On 2 April 1942, Japanese immigrants in Latin America interned in the Panama Canal Zone (PCZ) boarded the USAT ‘Etolin’ bound for the United States. In the years before and immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army G-2 tasked the Military Intelligence Division (MID) with gathering intelligence on potential sabotage and espionage activities in Latin America, including information on thousands of Japanese immigrants living there. After years of surveillance and suspicion, the U.S. government approved the internment and deportation of these immigrants from across Latin America.
The Panama Canal, the most direct pathway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, represented a significant security threat during wartime. Prior to America’s entrance into World War II, the U.S. government was cognizant of Japanese, German, and Italian communities moving through and settling in Latin America. The agricultural economies of these countries required an abundance of workers, many of whom migrated there between the 1880s and 1914. Approximately 18,000 Japanese migrant workers lived in Peru alone by 1923. It represented the third largest Japanese migrant population in Latin America, behind Mexico and Brazil. Small Japanese communities also began forming around the PCZ in the early 1900s due to increased traffic through the canal.
In 1933, the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) began keeping registers of Japanese Panamanians and reported their activities to the U.S. government. Surveillance extended beyond Japanese immigrants in the PCZ and Panama. Eleven other nations—Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru—aided the Americans in their surveillance and later internment of the Japanese.
In June 1940, the ONI, MID, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) signed a delimitations agreement whereby the FBI assumed responsibility for domestic intelligence operations and the MID for intelligence related to military personnel and civilians living in American territories, such as the PCZ and the Philippines. Despite not having the authority to investigate subversive activities in surrounding Latin American communities, the MID’s existing attaché offices in these countries allowed the organization to continue gathering information and planning countersubversive operations in the southern hemisphere. In late 1940, heightened tensions led to several arrests of Japanese officers aboard ocean liners crossing the PCZ; in mid-1941, the canal closed permanently to Japanese ships. In October 1941, the U.S. and Panamanian governments agreed to assist one another in mass internments of Japanese citizens in their territories should Japan attack American or Latin American interests.
The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 made this plan a reality. The Associated Press reported that within an hour of receiving news of the attack, Panamanian officials began rounding up Japanese immigrants and interning them in local jails before moving them to temporary internment camps in the PCZ. Over the course of several months, Japanese immigrants from several Latin American nations were forced to build and live in PCZ tent cities while awaiting deportation to America.
On 2 April 1942, about 200 Japanese internees from Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico were deported to the U.S. The group arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, on 8 April and were transferred to internment facilities in Camp Livingston, Louisiana; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and Seagoville and Kenedy, Texas. Back in the PCZ, Japanese Peruvians were held for longer periods in internment camps until they too were transported to America. Between 1941–1946, approximately 2,300 men, women, and children deported from thirteen Latin American countries were held in Japanese internment camps in the U.S. through the end of the war.
Source: Dvids Hub