When Santa Anita Racetrack Was A Japanese Internment Camp Assembly Center


It's been 73 years since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In the months following, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Japanese and Japanese-Americans to evacuate their homes and be taken to internment camps during World War II as a result of war hysteria and racial prejudice. However, before they were transported to infamous camps like Manzanar in California, many first went to Santa Anita Park, a place better known as a racetrack in Arcadia rather than the country's largest Japanese internment assembly center.

Roosevelt's evacuation announcement came on February 19, 1942. While internment camps across the nation were being built, Japanese and Japanese Americans stayed at temporary assembly centers like the one at Santa Anita Park in the interim. (There was also an assembly center at Pomona's Fairplex.) The racetrack was temporarily shut down and horses were moved in preparation for the 19,000 people from Northern and Southern California who would later have to call this place their home. It opened in March 1942, and by September 1942, the people interned were taken to other internment camps. The racetrack was empty by the end of that October.

A San Francisco News article from April 6, 1942 described how 700 people of Japanese descent in San Francisco prepared to travel by bus and train to Santa Anita Park:

Evacuees were instructed to bring with them sufficient blankets, bed linen and towels; toilet articles, soap, comb and mirror; adequate clothing; knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls, cups; other small incidental property which can be carried easily.

Upon arrival at Santa Anita, evacuees will be housed, fed, and assigned to do community maintenance work which will help to bring about a well organized, unified assembly center.

The horse stalls were converted into shabby barracks, and some of those interned said that the smell of manure still lingered. In an April 25, 1942 issue of Robert Wagner's Script—a West Coast Magazine—that was penned by The Jazz Singer screenwriter Alfred Cohn, he wrote a slanted article about the living quarters:

Box stalls don't sound very appetizing as living quarters, but you'd be surprised if you saw what the Army has done with them. Each stall has had a room built on in front with doors and windows, and the floors have been covered with a layer of asphaltum which seems to have killed the odors.

The L.A. Times described life in the barracks:

The Army covered Santa Anita's parking lot with row after row of identical barracks covered with tar paper. The camp was divided into seven districts and included several mess halls, a hospital, stores, a post office, classrooms, and makeshift churches in the track's grandstand.

Each evacuee was given an Army bed, one blanket and one straw tick, according to Anthony Lehman, author of "Birthright of Barbed Wire." The racetrack was surrounded by barbed wire.

In 2008, James Tsutsui, a Laguna Woods resident, spoke about his experience as a Japanese American at the Santa Anita Park assembly center in the video below. He said that the evacuees were forced to keep busy by making camouflage netting to cover the outside of the racetrack.

Esther Takei Nishio—a Japanese American who was processed at Santa Anita Park and later taken to a Colorado camp when she was 19—left the camp in 1944 to be reintegrated into society at Pasadena City College on the West Coast. She was a "test case" to see how others would react to people of Japanese ancestry. According to the Pasadena Star News:

"On Sept. 12, 1944, we arrived in Pasadena," she said. "The next morning, we awoke to headlines in the local newspaper. Pardon my language, but all hell broke loose."

"She endured hatred, fear and intolerance," said Lisa Sugimoto, former president-superintendent of Pasadena City College.

According to the Temple City Tribune, the evacuation order was treated differently throughout the country:

Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast of the United States were all interned, whereas in Hawaii, where more than 150,000 Japanese Americans composed nearly a third of that territory’s population, only 1,200 to 1,800 Japanese Americans were interned. Of those interned, 62 percent were United States citizens.

By March 1946, the last of the Japanese internment camps closed. However, many had left their homes and businesses during this time. A law was enacted in 1948 allowing for evacuees to be reimbursed for their property losses, and in 1988, Congress paid out restitution payments of $20,000 each to the survivors of these camps and a formal apology.

When President Ronald Reagan signed the civil liberties bill in 1988, he offered a mea culpa: "Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. For what is most important for this bill is less to do with property than with honor. For here, we admit a wrong. Here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law."