History of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) Sites

By Lynne Horiuchi – Project Director

A Note on the Naming of the Camps

The World War II mass incarceration of 117,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans was legalized through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidential Executive Order 9066 (E.O. 9066) on February 19, 1942. The U.S. military was delegated broad authority over civil control and counterespionage that included mass incarceration.  The Western Defense Command and Fourth Army located at the Presidio of San Francisco then enacted military Civilian Exclusion Orders specifically directed at the removal and incarceration of people “of Japanese ancestry.” The euphemistic names employed by the U.S. government to identify the sites to which they were sent, such as “Assembly” Centers and War Relocation Authority (WRA) “relocation centers”, are now considered subgroups under the term “Japanese American Confinement Sites.” However, many scholars prefer the more descriptive and historically correct term, “concentration camps,” for the prison camps authorized under E.0. 9066 by which Japanese Americans were imprisoned. The term ‘internment’ is more correctly used for the incarceration of enemy aliens—citizens of foreign enemy nations.  The Justice Department, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Army built numerous internment sites for the incarceration of enemy aliens, including Germans and Italians residing in the U.S. who were considered threats to our national security.
Because this website focuses on archival documentation, we have often used the names employed in government archival systems, such as WRA Centers for the semi-permanent sites, to aid researchers in finding the original documents.

The Imprisonment Process

Shortly after the issuance of E.O. 9066, Japanese immigrants and American citizens of Japanese ancestry found themselves incarcerated in “Assembly” Centers and WRA centers. Numerous administrative orders from the U.S. military and numerous Federal agencies quickly organized the removal of entire Japanese American communities from the west coast of the United States. E.O. 9066 provided the legal tool for the military to carry out a mass incarceration for the protection of national security. The Secretary of War and their military commanders created “military areas” from which they could exclude “any persons” and subject them to whatever restrictions the federal government felt appropriate. The U.S. government then created two sets of concentration camps to hold the excluded persons –seventeen Assembly Centers and ten WRA Centers. The Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, then issued Civil Exclusion Orders to remove and incarcerate “all persons of Japanese ancestry” from within the declared military areas. Issued on March 18, 1942, E.O. 9102 created the WRA to manage the “evacuation” project once the military had removed the population considered a security risk from the designated military areas.

The History of the War Relocation Authority Centers

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Army’s civil administration, the Wartime Civil Control Administration, with the assistance of numerous other government agencies, carried out the bulk of planning and construction for the confinement sites. The U.S. Army’s Final Report claimed the Assembly Centers were completed within twenty-eight days in both rural and urban areas—between February 19, 1942 and March 20, 1942.  With compressed schedules, the “Assembly” Centers were actually in a continual state of construction and barely completed by the time the “evacuees” were transported to WRA Centers between March and November 1942.

United States. Army. Western Defense Command and Fourth Army.

Final Report, Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast, 1942. Washington 1943, 266-7

While the standardized designs were monotonous, topography, policy, land ownership, the building initiatives of the incarcerated Japanese American communities, and other factors created differences in the War Relocation Authority (WRA) Center designs. For example,  as an exception to single site camps, multiple cities with populations of 5,000-10,000 each were created on Native American reservations under the jurisdiction of the Office of Indian Affairs, Secretary of Interior within the Gila River and Colorado Relocation Centers through a Memorandum of Understanding with the WRA. The Butte and Canal camps—were located on the Gila River WRA Center on the Gila River Indian Reservation, and three camps —Poston I, II, and III, also known by the residents as Roastin’, Toastin’, and Dustin’ were located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation.
Each WRA Center constituted a new small city requiring significant investments in infrastructure to provide basic functions for living. The typical residential blocks housed approximately 300 people in fourteen barracks with a shared mess hall, a recreation hall, two communal bathhouses for men and women, a laundry room, an ironing room, and a heating oil storage tank.
Although WRA Centers generally followed standardized designs, topography, policy, and land ownership, the building initiatives of the incarcerated Japanese American communities, and other factors created differences in the WRA Center designs. For example, as an exception to single site camps, multiple cities with populations of 5,000-10,000 each were created on Native American reservations under the jurisdiction of the Office of Indian Affairs through a Memorandum of Understanding with the WRA. The Butte and Canal camps were located on the Gila River Relocation Center on the Gila River Indian Reservation. Three camps – Poston I, II, and III – also known by the residents as Roastin’, Toastin’, and Dustin’, were located on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation.

