5 ̶ Japanese Prisoners
On February 24, 1942, the Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, as a war measure, proclaimed the coastal region of British Columbia out of bounds to all Canadians of Japanese descent. In an unprecedented mass evacuation, 22,000 people ̶ men, women, and children ̶ were ordered to move(6).
The evacuation began on March 16 under the auspices of the B.C. Security Commission, and was accomplished by the end of the year. The men were ordered into road construction camps, or to work in approved sectors, or to prison camps. The euphemistic term “internment camp” was occasionally applied, but prisoners were confined to barracks, paid paltry wages, fed scanty meals, and endured the loss of all their homes, goods, property, and choices of livelihood. Families were torn apart.
All Japanese Canadians soon recognized their predicament: “It no longer matters whether a person is a national, a naturalized Canadian,or a Canadian citizen by birth, everyone goes regardless.” (24 Apr 1942)
On July 21, 1942, 638 men got off the train at Angler, Ontario, and the gates of Camp 101 closed behind them. The former inmates, German prisoners-of-war, had already been relocated.
The most complete record of the men’s experience at Camp Angler comes from a book by Robert K. Okazaki(7), one of the official record-keepers. He was 25 years old, single, a mill worker for Port Alice Paper and Pulp Co. on the B.C. coast. He was earning fifty-one cents an hour, a better-than-average wage.
Camp Angler POWs carried the label of “troublemaker”. Their crimes: refusing to report to work camps, resisting the mass evacuation and breakup of families, and speaking up. Robert Okazaki and others created an organization to promote keeping families together, which they called Nisei Mass Evacuation Group. Even behind barbed wire, they kept the faith and kept up their ̶ entirely peaceful ̶ resistance.
Camp Angler held males aged 18 to 45. Japanese POWs fell into two groups. The largest group, the niseis*, born raised in Canada, were unquestionably Canadian. The isseis**, born in Japan, were immigrants to Canada. After three years’ residence, they were eligible to apply for citizenship, becoming naturalized citizens.
The government of Mackenzie King treated the isseis as military POWs, subject to rules of the Geneva Convention for prisoners-of-war.
The niseis, on the other hand, being Canadian by birth, were treated as civilian POWs, with fewer rights. A huge proportion of the niseis ̶ feeling betrayed and abandoned by their adopted country ̶ sought to renounce their citizenship and demanded repatriation to Japan. They were denied, and still treated as POWs.
Divided loyalties led to conflicts between prisoners, let alone to wrenching internal conflicts. By the end of the war, only a handful of Angler prisoners were successfully repatriated.
All internees were deemed to be POWs. Standing Orders : Camp #101, issued April 29,1942, and applying to German prisoners, were carried over to apply to the Japanese internees. Officials seemed to use the terms “prisoner”, and “prisoner-of-war” and “internee” interchangeably.
Uniforms ̶ “The pants had a red stripe down both legs, and on the back of our uniforms was a twelve-inch red circle . . . The circle was actually a target for the guards to shoot at should they try to escape!” (23May 1942)
Labour Outdoors ̶ The conditions were mostly unpleasant, ranging from brutally cold winters to fly-ridden summers. “. . . The temperature dropped below minus sixty degrees, but we still had to take turns working! . . . Some of the men . . . are being hospitalized.” (16 Dec 1942) “Mr. Pipher and the Army are aggressively enticing up to enter outside work programs . . . Everyone refusing to work outside the camp will be ordered to cut wood every day!” (9 Sep 1943) These orders did not stick.
