Arcadia, California’s beautiful Santa Anita Racetrack had a different name in 1942: The Santa Anita Assembly Center. It was the largest assembly point for Japanese-Americans on the U.S. West coast as they were forced into internment camps. 19,000 people passed through here on their way to the camps.
In February 1942,then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering Japanese Americans to be interned in camps along the west coast. While these camps were being built, those who would be interned were housed at assembly centers like Santa Anita, living in converted horse stalls and other hastily built structures. Santa Anita was guarded, surrounded with barbed wire and filled with searchlights to light the dark nights. In all 110,000 Japanese-Americans were interned on short-notice, closing farms and businesses and abandoning their homes. Eventually, some even enlisted in the Army.
Internees at Santa Anita were told to bring blankets and linens, toiletries, clothing, dishes and cookware, and anything else they could carry. They were forbidden from having anything written in Japanese. The people of Santa Anita developed a large internal economy, complete with jobs, businesses, and a local newspaper. They developed a unique culture of music, arts, and softball teams.
In September 1942, those in Santa Anita were moved to other camps. By November 1942, Santa Anita was completely emptied of internees and then became an Army training camp.
In 1944, the Supreme Court struck down the government’s ability to hold Americans indefinitely and the internees were released. The last of all the camps closed in 1946 and the U.S. government has since paid $1.6 billion in reparations. Now, a simple plaque near the track’s entrance is the only reminder of its place in the history of WWII.
In the video below, James Tsutsui of Laguna Woods, California discusses his experiences at Santa Anita Racetrack during World War II.