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Quarantine in Camp Stories of Other Pandemics

Hospital at Minidoka concentration camp. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

by Jonathan van Harmelen

Shortly after leaving Topaz to attend the University of Montana, Missoula, Miyeko Taketa received a letter from her friend Pearl Nugent in February 1944. Nugent, the wife of Reverend Carl Nugent of Topaz’s Protestant Church, shared one interesting story that might interest readers today:

“Yesterday our seven-week scarlet fever quarantine came to an end and I went shopping, free as the air, the first time I’ve been out since we returned from Topaz on Christmas afternoon.”1

While Pearl Nugent had the freedom to leave the camp regularly unlike those confined, her story of camp quarantine is not so unfamiliar. As we experience our own self-quarantine, stories like these from camp are worth reflecting on the history of disease, medical care, and mental isolation that resulted from incarceration. While our current situation under COVID-19 is nothing like quarantine in camp seventy-five years ago, the story of disease outbreaks in camp can shed light on the experiences of quarantine and the spread of pathogens.

First, the outbreak of disease in camp was not uncommon throughout the incarceration experience. For their volume Silent Scars of Healing Hands, Naomi Hirahara and Gwenn Jensen interviewed camp doctors and medical staff regarding their experiences throughout the incarceration process, illuminating the struggles of both staff and patients in camp due to limited supplies and the lack of privacy. While hospitals were able to establish wards for infected patients, the option of social distancing was not available to individuals in camp beyond staying in barracks.

One doctor, William Sato, traced the progression of Valley fever outbreaks from the Tulare Assembly Center to the Gila River Concentration Camp.2 While some patients were symptomatic before arriving to camp, outbreaks became prevalent as a result of close quarters and the desert climate of Arizona, which aggravated the symptoms of Valley fever. In March 1944, a former doctor of the Gila River camp, W. Furuta, argued that the confined needed to resettle outside of Gila River because animals near the camp were spreading Valley Fever among the population.3

Among the most prevalent diseases in camp were tuberculosis, polio, and chicken pox, with tuberculosis as the third leading cause of death in the camps. At Poston, there were at least 153 documented cases of tuberculosis in camp. Camps like Gila River and Tule Lake, isolated in the Western deserts, established tuberculosis wards outside the main camp population. According to Dr. Shigeru Hara, one of the doctors in charge of the tuberculosis ward at Tule Lake, outbreaks of tuberculosis were difficult because Japanese Americans “hated tuberculosis like leprosy; if they found a case in the block, everyone wanted to move out.”4

Womens ward in the hospital at Manzanar concentration camp Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Mass quarantine notices, however, were more common with other diseases. The Tulean Dispatch in August 1942 reported camp medical personnel ordered quarantine of individual blocks due to a chicken pox outbreak.5 For children showing symptoms of the cold, the first advice doctor prescribed was to keep them home, arguing that while their symptoms seemed harmless to adults, there was a risk of complications. The Tule Lake hospital later established guidelines for visitors to quarantine in November 1942, setting visit times ranging from a few days to weeks depending on the disease. Additional outbreaks of German measles occurred both at Tule Lake and at Manzanar. In May 1943, a mass quarantine order was established at Poston camp due to an outbreak of polio, restricting travel between Parker, Arizona, and Gila River camp.6 And at Topaz and Rohwer, cases of influenza, referred to then as “grippe” from the French word for flu, broke out on multiple occasions, causing the cancellation of school at Topaz in May 1943.7

Because of the confines of camp, the limitations of medical care, and their isolation from potential nearby facilities, deaths that were normally preventable occurred more regularly in camp. While each camp maintained a regular hospital and staff, the limited supply of tools forced doctors to resort to improvising vs. not conducting procedures. In one case, Dr. Hara recalled while at Tule Lake having to use a hand drill from the camp garage to perform a hip procedure.8

Today is certainly an exceptional time in our recent history, and we need to practice self-quarantine to protect each other from COVID-19. Most of all, caring for families during this time of isolation is important for our physical health and mental well-being.

At the same time, self-quarantining is not an option for too many people. In recent times, activist groups such as Tsuru for Solidarity and Densho have ramped up their protest of immigration detention centers not only because of the unjust nature, but also because the cramped conditions in the prisons and lack of proper medical facilities seem to parallel the conditions of the camps seventy-five years ago. And, the racist rhetoric used by the White House to label the disease as the “Chinese virus” only rekindles anti-Asian sentiment more broadly, and mimics the same story of anti-Japanese sentiment leading up to and after 1942. While 2020 is not the end, we do live in challenging times. And, someday soon, we will be ‘free as the air.’

(1) Letter from Pearl Nugent to Miyeko Taketa, February 12, 1944. Author’s collection.
(2) Naomi Hirahara and Gwenn Johnson, Silent Scars of Healing Hands: oral histories of Japanese American doctors in WWII detention camps (Fullerton: Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, 2004), 72. /
(3) “Research Finds Arizona Valley Fever Carrier.” Gila River News-Courier, March 2, 1944. /
(4) Hirahara and Johnson, 81.
(5) “Chicken Pox Quarantine.” Tulean Dispatch, August 19, 1942.
(6) “Poston Quarantine Still Effective.” Poston Chronicle, May 1, 1943.
(7) “Center Hit by Grippe Epidemic.” Topaz Times, May 6, 1943.
(8)  Hirahara and Johnson, 82.

* This article was originally published on NikkeiWest on April 10, 2020.

Jonathan van Harmelen is currently a PhD student in history at UC Santa Cruz specializing in the history of Japanese-American incarceration. He holds a BA in history and French from Pomona College, and has completed an MA from Georgetown University. From 2015 – 2018, he previously worked for the National Museum of American History as an intern and researcher. He can be reached at jvanharm@ucsc.edu.

[Editor’s Note] This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei at <www.discovernikkei.org>, which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.