Ten World War II Prison Camps in America

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A few months back I wrote a column highlighting ten of the worst Japanese-run prison camps in the Philippines during World War II. I thought it would only be fair to highlight 10 of the worst American-run prison camps for the Japanese in the U.S. during World War II.

As a quick historical reminder, the United States government, under the direct orders of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt, imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Americans and recently immigrated foreigners for the crime of being Japanese or German (the Italians got some flack, too, but less so than the other two), or for having a Japanese or German surname.

The vast majority of these imprisoned people were Japanese or Japanese-American. In fact, the total amount of interred German or German-American prisoners was roughly 11,000, and the number of Italian or Italian-Americans much smaller than that.

Internment camps themselves were a new concept for the U.S. government. Sure, there had been forcible relocations of Native Americans for centuries prior to World War II, but none of those horrific crimes involved strategically removing American citizens and their families from one area of the country to another until a war ended (when the removed citizens would then – in theory – be allowed to return home). The Roosevelt administration eventually created three types of camps for prisoners: temporary camps, internment camps, and detention centers. The detention centers, run by the Department of Justice, housed the most suspicious prisoners, and it is the detention centers that deserve the most focus. So, without further ado, here are the ten harshest WWII prison camps in the U.S.:

10. Fort Lincoln Internment Camp, North Dakota. Once a fort for fighting and then administrating Indian territories, Fort Lincoln initially housed Italian sailors caught in American waters during the early years of the war. Eventually, German families came to replace the Italian sailors, but then the families, in turn, were replaced by some of the more hostile Japanese prisoners from other camps.

9. Fort Missoula Internment Camp, Montana. Another fort originally built to fight and then administer Native Americans, Fort Missoula mostly housed Italians - who were paid to work on local farms and fight forest fires - before being turned into a camp for some of the more unruly segments of the imprisoned Japanese population. Many of the Italians who were imprisoned at Ft. Missoula were non-military actors who were simply in the U.S. when war broke out. These same Italians nicknamed their prison camp “Fort Bella Vista,” and many of them remained in the U.S. after the war and became citizens.

8. Kenedy Alien Detention Camp, Texas. Originally a site for the Civilian Conservations Corps, the Kenedy Camp housed prisoners from Latin America. When the U.S. entered the war, Washington pressed numerous Latin American states to give up their Japanese and German citizens for the duration of the war, and the Latin American states largely complied with Washington’s wishes. The Latin American prisoners were traded for Axis-held prisoners throughout most of the war, but in early 1945 Kenedy became a P.O.W. camp for both German and Japanese soldiers.


Kenedy Enemy Alien Detention Station main entrance


7. Kooskia Internment Camp, Idaho. Built in the remote wilderness of the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho, first as CCC base and then as a federal prison, Kooskia Internment Camp had no fences or guard towers and paid prisoners to work on a highway in the area. It housed relatively few prisoners, with no more than 250 at a time, but all were men and all were longtime residents of the U.S. without citizenship, which made them, in the eyes of Washington, relatively hostile to the nation’s security.

6. Crystal City Internment Camp, Texas. Like Kenedy, Crystal City is most memorable for holding Latin Americans that the U.S. government had acquired from its allies to the south. Crystal City also housed German and German-American families and was equipped with showers, kitchens, multiple-bedroom units, and toilets. Unfortunately, many of the German and Japanese nationals were deported back to their countries of origin, along with their American-born children.

5. Santa Fe Internment Camp, New Mexico. Nestled in the heart of the capital city of New Mexico, Santa Fe’s prison camp was first used as a processing center for Japanese-American families before being used to house Italian and German non-military prisoners. Later on, the site housed Japanese-American men who had refused to sign a loyalty oath. The crux of the matter rested on the fact that Japanese-American men were insulted that their government would suspect them of harboring loyalties to a foreign emperor, and that this same government wanted them to fight in a war while their parents were imprisoned at home. Tear gas and batons were used against the prisoners during the Santa Fe Riot of 1945, and four prisoners were injured, but nobody died in the riot.

4. Seagoville Detention Camp, Texas. Originally a women’s prison, Seagoville housed Germans, Japanese, and Italians throughout the war. A German-language newspaper was published and circulated.The largest population of prisoners ever housed at one time was just over 600.


Aerial of Seagoville Enemy Alien Detention Station in 1947


3. Fort Stanton Internment Camp, New Mexico. Built in 1855 for the Apache Wars, Fort Stanton played host to legendary soldiers like Kit Carson, Billy the Kid, and the Buffalo Soldiers. Ft. Stanton imprisoned dozens of non-military Germans suspected of being spies. Interestingly, the German and Japanese prisoners - considered to be some of the worst in the system - were kept segregated throughout their internment at Ft. Stanton, and all of the Japanese prisoners were eventually shipped off to Japan.

2. Camp Forrest, Tennessee. Named after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, Camp Forrest was a U.S. military base, rather than a detention center, that housed POWs as well as non-military aliens and American citizens with Japanese, German, or Italian surnames. Most of the prisoners were used for labor services, but it is unclear if they were paid for their work. A German-language newspaper was published and circulated (it was titled “The Latrine”). By the end of the war, Camp Forrest held solely POWs. Only 200 of the 700 prisoners at Camp Forrest were Japanese (or had Japanese surnames).


Barracks at the Camp Forrest Bakers and Cooks school.


1. Leupp Isolation Center, Arizona. Isolation centers were used for violent resisters of imprisonment, and Leupp housed many of these angry, imprisoned American citizens. After a riot in one of the internment camps (classified as a level below detention camps in terms of dangerousness) led to the death of two prisoners and injuries to 10 people (including a guard), isolation centers were employed to help the American government quell dissent within its concentration camps. Perhaps the most interesting fact about isolation centers is that the “troublemakers” were booked and housed in county jails after violent incidents, and transferred to isolation centers from the county jails instead of the internment camps. The rule of law surely took a backseat to Roosevelt’s policies towards Americans of Japanese and German descent.

Further thoughts
Years later, the U.S. government did officially apologize to its citizens (or their children) for imprisoning them. The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 was passed by Congress but vetoed by Republican Ronald Reagan. However, Congress overrode Reagan’s veto by an overwhelming majority and, to date, about $1.6 billion has been given to the victims (or their heirs).

Comparatively, the U.S. concentration camps were not very harsh. There was some dysentery or malaria, but no starvation or disease outbreaks. The worst aspect of these internment camps was their racist character and the fact that very few people received a trial by jury. There were, however, numerous court cases brought against the United States by Japanese-American citizens, so the rule of law was functioning, but the Roosevelt administration moved so forcefully that it took the judicial branch a fair amount of time to catch up with the executive branch.

For more information about Japanese-American internment, be sure to check out the Densho Encyclopedia.

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