For many, the decision to request family internment records is a difficult one. You are not sure what you will get or if you will like what you read. The decision is an individual one, and the GAIC generally encourages document acquisition. If you do obtain internment records, a word of caution. When reading through the records, you must remember that the US government was making a case for internment and much information was cast in the worst light possible to support the internment decision. You know your own family member. As hard as these files can be to read sometimes, believe in the person you know and love, not the theories of FBI agents and the US government.
Most of the internment-related files generated by the Department of Justice, the FBI, the INS, the War Department and the Department of State have now been transferred to the US National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”). Generally speaking, these are public documents. Unlike the early days, these documents are no longer classified, and you will receive records that have not been redacted (that is, the names will not be blacked out). If a file was created before 1945 or before, no Freedom of Information Act request is required. This greatly simplifies the process. (If a file was created after 1945, which is very unlikely in the case of internees, NARA does seek to protect the privacy of those still living and will usually require a Freedom of Information Act request.)
The easiest way to contact NARA is to use their contact page email. When you send a request to NARA, assume the personal file you’re interested in was created in 1945 or before. Send along as much information as you have. Give the full name, date and place of birth of the person you’re seeking. Important facts which are helpful, but not necessary are: the internee’s Alien Registration and Internment Serial Numbers (see section on Internment Serial Numbers below) the estimated dates of internment, where the original arrest occurred and the camps in which the internee was held. It is also helpful to mention that you understand such records can be found in NARA Record Groups 59 (State Department Records) , 60 (Department of Justice Records), 85 (Immigration and Naturalization Services Records) and 389 (Provost Marshall Records).
Once the NARA archivist has found your records, you will receive a “Quotation for Reproduction Services” and be advised of the number of pages, the price per page to copy (currently 25 cents/page) and the cost of shipping. After you confirm you want your records, they are copied and mailed to you. Processing time varies depending on the backlog at NARA, but 2-3 months is average. Of course, you may also go directly to NARA and request your records in person.
(You are welcome to contact the departments below directly before writing to request an internee’s files, but using the main NARA contact form assures your request goes to the correct department. Email is preferred to phone contact. You should get a prompt response. GAIC frequently assists with records requests. No fee is charged, but a donation to help us continue our work is greatly appreciated.)
Archives II Reference Section (RD-DC/2400)
National Archives at College Park
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park MD 20740-6001
National Archives and Records Administration
700 Pennsylvania Ave,, NW
Washington, DC 20408-0001
Public Reference Information: (202)357-5400
Genealogical Staff: (202)357-5400
There are some specific records that you can ask for. For those of you from Latin America, be sure to relay the country from which your family member was taken. The Records of the Special War Problems Division are specifically about Latin America, referenced by country.
If your family were sent to Germany, there are photographs of repatriation activities and the SS Gripsholm, 1943-1944 available through Records of the Office of Controls-Special War Problems Division. There are also photographs showing Camp Kenedy, “a reception and holding center” for many of the enemy aliens shipped to the United States from Latin America.
INTERNMENT SERIAL NUMBERS —Identifying World War II Internees
When people were arrested and interned, the government agency that did the arrests issued each of them an Internment Serial Number. While the system used for identification was similar, slight variants helped identify the prisoners’ ethnicity and origins. Below are some examples.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) arrested civilian internees from the continental U.S. For example, a number like ISN-18-6-G-19-CI has the following components:
ISN – Internment Serial Number
18 – immigration district from which internee originally came (Seattle in this case)
6 – the number of the state the internee comes from, alphabetically arranged, with Alabama #1, etc.
G – ethnicity of internee, in this case German (J – Japanese I – Italian)
19 – the consecutive internee number assigned by the INS in each district
CI – civilian internee
Internees arrested by the War Department outside of the continental U.S., but in its possessions or territories, had similar serial numbers, except for one additional letter, at the beginning of the second section.
For example: ISN-HG-12-CI
HG – the first letter indicated where the internee came from; the second his ethnicity.
A – Alaska H – Hawaii P – the Philippines
An X was added at the beginning of the second section, when an internee was taken from a foreign country.
For example: ISN-XG-21-CI
X=arrest outside of U.S.
Information from Kashima, Tetsuden. Judgment without Trial: Japanese American Imprisonment during World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003, 260, note 39.