Story behind the WWII detainee camps at Grove Park Inn, Montreat Assembly Inn
Above: A rare color photo of some of the Japanese women, teenagers and a younger child in kimonos for a special occasion while they were in Montreat at the State Department Detention Camp for diplomats’ and businessmen’s families, while waiting for repatriation to Japan. Left-to-right are: Michiko Okaji, Shizuko Carolyn Fujisawa, Shigeko Okaji, Taeko Carol Miyamoto, Kiyoko June Kiyohara, Miyeko Ella Ohta, Michiko Jane Asami, Sugako Isobe, Toshiko Marianne Matsumura, Nobuko Saito, Sumie Betty Ohta, Mariko Mary Kojima and Satoko Isobe. The young girl in front is not identified.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in February 1942, and the resulting interment of predominantly Japanese American citizens or residents from the West Coast into camps scattered across the California desert and other remote locations — simply because those in charge considered them potentially harmful due to their ethnic backgrounds. Over 120,000 Japanese Americans (and to a far smaller degree, some individuals of German or Italian descent) were forcibly relocated into hastily constructed concentration camps ringed by barbed wire and armed guards, losing their homes, businesses, and rights as citizens. For this, the United States government formally apologized and granted monetary reparations in 1988 to those survivors still living.
While this incarceration predominantly affected Japanese American citizens, the situation was somewhat murkier for Japanese, German and other Axis diplomats and businesspeople who were caught abroad when Congress declared war. Even prior to the internment of Japanese American citizens on the West Coast, the U.S. Department of State arranged, in partnership with many Central and South American nations, to receive this later group of Axis-associated individuals and families in the United States at various hotels and resorts — including two here in Western North Carolina — to await either repatriation or prisoner exchange. By the norms of war, Axis nations were also expected to extend the same treatment to Allied citizens or diplomats caught abroad. For perhaps most detainees at the Grove Park Inn and, later, the Montreat Assembly Inn, their experiences were related to but also different in some ways from the interned citizens held in camps such as Manzanar or Gila River. For some detainees such as the young Ella Tomita, however, the stories intersect in several ways.
Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the State Department’s Special Problems Division began detaining Axis diplomats, consular staff, and other civilians at resorts across southern Appalachia, including the famous Greenbrier in West Virginia. In March 1942, the government began leasing Asheville’s luxurious Grove Park Inn for Italian, Bulgarian and Romanian individuals and families. The State Department agreed to pay the hotel owners $8 per day for adults and $5 for children (roughly the standard rate for guests) housed in the rooms once occupied by the rich and famous, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Roosevelts themselves. The Asheville Citizen reported on March 30, 1942, that 200 people were to be held there, supervised by 15 guards. They would not be allowed to receive visitors, make phone calls or mail letters. In dry Buncombe County, they were also not officially allowed any alcoholic beverages. Aside from these restrictions, these detainees — including two high-ranking Italian and Bulgarian ambassadors — reportedly made full use of the facilities and hotel amenities despite their confinement. The composition of those held at the Grove Park Inn soon changed, however.
On May 15, 1942, 218 Japanese and German detainees, including some 80 children, were covertly transported to the inn via train to the Asheville Biltmore depot, and then by guarded bus, replacing the previous diplomats who were exchanged for Allied prisoners and sent to Portugal. Most, if not all of this second group were transported from South American nations to await prisoner or diplomatic exchange in the United States. Another 163 individuals were added to confinement over the next two months while many were repatriated to Japan or sent to other facilities. Five remaining Japanese and 150 German detainees were joined in August by 40 Japanese American families from Hawaii, taken directly by ship and train to Asheville.
Emigrants from Japan began migrating to the Hawaiian islands in the mid to late 1800s, and a sizable population of Japanese descendants, numbering over 150,000, lived in this U.S. territory by 1942. While an estimated 37,000 were Japanese nationals, all those born in Hawaii after 1900 were American citizens. Many ethnically Japanese children had returned to Japan for schooling at some point (a group known as the Kibei), and they were especially targeted for investigation due to fears of disloyalty, according to scholars Harry and Jane Scheiber and Benjamin Jones. Several families experienced a separation as a result of these inquiries, as fathers were often detained and sent to disparate facilities prior to the family’s deportation to the mountains.
It is unclear exactly how many Japanese American detainees housed at the Grove Park and, later, Montreat Assembly inns were American citizens, but we do know that Ella Tomita, a child born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, was among those removed from their homes to a forced confinement. She recalled the separation of her family in Hawaii where her mother was ordered to take all children under 18 with her to the mainland, while her father was sent elsewhere. Her group was “herded” onto a train in San Francisco and re-routed to North Carolina with the shades down all along their cross-country ride.
