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  • The War Relocation Authority and the Wounding of Japanese American Loyalty
  • Eric L. Muller (bio)

arriving at the gila river relocation center in november 1942, Jim Terry was a latecomer to the government's Japanese American project. Back in the spring and early summer, when lawyers in Washington were improvising arrangements to confine the West Coast's ethnically Japanese population, Terry had been snug in his partner's chair at the law firm of Burlingame, Nourse, and Petit in the Singer Building just above Wall Street. All the 43-year-old graduate of Williams College and Columbia Law School knew about the removal of the Japanese from the coast was the little he had read in the New York Times. But then yet another bout of pneumonia knocked him down and his doctor told him that if he didn't get out of New York to warmer climes, the cold and wet might kill him. That summer, a lifeboat appeared in the form of a job in the Arizona desert, just the sort of place his doctor meant, so he jumped at it.1

It was a position with the federal War Relocation Authority (WRA), the agency setting up the Japanese American camps. They were looking for lawyers to head out into the field to run what they called the "Project Attorney's Offices." The project attorney was to be an odd hybrid—part legal adviser to the camp administration and part legal aid lawyer for the prisoners (Muller 2017). One day the project attorney might be deciding whether the camp could censor a [End Page 821] prisoner's mail and the next he might be helping that same prisoner avoid foreclosure on the house he'd had to abandon back in California. The job at the Gila River camp was open. When the WRA offered it to Jim Terry, he took it.

Terry was more enthusiastic about the weather than the work. He didn't particularly like the task the WRA had been assigned, and neither, he sensed, did most others in the upper levels of the agency. It was the politicians who'd really wanted the Japanese out of California, Washington, and Oregon after Pearl Harbor, and they'd gotten their way. Now the task fell to the WRA to figure out what to do with them. Two-thirds of these people were US citizens, and Jim Terry would be damned if he could figure out a legal theory for uprooting and locking up tens of thousands of people, including innocent women and children, just because of their ancestry. But it was wartime, this was the task at hand, and he was a patriot. This would be his contribution to the war effort. Maybe he could do some good for these poor people, protect them from the worst of what the bigots would throw at them, help the staff run the camp in a lawful and orderly way. Maybe he could lend a hand to the WRA's project of schooling the Japanese in the ways of American life and preparing them for life after the war.


there were not many us citizens at gila river whose parents were also US citizens, but Satoshi Kira was one of the few. Fully a third of the prisoners in the camp were immigrants—the Issei, or first, generation—who had migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and who were barred by law from becoming citizens. Almost all the rest were their children, the Nisei, or second, generation—citizens by virtue of their birth in the United States. They were a young generation, almost 60 percent under the age of 20, so there wasn't much room yet for a new generation beneath them, a third, or Sansei, generation. Kira was a Sansei.

Born prematurely in Seattle in February 1922, Kira was a small, reserved young man, five foot four and just 105 pounds.2 His very few [End Page 822] friends called him "Elmer" rather than "Satoshi." He was sensitive, of an artistic bent that may have run in the family; his father was the prominent Los Angeles photographer Hiromu Kira. He...


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