Beginning at the end of the month, we’ll be starting the first leg of a California road trip with photojournalist Stan Honda and historian Brian Niiya to find remnants of some of the 12 temporary California detention centers, most located right off Highway 99, known euphemistically as “assembly centers.”

After first stopping at Santa Anita and Pomona, we will be heading a little off the “straight up 99” trek as we travel east to Manzanar, which the government gave an even more inappropriate label of “reception center” before it became a full-fledged concentration camp. Then we wind around to catch the 99 as we head out to Tulare, Fresno and Pinedale.

We’re lucky enough to fund this trip and a future website with federal and state grants aimed at educating the public about the WWII incarceration. Even though Densho ( has already provided incredibly detailed information on each assembly center site thanks to the encyclopedic prowess of Brian Niiya, we hope to show what the sites look like today compared to 1942, as well as provide some information on how to find them.

People like Brian and Duncan Williams of USC’s Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Studies have finally focused attention not only on the ten now more commonly known War Relocation Centers but many other little-known sites as well. In fact, Williams came up with 75 actual detention centers (who knew there were that many?) through his work on his Irei project listing the more than 125,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated.

One could easily surmise that the temporary sites were even more appalling than the ten WRA camps themselves. Literally built in a matter of weeks, the centers were conceived and run by a short-lived governmental agency, the Wartime Civil Control Agency (WCCA), set up exclusively to formulate the initial how-tos of the mass forced removal.

High school teacher Michaelpaul Mendoza (second row, far left) and his class at the former Tulare Assembly Center site wearing shirts depicting the proposed monument.

If there’s any doubt about how disgusting they were, just check out artist Miné Okubo’s account in her landmark book, “Citizen 13660.” She describes and draws every ugly step along the way from the Civil Control Station in Berkeley to the Tanforan Assembly Center, a former racetrack that was transformed in April 1942 into a storage site for nearly 8,000 people — all in a matter of weeks. As Okubo bluntly puts it, “The camp was a mess,” with carpenters working overtime to build barracks to house the incoming detainees.

She and her brother were among those who were housed in the now-infamous horse stalls. They were put in Stall 50, a 20 x 9-foot space divided into two rooms whitewashed over horsehair, spider webs, and hay — hardly the “apartments” they might have been misled to believe the government would provide before they arrived.  

The stench of the horse stalls is the most common recollection by those forced to live in them, but we are looking to find how many of the former sites were indeed once used to house horses. Most of the ones we will be visiting, with the exception of the Santa Anita Race Track, were on county fairgrounds, like Pomona, Fresno, and Tulare. Of the three detention centers outside of California, Portland was formerly a livestock pavilion that housed people in partitioned sections with only thin and low walls dividing them. The odor of livestock was undoubtedly a pungent memory for those held there as well.

Apparently, the 17 potential sites in the so-called “military zone” along the West Coast were hurriedly chosen in a matter of only four days. The WCCA hoped to find some partial housing existing at the chosen sites, hence the use of readily available horse stalls. However, most also required the rapid construction of living quarters that could also serve as mess halls and sanitary facilities that were slow in materializing as detainees began arriving.

In researching what remains at these sites, we will be photographing the memorial markers and monuments that currently exist at all but two of them, i.e., in Mayer, Ariz. and Tulare, Calif.

To cure the absence of any marker at Tulare, an enterprising cultural history teacher at Tulare’s Mission Coast High School has recently enlisted his students to help raise money and awareness to construct a full-fledged monument. So far, teacher Michaelpaul Mendoza has received the endorsement and support of the Tulare Fairgrounds and collected $55,000 toward what he estimates to be the $300,000 cost. 

At another former site, a huge bronze statue and accompanying memorial were recently unveiled in a dedication ceremony by former detainees of Tanforan in what they call the largest assembly center marker of all. It lies across from the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) San Bruno station, once the site of the former assembly center, and it is accompanied by an elaborate photo exhibition inside the station.

For the purposes of our website project, we are currently seeking former detainees who have some recollection of what the original sites were like. Because most are now elderly, we are also seeking descendants who may know something about their ancestors’ histories. As we will be traveling to all the actual sites, our hope is to find those who live nearby who might be able to be interviewed onsite. It’s a tall order, especially in such remote places like Mayer, Marysville, or even Pinedale, but if you happen to know anyone who fits that description, we’d love to hear about them.

The familiar question of “What camp are you from?” has now been replaced in my conversations with Nisei friends to “What assembly center were you at?” Learning more about each individual assembly center adds a new dimension to each individual and family camp story, and serves as an insight into the full camp experience from those who are still around to talk about it.  


Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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