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Dark side of U.S. history that built Catalina Highway

Gordon Hirabayashi Recreational Area on Mt. Lemmon off of the Catalina Highway in Tucson, Ariz. After Pearl Harbor the area was used as an internment camp for Japanese Americans, who were forced to work on construction of the Catalina Highway. (Photograph by Tobey Schmidt/Arizona Sonora News)

A popular Mount Lemmon recreation site for rock climbers nicknamed Prison Camp pokes fun at the area’s history, with walls dubbed “Alcatraz” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

The names are harmless, but some people might not know the brutal punishment that the U.S. government inflicted on Japanese Americans in that same area less than a century ago. In that spot, just seven miles up the Catalina Highway in Tucson, stood a Japanese American internment camp established after Pearl Harbor during World War II.

The historical site is officially named after Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese American civil rights activists and one of the many prisoners who served at the camp, where they were forced to work on the highway’s construction.

Hirabayashi was a senior at the University of Washington in 1942 when Pearl Harbor happened. He was one of only three Japanese Americans who brought lawsuits before the Supreme Court, making himself a political symbol during that time of war.

Still in college at the time, Hirabayashi ignored the first presidential order called the West Coast curfew, which required people of Japanese background to be home by 8 p.m.

“Why the hell should I go back? I’m an American citizen and I haven’t done anything wrong,” was a question that Hirabayashi often asked while out with friends, recalled Peter Irons, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. The two knew each other in the 1980s after Irons found documents showing government misconduct during Hirabayashi’s original Supreme Court case. This would eventually help him be vacated of all convictions.

In fear of people from Japanese descent causing harm to the country, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the removal or any or all people “as deemed necessary or desirable,” even American citizens, and forced them to move eastward and into remote internment camps.

It’s known as the largest forced removal and incarceration in the U.S. history. More than 100,000 Japanese Americans were relocated to isolated internment camps.

Hirabayashi refused to register at a processing center and then turned himself into the FBI. He was jailed, but wouldn’t post the $500 bail. He remained in jail for six months awaiting his trial. Hirabayashi was found guilty of violating the court orders and was sentenced to serve three months at the internment camp on Mt. Lemmon.

The government refused to pay for his fare to get to Arizona, so he hitchhiked to the camp. When he arrived, the guards couldn’t find his papers and told him to go into town and see a movie while they looked. He took their advice, then headed back to camp to serve the three months. “A very honorable thing to do,” said Irons.

In the early 1980s, Irons began writing a book about the Japanese American internment cases, “Justice at War.” While reviewing the original case files, he discovered that the U.S. Solicitor General, the person appointed to represent the federal government, had knowingly lied to the Supreme Court in the original three Japanese American internment cases.

Gordon Hirabayshi in 1985 after he was vindicated of his convictions. (Photo by United Press International)

“I realized it might be possible to reopen their cases, even 40 years later,” Irons said.

In their original cases in 1942, the war department claimed some Japanese Americans had committed espionage. The FBI, however, found no evidence of this. The U.S. Solicitor General was informed of that fact, but ignored it. “The Supreme Court was misled,” said Professor Irons. “He knew what he was telling the court was not true, so that made the convictions, in a sense, illegitimate.”

After Hirabayashi’s case was taken to the Ninth Circuit, all convictions were finally vacated. “He was a very articulate person,” recalled Irons. “He looked like a college professor, talked like a college professor.”

Hirabayashi died many decades later in 2012, while living in Edmonton, Alberta. He was 93.

Tobey Schmidt is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of  Arizona. Contact her at tobeyschmidt@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for high resolution photos.

3 Comments

  1. The rest of the story: 1. H.Res.143 — 115th Congress (2017-2018) Recognizing the significance of the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and supporting the goals of the Japanese American, German American, and Italian American communities in recognizing a National Day of Remembrance to increase public awareness of the events surrounding the restriction, exclusion, and incarceration of individuals and families during World War II. Sponsor: Rep. Takano, Mark [D-CA-41] (Introduced 02/16/2017) Cosponsors: (23)

  2. This article appropriately and rightly calls out a shameful part of US history that it is so very important to remember! I think the article could leave some readers who have never read about the history of the highway with the impression that the prison camp was built after WWII as an internment camp and housed exclusively Japanese Americans?

    The use of prisoners to build the highway started before WWII in 1933 when prisoners were housed at a temporary site at the base of the mountain – in 1939 the prison camp was moved up to the present site. The camp was a minimum security facility without fences/guard towers (articles mention painted white rocks as the boundary). As the article above states after WWII the demographics of who was imprisoned changed – ’45 Japanese American draft resisters’ were at the prison in addition to ‘Jehovahs Witnesses (JWs), Hopi, various conscientious objectors such as members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Molican Brethren, and Independents, adding to the existing population of inmates serving non-war related sentences.’ (from an NPS document, AZ Daily Star article and the Densho Encyclopedia). The prison remained open after WWII and the 1947 pardon of draft resistors until the completion of the highway in 1951 when it was converted into a juvenile prison.

    As mentioned at the start the additional context is not intended to diminish the main thrust of the article above – but as I suspect that the additional context might be interesting to anyone who wants to learn more about the site…

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