Prisoner of War and Internment Camps in New Mexico
HIST 203: New Mexico History
After America’s entry into World War II, which lasted from 1941 to 1945 in the United States, prisoner of war camps and internment camps in New Mexico were among the largest. Most of the prisoners were Germans captured during the North Africa Campaign. Others were of Italian and Japanese origin. There were three base camps, located in Roswell, Lordsburg and Santa Fe, 19 branch camps and two internment locations. The causes for this unprecedented action in America History, according to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, “were motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”1 In the detention centers, families lived in substandard housing, had inadequate nutrition and healthcare, and had their livelihoods destroyed.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Americans blamed the failure of espionage committed by Japanese-Americans instead of the lack of preparedness by the United States Military. The federal government operated on the assumption that Japanese-Americans would form a fifth column and aid in the expected Japanese invasion. Thus the government believed that people of Japanese ancestry needed to be removed from the west coast. Once President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, the evacuation of Japanese-Americans began in California. New Mexico became the prime location for housing male individuals considered “high-risk” by the government. Until the camps were completed, many of the evacuees were held in temporary centers, such as stables at local racetracks. Almost two-thirds of the interns were Japanese Americans born in the United States. Many of these individuals had never even been to Japan. Even Japanese-American veterans of World War I were forced to leave their homes. Life in the relocation centers was not easy. The camps were often too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The food was “army-style” grub. And the interns knew that if they tried to flee, armed watchmen who stood watch around the clock would shoot them.
The first Japanese internees arrived the first week of June in 1942 to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Once at the camp, the internees were required to turn over all property and valuables to a custodial officer. The officer would then issue a number and green uniform to that internee. The camp consisted of three compounds, each with a barracks and lantern. About 2,000 Japanese were lodged in two of the three compounds located at the camp. Daily activities of the internees included work detail around the camp, doing their own cooking and cleaning, and tending to a five-acre vegetable garden.
Prisoners in the Lordsburg Internment Camp felt persecuted by the army officials running the camp. Many of the problems arose from the amateurish leadership of the camp and the inexperience of the guards. A remarkable incident that took place at Lordsburg came through the Army’s mistake of sending some prisoners of war, who were captured overseas, to the internment camp. It was rumored that those particular men shelled Santa Barbara, California. They had their heads shaved in Japanese military fashion, and the internees hailed them as heroes. Subsequently, an Army PFC, without provocation, jumped on an internee coming out of a canteen and started stabbing him.
On July 27th, 1942, a train pulled into Lordsburg, New Mexico carrying 147 Japanese men from another camp, Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, ND. Under a full moon and suspicious circumstances, two issei prisoners were shot gunned and killed along the road. After a cursory military investigation and court-martial, the accused shooter, Private First Class Clarence Burleson was found to have lawfully killed the men. The official explanation of the shooting is that...
Bibliography: Szasz, Ferenc M. and Patrick Nagatani. “Constricted Landscapes: The Japanese- American Concentration Camps, A Photographic Essay” New Mexico Historical Review 2 (April 1996): 157-187.
Pressler, Millie. "Lordsburg Internment POW Camp." New Mexico Office of the State Historian | Places. New Mexico History.org, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2014.
Archival Documents: New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Melzer, Richard. “Casualties of Caution and Fear: Life in Santa Fe’s Japanese Internment Camp, 1942-46” in Essays in Twenty-Century New Mexico, edited by Judith Boyce DeMark, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.
"Japanese-American Relocation." History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
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