The Parker Dam Reception Center was on the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Arizona. Permission from the Department of Interior was contingent on the center being a "positive program ... not merely ... a concentration camp" (Daniels 1989:88). The Owens Valley Reception Center was on land leased from the City of Los Angeles.
The Owens Valley was (and still is) a major source of water for Los Angeles. City officials were worried that the evacuees would poison the water supply, but were assured that they would be kept under heavy guard (Daniels 1989:88).
Generally, the first to arrive at the reception centers were volunteers, mainly JACL leaders and their families. Since the Owens Valley and Parker Dam centers could only hold a small fraction of the West Coast Japanese and little time was available for additional large-scale construction, existing facilities were converted into temporary assembly centers.
Eleven of the assembly centers were at racetracks or fairgrounds. Others were at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition Facilities (Portland, Oregon), a former mill site (Pinedale, California), migrant workers camps (Marysville and Sacramento, California), and an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp (Mayer, Arizona) (Thomas 1952:84).
Two additional assembly centers were partially readied. Toppenish, in eastern Washington, ultimately was not used because of unsuitable sanitation facilities, and because there was enough room in the California assembly centers for the evacuees. A refurbished CCC camp at Cave Creek, Arizona, was not needed due to considerable voluntary migration from the southern part of the state (DeWitt 1943:152).
Living conditions at the assembly centers were chaotic and squalid. Existing buildings were used, and supplemented with temporary "Theater of Operations"-type army barracks, 20-ft-by-100-ft buildings divided into five rooms. These barracks were originally designed for temporary use by combat soldiers, not families with small children or elderly people (USDI 1946).
At the racetracks, stables had been hastily cleaned out before their use as living quarters, but the stench remained. Still, the converted stables were described as "somewhat better shelter than the newly constructed mass-fabricated houses" (McWilliams 1942:361). At the Santa Anita Assembly Center, 8,500 of the total population of over 18,000 lived in stables. At the Portland Assembly Center over 3,000 evacuees were housed under one roof in a livestock pavilion that was subdivided into apartments (DeWitt 1943:183).
The atmosphere in the assembly centers was tense. Many of the evacuees were demoralized, convinced that America would never accept them as full-fledged Americans. Some Nisei who had been very patriotic became very bitter and sometimes pro-Japanese. Most tried to do everything possible to make living conditions better, organizing newsletters and dances and planting victory gardens. Jobs were available in the assembly centers, but the decision was made that no evacuees should be paid more than an Army private (which was then $21 per month) to combat charges of coddling. Initially, unskilled laborers were paid $8 per month, skilled laborers $12, and professionals, $16. These were later raised to $12, $16, and $19, respectively.
Evacuees worked as cooks, mechanics, teachers, doctors, clerks, and police. At the Santa Anita and Manzanar assembly centers, camouflage net factories, managed by a private company under military con tract, were set up. Only citizens could be employed on this war-related work.
Privacy at the assembly centers was next to non-existent, with communal lavatories and mess halls and thin walls in the barracks. Families were crowded into small apartments, usually 20 ft by 20 ft. The evacuees fixed up their new homes as best they could with salvaged lumber and other supplies that they could find, in an attempt to make them more liveable.
Shortages of food and other material and deplorable sanitation were common at many of the centers (Weglyn 1976:80-82). The 800 Nisei working at the net factory at Santa Anita conducted a sit-down strike complaining about weakness due to lack of food as well as low pay and unfair production quotas (Weglyn 1976:81).
Some opportunities for leaving the assembly centers were available. California educators made an effort to allow college-age Nisei to attend school outside of the prohibited area. Many colleges refused to accept them, but around 4,300 students were eventually released from the assembly and relocation centers to attend school (Daniels 1989:99-101). The war had created a massive labor shortage, so the WCCA agreed to allow seasonal agricultural leave for those they deemed loyal. Over 1,000 evacuees were granted temporary leave to harvest cotton, potatoes, and sugar beets.
The evacuees for the most part took their hardships in stride. However, the effects of overcrowding and stress became apparent at the Santa Anita Assembly Center on August 4, 1942. On that day a routine search for contraband (including Japanese language books and phonograph records), and an unannounced confiscation of hot plates turned violent. Rumors and complaints spread as crowds gathered. The internal police and suspected informers were harassed and one suspected informer was severely beaten. In the end 200 military police were called in to silence the 2,000 protesters (Davis 1967:79). That night the residents were confined to their barracks and no meals were served. The military patrolled inside the center for three days (Lehman 1970).