Discipline ̶ “Even though we are civilian P.O.W.s, very strict military rules have to be obeyed in this camp.” (30 Jul 1942) “Seven naturalized Canadian internees and one issei internee were placed in detention by the Army for not signing their Asset Declaration Forms . . . The men were ordered to go to work and return to the detention cells each night.” (19 Feb 1943)
Guards ̶ “Sergeant-Major Kennedy . . . has a very nasty and sarcastic attitude about our presence here, and he continues to add unnecessary outside work in the freezing weather.” (30 Mar 1943) “Some of the camp’s military personnel are despised because they make life very difficult for us.” (7 May 1943) On the other hand, the records make fleeting allusions to reasonable and kind-hearted officers and soldiers. “Most of the guards here are only fluent in French, and they have some difficulty understanding English. This produces a lot of communication problems and misunderstandings between us and the soldiers.” (14 Aug 1943) “The guards are so strict that even uttering a curse word under our breath will land us in detention, so needless to say, the holding cells are very busy . . . [In one incident] [prisoners] were ordered to clean up the entire detention hut floor on hands and knees, and . . . to wash it once more! . . . The mean guards . . . ordered them to wash the floor a third time!” (29 Oct 1943)
Outside Work ̶ From time to time, POWs obtained permission to work outside; e.g., “About 40 or 50 men were released to work in logging camps at Port Arthur and Neys, Ontario.” (1 Dec 1942)
Cold Weather ̶ “Each winter day here at Camp #101 brings with it temperatures below minus 50 and howling winds . . . ” (25 Jan 1943) “This is our second Christmas in captivity. The severe cold, fierce winds, and barbed wire have all but killed our holiday spirit . . . Our captivity still seems so unbelievable, just like a bad nightmare.” (25 Dec 1943) “Winter’s bitter cold and fierce winds have swept into our camp for a third year . . .” (Dec 1944) “When the temperature is near minus twenty, we often greet each other with ‘My, it’s warm today!” (Feb 1945)
Unpleasant Labour ̶ “About one-hundred of us had to unload coal from the train, unload and deliver food, and clean-up the Officers’/guards’ mess halls, the barracks, kitchen, dining area, and the outer grounds. Lt.-Col. Ellwood offered to pay us ten cents per day per man . . . ” (19 Aug 1942) The Camp Leader asked for twenty-five cents, and a stand-off ensued. The records do not clearly indicate the negotiated wage settlement, but some evidence suggests it was twenty cents. “The most despised job is unloading coal from the train. In teams of five, unloading near the freight doors is fine, but we get covered in black coal dust when we have to go inside the car! . . . [The Camp Leader] asked Commandant Kippen to either excuse us from work or provide warmer clothing on the very cold days, but [was refused]” (16 Dec 1942)
Good Times ̶ “. . . We are happy with our Christmas festivities! We have received . . . cash donations . . . parcels . . . gifts . . . permission to buy three-thousand bottles of beer at fifteen cents each.” (25 Dec 1942)
Gifts ̶ “[The Camp Leader’s] endless negotiations with the military has secured the release of our money confiscated at the Immigration Building [scene of Nisei Mass Evacuation Group demonstration in Vancouver]. We hid the cash from the Army and wasted no time banking it for the internees in dire straits.” (25 Dec 1942) From time to time, POWs found themselves beneficiaries of gifts and cash donations, which the Camp Leader was charged to distribute. Some donors were evacuees still in B.C. camps, Japanese Red Cross, Roman Catholic Church, Fairview Buddhist Church Women’s Organization, Y.C.M.A., Canadian Red Cross, individual ministers, Canada Packers employees (likely POWs from Angler), and the Spanish Consulate (the protecting power of Japanese internees),
Lack of Food ̶ “Our food shipments are being short-changed.” (19 Feb 1943) “. . . The train carrying our food supply is stuck once again [by heavy snowfalls]. We are stretching one day’s rations over two, sometimes three days . . . I don’t like having this constant hunger pain . . . ” (5 Nov 1943) “With food rationing becoming a daily occurrence, we are finding it difficult to maintain our training. Most meals now only consist of potatoes and two slices of bread.” (1 Jan 1944) “. . . Just once, I’d like to eat and eat to my heart’s, and stomach’s content.” (20 Apr 1944)
Medical Care ̶ “Too many internees are suffering from frost-bite. There is also an unusually high number of cases involving appendicitis, gastro-intestinal disorders, and the flu . . . Some hospital improvements have been made, but we are lacking basic equipment such as hot water bottles.” (27 Jan 1943) “This evening, one German P.O.W. was placed into our detention cell. I heard several rumours about his escape from another camp, and that he was here to get some dental work done (but we don’t have a dentist)!” (10 Mar 1944)
Amenities ̶ “. . . It was decided the internees will be supplied with the necessities of life, soap, razors, toothbrushes, and towels. Worn items will be exchanged for new ones . . . ” (13 Oct 1942) “. . . We have started to watch movies twice a week . . . We must pay $4.00 from our canteen fund for the second movie.” (22 Feb 1943)
Mail ̶ “Every month, each of us is issued four post cards . . . We are also permitted to write a total of twenty-four lines over three letter-size pages . . . ” (21 Jun 1942) ‘”Until today, one letter and one postcard was allocated to every man each week, but . . . we will only be receiving three-hundred letter papers and postcards for four-hundred and thirty-one internees!” (13 Mar 1944)
News Censorship ̶ “The newspapers issued to us have all the war stories cut out . . . ” (22 Aug 1943) Radios were forbidden.
