Ironically, there were two ways prisoners could escape a Japanese-American relocation camp: join the military (which I’ll blog about later) or if they offered skills or professions that contributed to America's war effort.
In short, help the very nation that was cruelly and unjustly imprisoning them.
But over time, internees found other ways to escape, at least temporarily.
By the spring of 1942, the War Relocation Authority, which oversaw the camps, was receiving desperate pleas from non-Japanese farmers for cheap seasonal laborers. No surprise considering a labor shortage due to so many young men siphoned into the U.S. military.
As a consequence, as many as 10,000 internees worked temporarily on farms in western states. They were even credited with saving sugar beet crops. Ironic, considering the many productive Japanese farmers whose crops rotted in the fields because they’d been taken away to concentration camps.
Living conditions for the seasonal laborers were often poor, and some locals were hostile to their presence. But for the internees, the labor meant a chance to escape the armed guards and barbed wire and earn more than they were earning inside the camps.
Another way to escape was for younger internees to continue their higher education that had been interrupted by internment. No west coast schools, naturally. They had to find their way to Midwestern and Eastern academic institutions.
Like the seasonal laborers, they often faced hostility. Some universities and colleges turned away applicants when they learned they were internees. But with the help of mostly private philanthropies, particularly the American Friends Service Committee and Christian groups, several thousand were eventually able to enroll in halls of higher education.
Of the internees who remained behind the barbed wire, a few found temporary escapes.
Most of the camps were remote and isolated from civilization. Camp Amache was an exception. It was within walking distance of its official namesake, the southeastern Colorado community of Granada.
Fortunately for the camp’s prisoners, the director, James G. Lindley, was a fair administrator. He allowed internees to take day trips into town where they were able to buy goods. (Another factoid that figures into the plot of The Big Dive.
That didn’t sit well initially with locals who hated their “Jap” neighbors. But merchants soon warmed to the visitors. They hired some and made sure their stores stocked items internees couldn’t get through their own camp co-ops (if they could afford the items, which was always a challenge).
But most prisoners in the other camps were relegated to remaining behind barbed wire, with no hope of leaving until war’s end. Even the dead, who were buried inside the camps.
And for those who escaped temporarily, they were required to return by day’s end, where military police searched them for contraband such as guns, booze, and cameras.
A stark reminder of the America that had unjustly imprisoned them.
Bruce Most is an award-winning mystery novelist and short-story writer. His latest novel, The Big Dive, is the sequel to the award-winning Murder on the Tracks, which features a street cop seeking redemption while investigating a string of murders in 1949 Denver. His award-winning Rope Burn involves cattle rustling and murder in contemporary Wyoming ranch country. Bonded for Murder and Missing Bonds features feisty Denver bail bondswoman, Ruby Dark. A free short story about Ruby can be found under Short Stories.