The remaining German and new Japanese American detainees were held at the Grove Park Inn until October 1942, when the U.S. Navy requested the resort as a rest and recreation center. The State Department quickly transferred “prisoners” or “aliens” (as they were then designated) across the county to the Assembly Inn at Montreat. This latter inn was purportedly easier to guard, offered more recreational opportunities, and, critically, was cheaper to rent. This mixed group of foreign nationals and American citizens, including Ella Tomita, her sister, and mother, were held at Montreat for six months until May 1943 as exchanges were negotiated and many of the Japanese Americans awaited “repatriation” to Japan.
Both newspapers and personal testimonies reveal a range of experiences for those interned in the two inns. Many of the Japanese American detainees recalled friendly, albeit budgeted, treatment from the staff at Montreat, however, they also experienced both suffering and hardship as a result of confinement, family separation, and the uprooting of their lives. Tomo Izumi, an adolescent at the time, recalled both FBI and local guards at Montreat being present but also polite and reasonably permissive as the children attended school and played in common areas of the inn. Though the State Department generally kept detainees of different ethnic or national backgrounds in distinctly separate spheres, children, at least, appear to have interacted at different points. Ella Tomita, for example, recalled befriending a German girl from South America at the Grove Park Inn.
Adults, however, may have noticed differences between their comparative conditions. The Germans, many of whom had diplomatic status, were able to access medical treatment at nearby Mission Hospital. It is unclear if this care was available to Japanese American detainees, or if they were exclusively treated by four accompanying Red Cross nurses. The State Department also refused detainees Buddhist statues or preferred religious texts, and Montreat offered Japanese or German translated New Testament Bibles instead. One Asheville Citizen editorial also reported animosity or antagonism by some of the Germans toward their Japanese counterparts while housed at the Grove Park Inn. Detainees from Hawaii also had their property confiscated prior to departing the islands — save for roughly $200 and basic clothing — and some struggled to pay for warm winter coats or shoes for growing children during their confinement in Western North Carolina.
Local opinion and knowledge of the nearby detainees appeared mixed in various sources. In April 1942, the State Department dissuaded the Citizen and Times from publishing news of any Axis detainees, for unspecified “good reasons.” However, when the second batch of detainees arrived under several guards at the Grove Park Inn in May 1942, the Asheville Citizen reported the following day on the pleasant looking Germans but described with little subtlety racialized characteristics of the Japanese Americans entering the resort. A subsequent editorial by John Temple Graves II also promoted the idea of Italian greatness and superiority over the German or Japanese detainees. It must be noted, at this time, polls suggested an overwhelming American support for detaining Japanese foreign nationals, but also for interning and dispossessing citizens of Japanese descent. A widely-shared racial animosity, as well as previous positive experiences with German WWI POWs who were held in nearby Hot Springs presumably influenced local perceptions of these new arrivals to the mountains.
A few oral histories specifically address the interactions between locals and those detained, or allude to feelings toward them. One local man, in an interview housed at Buncombe County Special Collections, recalled at age 7 or 8 going with “hooligan” friends up to the barbed wire fence surrounding Grove Park Inn “hollering and shouting and screaming and waving our hands at the poor fellows” getting fresh air outside. Arthur Sandman, in a UNC Asheville interview discussing anti-Semitism and prejudice, also recalled as a young child seeing “bus loads” of “Asian Americans” transported to the Grove Park Inn, as he believed at the time, “to keep them out of harm’s way.” Local residents assuredly stayed apprised of the detainees as several spectators came to see Japanese and German detainees depart via train in June 1942, reportedly remaining stone-faced and unmoved as two Japanese men waved goodbye. A few sources also indicate some charity and goodwill toward those detained on special occasions, such as when Presbyterian churches in the greater area helped provide presents and locals from Black Mountain assembled outside of Montreat to sing Christmas Carols in December.
The State Department transferred the remaining detainees at Montreat to the internment camp at Crystal City, Texas, in May 1943 before shipping the many of the Japanese Americans to a neutral port in India in September. Ella Tomita recalled seeing her father there in the Texas camp where he was interned for the first time in two years and noted that “our fathers went through a lot of hardship too.” Many Japanese Americans traveled to Japan, though Tomita’s family were one of an unknown number who returned to Hawaii to pick up the pieces of their lives. As the only living, eligible member of her family in 1988, she received the $20,000 reparation payment in her later years for her internment.
Today, the Presbyterian Heritage Center at Montreat interprets and collects the history of those detained there from 1942-43. To learn more, view the recording of our recently-aired program with their director, Ron Vinson, on our website at wnchistory.org/history-hour/.
Trevor Freeman is public programs director for the Asheville Museum of History.