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75 years later: A look back at the Turlock Assembly Center
Japanese pic1
Evacuated Japanese Americans assemble at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds in March 1942. The Turlock Assembly Center was temporarily home to Californians who were later relocated to Gila River, Ariz. A plaque remembering the Japanese Americans who spent part of their lives confined at the fairgrounds was installed in 2009. - photo by Photo courtesy of The National Archives

Sunday marks the 75th anniversary of a time in America many would rather forget and hope to never repeat.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing United States Military personnel to place all persons of Japanese ancestry on the Pacific Coast in temporary detention centers and, eventually, to concentration camps located in desolate parts of the country. One such detention center was located here in Turlock at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds, detaining a total of 3,692 people.

The temporary detention center, known as the Turlock Assembly Center, was one of 15 locations used during the Japanese-American incarceration which followed Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Detainees, which were all California residents of Japanese descent, remained at the center from April to August of 1942. Most of the Japanese at the Turlock Assembly Center came from Central Valley areas outside of Stanislaus County, such as Vacaville and Byron.

Life in the camps was communal in nature, requiring detainees to eat, shower and use bathroom facilities together. The barracks were bare and simple, and some detainees even had to sleep in barracks that were once horse stalls with mattresses made from straw-filled sacks.

The Turlock Daily Journal chronicled daily life at the camp at the beginning of its occupation.

“Laundry fluttered over half the Turlock assembly center today, as busy Japanese women settled down to apartment-keeping,” reported the Turlock Daily Journal on May 4, 1942. 
The Turlock Assembly Center also received many more evacuees than it was prepared for. The Journal recounted that almost twice the number of expected Japanese-Americans came to the center during its first day of operation. By the fifth day there were over 2,000 Japanese-Americans at the center – some from as far away as Los Angeles County. Turlock residents and civic groups volunteered to process more than 1,250,000 pounds of luggage belonging to the forced evacuees.
“We are extremely grateful for this genuine help, which permitted the movement of 2,391 Japanese into the camp without a hitch and without long delays,” said Ernest Pinella, chief civilian administrative office of the Turlock Assembly Center, in 1942. 

Upon leaving Turlock in August, detainees were sent to the Gila River concentration camp in the Arizona desert where most remained for the duration of World War II. The center was later turned into an Army rehabilitation center, and soldiers lived in the apartments constructed on the grounds.

Although local veteran and Livingston resident Sherman Kishi was not detained at the Turlock Assembly Center, he is familiar with internment camp life. On May 13, 1942, Kishi and his family were forced to report to a relocation camp south of Turlock at the Merced Assembly Center.

“Right after Pearl Harbor happened, there was a tremendous amount of publicity that went on…many organizations became anti-Japanese and considered us not to be their friend,” said Kishi.

Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kishi remembers signs reading “No Japanese here” placed all over Livingston, which at the time was home to 30 or 40 Japanese people. It was only a matter of time before an even more foreboding message was plastered around town.

“There were signs posted on telephone poles,” said Kishi. “They read ‘All aliens and non-aliens of Japanese ancestry must report to an assembly center on May 13, 1942.”

Kishi and his family were forced to leave their home and farm in Livingston and were detained at the Merced Assembly Center, along with nearly 5,000 other Japanese-Americans from all over the Central Valley.

“Most of us had never seen so many other Japanese people in our lives,” said Kishi with a laugh.

From Merced, Kishi and his family were transferred to the Granada War Relocation Center in Colorado.

“It was not a very pleasant place, but we met a lot of people that became good friends over the years,” said Kishi.

Though there are not many traces of the Turlock Assembly Center left at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds, a small monument honoring the thousands of people who ate, slept and lived on the grounds for several months was installed at the north gate of the fairgrounds in 2010. A rock inlaid with a small plaque, the monument is the only visible reminder of Turlock’s involvement of the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans 75 years ago.