, and Governor Miles took immediate steps to prevent the colony. In a letter to Attorney General Edward P. Chase dated 24 April 1942, the governor wrote: “In view of the fact that I, as Governor, am opposed to any plan of colonization by persons of the Japanese race and am opposed to such persons acquiring any interest in real estate in New Mexico, I therefore request you to institute necessary legal proceedings to test the right of persons of the Japanese race to acquire or hold any interest in real estate in New Mexico and, if necessary, to carry a case to the Supreme Court of the United States in order to give that Court an opportunity to modify or reverse its former decisions.”

The press also fought the colonization project. In an editorial of the Santa Fe New Mexican dated 6 March 1942, the editors noted that the objections of New Mexicans to the plan had been loud and long. “There are many reasons why New Mexico and especially Santa Fe does not want Japanese residents and the foremost is the fact that such colonization would in truth kill the goose that lays the only golden egg this section knows—color and atmosphere. Santa Fe is at the present time getting many residents from the coasts, people of substance and influence. Those people are coming to Santa Fe mainly because of its history, its background and the old world flavor. It is true they are seeking safety, but safety can be found in hundreds of other places. With the influx of Japanese such an atmosphere as that which attracts visitors and residents would be permanently lost.”

Governor Miles killed the plan by the summer. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in New Mexico remained tense. In the spring of 1942, when news of the Bataan Death March reached Santa Fe, an angry mob of Santa Feans, armed with shotguns and hatchets, converged on the Santa Fe Internment Camp. The camp commander convinced the mob that any violence against the prisoners would result in retribution against the New Mexican POWs in the Philippines and Japan. After that incident, the interned men requested that the administrators raise the height of the perimeter fence by an additional foot. Ironically, many of the internees had sons who eventually fought in Italy in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The regiment was the most-decorated unit in U.S. military history, with the troops receiving 18,143 medals, including 3,600 Purple Hearts.

New Mexicans born in Japan, Italy, or Germany had to register at the Post Office as enemy aliens and turn over their short-wave radios, guns, and camera equipment. Yet only Japanese men lost their jobs, suffered the humiliations of not being able to support their families, and often faced imprisonment. On 3 February 1942, James Matsu, a junior at the University of New Mexico, wrote Governor Miles, asking why the government was persecuting his father, a Japanese man who had lived in the United States for forty years. “My father has never done anything against the law, for during the 40 years in this country he has never been arrested on any charge. His record is clean as anybody’s could be. There is no just reason for clamping down on innocent people. I believe, and I am sure you agree that this isn’t the American way. This is the Axis method and it is one of those things which belong to those whom we are fighting. Yes, it is war, and my father and mother are aliens from an enemy country, but this doesn’t mean that they are enemies.” Governor Miles did not respond to James Matsu’s letter.

Although most government officials remained silent like Governor Miles, some citizens stood up and protested against the unfair treatment of their neighbors. In an affidavit to the governor sent by James Matsu’s father, Tom Matsu of Belen, Tom Matsu included a petition signed by thirty-one Belen citizens: “We, the undersigned recommend that Tom Matsu be given his old job back with the A.T. & S.F. RR. Co. due to the reason that we have known Mr. Matsu for a number of years and there is no question that he is a peaceful and law-abiding resident of this community. His family and all of his children, who are American citizens, are fine, healthy and educated Americans.”

Unfortunately, the voices of the Belen citizens went unheeded. Tom Matsu, along with other men of Japanese descent, lost their jobs at the railroad and found it nearly impossible to become reinstated. In his report, Munson emphatically stated that the Japanese-Americans should not be judged as a group and he duly noted the differences between the various generations. Instead the government totally disregarded the report and viewed all people of Japanese descent as enemy aliens. In 1980, the congressionally appointed Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians released a report that stated that the historical causes of the evacuation did not arise from the officially stated reasons of “mutual self-protection” and “military necessity,” but in race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.”

Sources Used:

Culley, John J. “Trouble at the Lordsburg Internment Camp,” New Mexico Historical Review 60:3 (July 1985): 225-248.

Melzer, Richard. “Casualties of Caution and Fear: Life in Santa Fe’s Japanese Internment Camp, 1942-46” in Essays in Twenty-Century New Mexico, edited by Judith Boyce DeMark, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Rogers, Everett M. and Nancy R. Bartlit. Silent Voices of World War II: When Sons of the Land of Enchantment Met Sons of the Land of the Rising Sun (Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2005).

Szasz, Ferenc M. and Patrick Nagatani. “Constricted Landscapes: The Japanese-American Concentration Camps, A Photographic Essay” New Mexico Historical Review 2 (April 1996): 157-187.

Archival Documents: New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Governor John E. Miles Papers: Japanese Relocation Programs, Correspondence 1942, folder 342

Proposed Japanese Relocation Colony at Maxwell, New Mexico 1942, folder 341

Enemy Aliens, 1941-1942, folder 343

New Mexico Adjutant Records: WWII Scrapbook, Vol. 73 Aliens and Internment 1941-1947

Japanese American Internment Camps in New Mexico 1942-1946

Between 1942 and 1946, the U.S. government operated two internment camps in New Mexico, in Lordsburg and in Santa Fe. Executive Order 9066 and Public Law 503 passed into law without opposition following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These laws gave the government authority to imprison 120,000 Japanese-Americans, of whom two-thirds were American citizens.

(c) Suzanne Stamatov. All rights reserved.