Overlooking the Granada Relocation Center, in Colorado. In the foreground is a typical barracks unit consisting of 12 six room apartment barracks buildings, a recreation hall, laundry and bathrooms, and the mess hall. — Photographer: Parker, Tom — Granada, Colorado. 12/9/42

The United States government produced the majority of the architectural/engineering drawings, plans, and maps in this website collection. This collection must then be interpreted within the context of a government’s power over a group of people incarcerated on the basis of their ancestry.
The material components of these sites were almost all dismantled, destroyed, or salvaged, leaving behind barren landscapes with few structures. Thus, the mapping and plans included here are important for imagining the look and material feel of Japanese American confinement sites. Though ephemeral, the WRA represented lively, viable cities that existed within the limitations of incarceration and the negotiation of the “citizens” with their jailers. The WRA Center sites are developing today as educational and destination sites, transforming the memory of those cities once again.

Construction Matrix for Relocation Centers


Horiuchi, Lynne. “Dislocations and Relocations: The Built Environments of Japanese American Internment.” University of California, 2005.

Justice Department Camps and U.S. Army Facilities

by Max Nihei – Exhibitions and Collections Manager, NJAHS
During WWII, over 7,000 Japanese immigrants, Japanese Americans, and Japanese from Latin America were held in 8 camps run by the Department of Justice and at least 14 U.S. Army facilities.
Just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, 4,000 Japanese immigrants were detained by the FBI and sent to Department of Justice camps, run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and guarded by the Border Patrol. Over half of the Japanese population in America were first generation long-term US residents who were denied citizenship and declared enemy aliens. Most would be subjected to hearings and then transferred to the major WRA Centers or to other facilities.
Those of Japanese descent imprisoned in the Department of Justice camps and U.S. Army Facilities included Japanese nationals who would be returned to Japan after WWII, pro-Japan dissidents deemed troublesome by administration in the WRA Centers, those who renounced their American citizenship, and others who came under suspicion of having ties to the Japanese government, such as religious leaders and members of Japanese organizations or groups.
The Department of Justice camps also held 11,507 German and 1,881 Italian nationals who were stranded in the U.S., unnaturalized immigrants, and a small number of U.S. citizens of German and Italian descent, until as late as 1947.
Thousands of Japanese, German, and Italian Latin Americans were transferred from Peru, Panama, Bolivia, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to Department of Justice camps.
Most of the Department of Justice camps held men exclusively, with the exception of Seagoville, Texas, which held single women and families, and Crystal City, Texas, which held families.
The U.S. Army Facilities were preexisting army bases, with the exception of Camp Lordsburg in New Mexico which was created for the primary purpose of Japanese American confinement, and Stringtown, Oklahoma, which was originally a jail. Generally, first generation Japanese residents detained early into U.S. involvement in WWII would be held, processed, and transferred from these locations to other facilities. The U.S. Army Facilities were then converted to Japanese, German or Italian POW camps for the remainder of the war.
Note: U.S. Army and Department of Justice internment camps were considered temporary. Thus, complete listings of camps and incarcerees are unavailable.
List of Department of Justice Internment Camps
  • Crystal City, Texas
  • Kenedy, Texas
  • Kooskia, Idaho
  • Fort Lincoln, North Dakota
  • Fort Missoula, Montana
  • Fort Stanton, New Mexico
  • Santa Fe, New Mexico
  • Seagoville, Texas
List of U.S. Army Facilities
  • Camp Blanding, Florida
  • Camp Forrest, Tennessee
  • Camp Livingston, Louisiana
  • Camp Lordsburg, New Mexico
  • Camp McCoy, Wisconsin
  • Florence, Arizona
  • Fort Bliss, New Mexico and Texas
  • Fort Howard, Maryland
  • Fort Lewis, Washington
  • Fort McDowell / Angel Island, California
  • Fort Meade, Maryland
  • Fort Richardson, Alaska
  • Fort Sam Houston, Texas
  • Fort Sill, Oklahoma
  • Griffith Park, California
  • Honouliuli Internment Camp, Hawaii
  • Sand Island, Hawaii
  • Stringtown, Oklahoma
Burton, Jeffrey F., et al. Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites. Western Archaeological and Conservation Center, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1999. Book.
Krammer, Arnold. Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, INC., 1997. Book.