Appreciation of Nature ̶ “[On the train’s approach to Angler] I saw rolling hills and a white blur of daisies besides the tracks. To my left was the endless horizon of magnificent Lake Superior.” (21 Jul 1942) “Our first autumn frost today! . . . The scenery reminds me of my youth when I spent hours wandering through Japan’s beautiful countryside gazing at all the autumn colours.” (24 Aug 1942) “Huge Timber wolves, alone, or often in packs, are roaming outside the camp in search of food! . . . At night, as I listen to their plaintive howling, I think of their freedom!” (17 Oct 1943) “After a long, cold eight months, the winter is finally giving way, and we welcome the warmth of the spring sun.” (20 Apr 1944) “I am surprised to see the sun’s bright rays come beaming through the frozen windows. We seldom see the sun during this time . . . ” (1 Jan 1945) “. . . Almost every night in the northern sky, the Aurora Borealis blazes across the sky . . . It is so beautiful, I’m glad IT can’t be held captive by the government!” (Feb 1945)
Physical Health ̶ “Commander Ellwood eventually banned our [military drill] exercises, so we took up running, and despite our heavy army boots, we circled the compound fifty times, a good twenty-five kilometres each day! . . . We also encouraged everyone to play baseball and other outdoor sports. We skated in winter, and with a few talented judo and kendo internees, we’ve really delved into these two sports!” (16, 17 Jun 1943)
Work Indoors ̶ All internal work was performed by POWs. “A small memento was presented to each of the men who staffed the following departments: Barber Shop, Canteen, Education, Fire Suppression, Hospital, Kitchen, Library, Office, Physical Fitness, Quartermaster, Mail, Recreation, Shoe Repair and Tailoring.” (30 Dec 1943)
Wood-Cutting Stand-off ̶ “. . . Beginning on January 17, men from each hut must cut wood for camp fuel every day. All day-work is compulsory.” Everyone refused. The isseis, being true POWs, were exempted by the Geneva Convention. The niseis cited lack of wood-cutting experience, the dangerous conditions, and the brutal cold. They protested being still denied reunion with their families. The Commandant ordered “no movies, no beer, no judo or kendo, and no music practices”. (15 Jan 1944) The decision to ration coal (essential to heat the huts) was negated after water pipes burst, and the Camp Leader lodged a strong protest. When the Commandant gave in is not recorded.
Personal Development ̶ “Many of our younger men are busy studying school texts . . . [They] should be in a proper educational program.” (20 Apr 1943) “I [Okazaki] am interestedin the German language and literature, so I have been very intently studying for the upcoming exam . . . Although the Recreation Hall is a bit small, we use it as a Dojo and practice four days each week . . . [tackling] very necessary Kendo elements . . . Judo students are excelling at their sport.” Others are painting and writing Japanese poetry, and engaged in band practices. (27 Mar 1944) “Today, a notice . . . arrived . . . Two men passed university exams, and sixteen passed high-school exams.” (31 Dec 1944)
Camp Newspaper ̶ “. . . The first edition was published today! In English bold-type: ‘The Angler Chronicle’ . . . It was six pages of 8 1/2 x 14-inch paper, full of camp news, world events, and sports . . . The paper will be published bi-monthly.” (23 Jul 1944)
Camp Morale ̶ “The strict regulation of our camp life has eased, and the guards are much more friendlier with us now . . . ” Anecdote of a blueberry-picking expedition. (31 Aug 1944) “Now that the war has ended, the Commandant’s attitude has abruptly changed for the better! The guards are friendlier, more kind, and helpful.” (Sep 1945)
Deaths in Camp ̶ “Mr. Masanao Shirakowa, a 46-year old issei . . . who had been hospitalized in camp, passed away this morning.” (2 Oct 1944) “Mr. Kisao Kanesashi, a 51 year old issei . . . passed away in the camp hospital today.” (24 Jan 1946) Camp records refer to five deaths: one man passed away in Winnipeg Hospital en route to Angler via Camp Petawawa (23 May 1942), one in Espanola Sanitorium (8 Mar 1943), one in Winnipeg Hospital (13 Feb 1945).
