“The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America” is an impeccably researched, deeply moving, never-before-told tale about a World War II incarceration camp in Wyoming and its extraordinary high school football team.
BY THE AFTERNOON of December 8, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had detained 736 Japanese nationals on the United States mainland and in Hawai’i. Within four days that number grew to 1,370, and, eventually, to 2,192. The FBI’s authority came via presidential warrant, signed by U.S. attorney general Francis Biddle. It authorized the arrest of enemy aliens considered “dangerous to the public peace and safety of the United States.” The issei—shopkeepers, gardeners, farmers, dry cleaners, all charged with nothing—were loaded into police cars as their American sons and daughters looked on. In a statement two days later, Biddle halfheartedly attempted to assuage the American public—or, more specifically, the Japanese American public.
So long as aliens in this country conduct themselves in accordance with law, they need fear no interference by the Department of Justice or by any other agency of the Federal Government. They may be assured, indeed that every effort will be made to protect them from any discrimination or abuse. Inevitably, there are some among our alien population who are disloyal. The Federal Government is fully aware of the dangers presented not only by such persons but also by disloyal citizens. The government has control of the activities of these elements.
Biddle was the great-great-grandson of the first attorney general of the United States under President George Washington, and a distant relative of James Madison. His family traced its heritage in the United States to more than one hundred years prior to the country’s founding. Born in Paris and raised partly in Switzerland, the Groton and Harvard Law graduate later abandoned his family’s Republican roots and became a fervent Democrat, serving as head of the National Labor Relations Board under President Roosevelt. Soon came stints as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals (1939), as solicitor general (1940), and finally, like his great-great-grandfather 152 years earlier, attorney general. He was in office only three months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
The seeds of the arrests Biddle oversaw had been planted years earlier. Under the shield of the Alien Enemies Act of 1798, the federal government had arrested 6,400 mostly German nationals residing in the United States during World War I. Nearly 2,400 were interned for some or all of the war. In the decades that followed, the Department of the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence, the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division, the FBI, and the State Department continued counterintelligence measures aimed at thwarting potential acts of espionage. In the 1920s and 1930s, this meant monitoring Japan’s growing naval influence in the Pacific. On August 10, 1936, Roosevelt expressed his concern in a letter to his chief of naval operations.
“Every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the Island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships [arriving in Hawai’i] or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name be placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble,” he wrote.
This surveillance was far from limited to Japanese nationals. A confidential State Department memo from late 1934 highlights some of the earliest signs of the federal government’s surveillance (and hysteria) of its own Japanese American citizens.
“The Imperial Japanese Government has agents in every large city in this country and on the West Coast,” the communiqué reads. “These people, who pass as civilians and laborers, are being drilled in military maneuvers. When war breaks out, the entire Japanese population on the West Coast will rise and commit sabotage. They will endeavor by every means to neutralize the West Coast and render her defenseless.”
By June 1940 there were so many different arms of the federal government monitoring the Japanese American community that Roosevelt had to designate the duties to avoid overlap; memos were sent to the secretaries of state, war, treasury, navy, and commerce, and to the attorney general. The Army’s Military Intelligence Division handled the investigation of cases that originated in the military, including civilians employed by it. The Office of Naval Intelligence investigated cases within the Navy and its civilian employees. The FBI was responsible for all investigations of espionage, counterespionage, and sabotage involving civilians in the United States and its territories, and its duties included one other critical obligation: the discovery of fifth column activity, defined by Military Intelligence as “previous, secret, and intelligent planning coordinated in time and space with those of the uniformed forces of the enemy.”
Their marching orders presented, the agencies ratcheted up their efforts. As the war in Europe churned, the American defense industry readied itself. Munitions, aircraft, and warship production skyrocketed as an essential hedge in case of U.S. involvement; the FBI secured more than eleven thousand informants in the plants by the end of 1940. Convinced that, due to their racial distinctions, Japanese spies would not be able to infiltrate those factories, counterintelligence concocted a convoluted fantasy: Japan was recruiting African American workers as spies. In a justification that would crop up again and again both before and after Pearl Harbor, intelligence officers posited that the lack of Japanese American faces in the factories proved that the spies were, in fact, very good. In early 1941, Military Intelligence warned of this possibility, saying “the Japanese plan to utilize American Negroes for subversion and espionage. The Japanese figure that as long as the Negro is dependent upon the whites for livelihood, the political strength can be used to their advantage.”
The hypothesis couldn’t have been further from the truth, for one reason in particular: black Americans mostly didn’t work in the defense industry. Whites sucked up the majority of these jobs, backed by the United States Employment Service, which happily filled “whites only” requests from defense contractors. State Department investigators went so far as to speculate that Japanese Americans had infiltrated
A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington movement, which sought the desegregation of the armed forces and fair working practices for African Americans. In May 1941, in an effort to head off the march, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in federal job programs and for defense companies contracting with the government; the armed forces, however, were not desegregated until 1948, three years after the war.
No corner of Japanese American life was safe from prying eyes.
Driven by special travel rates and promises of reduced hotel costs upon arrival, more than one hundred cruises had left the United States for Japan between 1938 and 1941. Intelligence officers pored over the itineraries; most involved little more than visits to parents’ graves or ceremonies at Buddhist and Shinto shrines. Buddhist priests and organizations like the Young Buddhist Association were added to Naval Intelligence’s list of subversive groups. The priests were disparaged for their lengthy training in Japan and for “developing Japanese spirit and for holding before their adherents Japanese ideas.”
Monitoring wasn’t limited to the FBI’s rank-and-file. J. Edgar Hoover, then already head of the bureau for more than a decade and a half, wrote in a November 15, 1940, memo that the majority of issei would be loyal to the United States in the event of war, but that a tiny minority of “Buddhist and Shintoist priests, the Japanese-language schoolteachers, the consular agents, and a small percentage of prominent Japanese alien businessmen” may not have been inclined to do so. Two months before Pearl Harbor, in October 1941, he sent a plea to his field agents.
Japanese espionage activities . . . have been and are being conducted regarding various subjects whose activities have caused them to be looked upon with suspicion. Nevertheless, the practical results have been very meager. It is believed that a specific reason for this undesirable situation is the dearth of confidential informants among members of the Japanese race. Accordingly, you are instructed to take immediate steps to secure and develop confidential informants of the Japanese race.
Hoover’s instructions had a very specific effect: they splintered the Japanese community along generational lines. The FBI believed Japan was using only issei as saboteurs, not their American children, so the FBI began recruiting informants from the younger generation. The most prominent of these came from the Japanese American Citizens League, a predominantly nisei and sansei organization. While the results were limited—it’s impossible to inform on a spy when no spying is actually occurring—they were something. “With the help of the J.A.C.L., which got to be very much on our side, we were able to pinpoint practically every agent that had any potential for mischief,” reads one Naval Intelligence report. The boasts, however, were just that. Most FBI agents found loyal employees and, even more so, loyal Americans. In a note sent to Hoover from the FBI’s San Francisco office, agents surmised that although Japanese Americans were “asked to furnish information of espionage activities, they all vehemently state that they have no information to give because the Japanese are not engaged in such activity. ”It is my opinion that these individuals say one thing and think another, and would not cooperate if they knew of such activities.” Nowhere was this misconception more evident than the docks of San Pedro Bay.
- Excerpted from The Eagles of Heart Mountain published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Bradford Pearson.
Bradford Pearson is the former features editor of Southwest: The Magazine. He has written for The New York Times, Esquire, Time, and Salon, among many other publications. He grew up in Hyde Park, New York, and now lives in Philadelphia. “The Eagles of Heart Mountain” is his first book.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.