Mendocino County’s Japanese Americans

Residents of Mendocino County leaving Ukiah, CA in 1942 for a Japanese prison camp in Colorado during World War II.
Pictured, left to right: Mr. & Mrs. Sam Wada and Mr. & Mrs. Joe Onomiya of Ukiah; Mrs. & Mr. Frank Wada of Hopland. (Photo Courtesy of Held-Poage Research Library, Ukiah)

The current Kelley House Museum exhibit, “The Story of Look Tin Eli: Exclusion and Citizenship on the Mendocino Coast,” explores the fight for citizenship by Mendocino’s Asian-Americans. It begins with the remarkable life of Look Tin Eli, a Chinese-Native American man born on Main Street in Mendocino in 1877 and finishes with the plight of our county’s Japanese-Americans during World War II in the 1940s. 

On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the U. S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and America declared war on Japan. With the Navy’s fleet all but destroyed, and with over 2,000 sailors and soldiers killed or wounded, the West Coast was exposed and defenseless. Japanese submarines trolled its waters. People were afraid, and hysteria turned that fear into a green light for sometimes latent, sometimes openly expressed racism against people of Japanese ancestry. 

Then on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to designate military areas “from which any and all persons may be excluded.”

Executive Order 9066 set in motion the forcible removal of the entire West Coast Japanese and Japanese-American population from their communities, regardless of status (naturalized, un-naturalized, or citizen). At first, they were told that they could volunteer to go, and that they would be safer away from the wartime hysteria and violence. Later, they were made to go. They were sent under armed guard to 10 government internment camps, spread across five states, for the duration of the war. It is estimated that 120,000 people were imprisoned between 1942 and 1944. 

Unlike San Francisco and southern California, which had many Japanese communities, Mendocino had few people of Japanese ancestry living here at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. Most of these lived away from the coast, but still within the “excluded areas.”

War-time rosters show names from inland areas around Hopland and Ukiah. They belonged to the Abe, Wada, Onomiya, Yamasaki, Usui, Okamura, Ishii, Yamamoto, Nishida, and Takao families. From the coast, the Moriguchi family came from Elk, and Hannah Piggott was transported from Fort Bragg.

To comply with the Order, goods had to be sold, businesses closed, and property leased, sold, or held by friends. There was an office of the “Federal Security Agency” in Fort Bragg and a larger location in Ukiah tasked with assisting Japanese families in this process, but too many were unable to sell at fair prices or were openly swindled.

By the end of May 1942, people had packed their one or two allowed bags. Each person wore a paper identity tag, stamped with their name, family number, and travel location. The Japanese community of Mendocino County left Ukiah aboard two Greyhound buses at 9:00 am on the morning of May 23rd. 

Among them were the Onomiya family, who had the remarkable grace to write a note of farewell to their town of Ukiah, which they had published in the local newspaper as they left. We may never know the full story of what lay behind their expression of gratitude to the residents of Ukiah, but what perhaps speaks best for them and for the Ukiah Valley as a whole is the fact that most of the Japanese residents that were forcibly removed returned to the area following their release from the camp. 

The first stage of the removal process for these Mendocino County people was a stay within the confines of the County Fairgrounds in Merced, California, which had been retrofitted to provide temporary, barracks-like housing and renamed the “Merced Assembly Center.” Similar temporary situations were created in other parts of California. Families were kept in horse stables at racetracks such as Santa Anita in Los Angeles, and also at Tanforan, the racetrack closest to those people removed from San Francisco and its adjacent Bayside communities. 

May stretched into June, then July and August. It was hot and crowded. Food was neither terribly good nor plentiful, sanitation was poor. There was also nothing to do but wait for some word as to their futures.

Finally, the internees from the Merced Assembly Center were moved via train to a camp being built near Granada, Colorado. The first contingent arrived at the stark desert site on August 29, 1942. Thereafter, 4,492 people arrived in eight trainloads, at intervals of a few days, during construction of the center. Electric and water facilities and even mess halls were not completed. 

Additional evacuees arrived from Los Angeles, making a total population of 7,567, similar in size to present-day Fort Bragg. All were assigned housing among the community’s 29 blocks of hastily built wooden barracks. A full project history is described in the “1945 Granada Directory,” a part of the extensive Holly Onomiya Collection (BANC MSS 94/8 c) held at the U. C. Berkeley Bancroft Library and made available to the Kelley House Museum for the exhibit’s research. This intriguing document contains both English and Japanese names of all the internees, their camp addresses, and their forwarding ones upon release.

The Granada Relocation Center’s unofficial name became “Amache,” named after a Cheyenne Indian chief’s daughter who married a prominent cattle rancher. The name Amache was inaugurated after a mail mix-up between the nearby town of Granada and the similarly named Granada Relocation Center. On May 18, 1994, Amache was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark on February 10, 2006. 

To learn more about the internment camp at Amache, come by the Kelley House Museum to view the exhibit, Fridays through Mondays, between 11:00 and 3:00. Our exhibit was funded by a generous grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program. You can contact us at info@kelleyhousemuseum.org, or (707) 937-5791.