War News ̶ “Today, our guards told us that Germany had surrendered to the Allied forces in Europe . . .We are now permitted to read uncensored newspapers.” (2 May 1945) “The U.S. Air Force has dropped an ‘Atomic Bomb’ on Hiroshima and the city has been completely annihilated.” (6 Aug 1945) “. . . Japan has officially surrendered as well.” (Sep 1945)
Future Prospects ̶ “The days go by slowly, and our confinement time marches on, but I hope an end to this madness comes soon.” (1 Jan 1944) “I have a picture that I pinned to the wall, near my pillow. It was taken six years ago and in it, my father’s face is still young, my brother looks every bit the typical school kid, and I stand beside Mas [my brother], my eyes shining with a young man’s dreams of the future! How different we must look today?!” (1 Jan 1945) “[In a letter] my mother . . . suggests we dedicate ourselves to helping both Canada and Japan. She wants us to think very carefully about our future . . . ” (Dec 1945)
Uncertain Futures ̶ “Five months have passed since the war ended . . . Rumours are circulating, but we don’t know for sure where we’re going, or when . . . We have no homes to return to, and no country to call home.” (1 Jan 1946) “My final records show that over 170 men signed to repatriate, about 100 men are going to remain in Canada, and approximately 130 refused to sign either form [to repatriate or to stay].” (Feb 1946) “I am especially sympathetic to the younger internees who have lost four vital years of their formal education . . . It seems such a waste . . . I wonder if our cause helped our community at all? I mean, for all the suffering we’ve endured . . . (Feb 1946)
At Long Last ̶ “Mas and I (P.O.W.s A543 and A544) are . . . scheduled to leave on April 29 . . .” (April 1946) “Mas and I have been ordered to move to London, Ontario, and work at the Federal Steel Foundry.” (27 Apr 1946) “About 150 men . . . didn’t declare when they wanted to live . . . Rumours are they’re heading for Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The repatriates still don’t know when there’s departing . . . (28 Apr 1946) “Finally, the day of our release has arrived! . . . We are leaving with too many bad memories, too many tragedies, and too few good recollections.” (29 Apr 1946)
29 April 1946 — “I cannot put into words the emotions of the moment, for how can one even try to say good-bye to four years of loyal friendships and brotherhood. Four years of sharing the pain of isolation, and four years of being hungry all the time! . . . The government issued . . . my brother and I . . . eleven dollars each! [“consolation money”] Among the guards at Angler, Staff-Sergeant Ward has consistently been one of the more friendlier and understanding veterans ever since we arrived . . .
“Now outside the gate, we walked onto the curling rink and discarded our very worn and faded P.O.W. uniforms. The dark blue shirt with the red target circle on the back, the pants with the red stripe down the leg, and the cap . . . Ever since we arrived at Petawawa, our civilian clothing had remained in our suitcase and bags . . . in a sandy corner of the rink . . . Our clothes . . . were damp, creased, and smelled of mildew and mould!
“I stopped for a moment and glanced back at the barbed wires and barracks . . . The once menacing machine-gun watch tower looked old and forlorn . . . Angler P.O.W. Camp #101 is now history . . .
“The future is very uncertain and my inner voice is telling me I must be strong to face the unknown . . . But for now, as I breathe the cool air over Lake Superior this morning, it seems more refreshing, and almost calming. So this must be the sweet taste of freedom . . . AT LONG LAST!!!”
Never during the war, or after it, did Prime Minister Mackenzie King express any regrets over the treatment of Japanese Canadians.
Not until 1948 were the last controls on their population lifted, and they were allowed to vote again.
In 1988, then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, on behalf of the Canadian government, apologized for the wrongs committed against Japanese Canadians during the war. The apology came with symbolic redress payments ̶ too little, too late ̶ but better than the eleven dollars paid to Robert K. Okazaki in 1946 for five years of wrongful servitude. Okazaki published his memoir in 1996.
Postscript ̶ “Although Canada has in the past, treated me, my family, and my community with harsh, uncaring disrespect, I still treasure the friendships of numerous good people I have encountered and the many happy times I have experienced here. I feel good about myself, and I hope that my small contributions to society have helped make this country a better place to live in. This story is one of my contributions.” (1996)
* nisei – pronounced as NEE – say
** issei – pronounced as EE – say
6 Japanese Internment: Banished and Beyond Tears. Online article. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca
7 Okazaki, Robert A. The Nisei Mass Evacuation Group and P.O.W. Camp ‘101’. Private printing: Robert K. Okazaki, 1996.