Axis Home Front
Axis Home Front
Europe and the Pacific During WWII

Secret Civilian Exchanges

Thousands of Detainees Traded with Japan

Secret Civilian Exchanges
After Pearl Harbor, thousands of civilians on both sides were taken into custody. American citizens were held in camps by the Japanese and in the US, non American Japanese were evacuated away from the coasts to inland camps administered by the War Relocation Authority. Talks to repatriate each other's detainees were quickly begun. These secret exchanges benefited both countries. From 1942 to 1946 the Swedish luxury liner MS Gripsholm made 12 round trips, carrying a total of 27,712 repatriates.

Updated July 2024
Posted November 2023

WWII Secret Wartime Civilian Exchanges
Secret Wartime Civilian Exchanges
During the first two months of the Pacific War, thousands of civilians on both sides were taken into custody.

By February 1942, some 6,000 American citizens were held in camps administered by the Imperial Armed forces in East and Southeast Asia. The same number of Japanese citizens living illegally in the United States had to be located and repatriated, or "traded," to secure these Americans' release.

Between April and June 1942, approximately 110,000 ethnic Japanese Americans from the Western states, and several hundred from Hawaii, including many who were U.S. citizens (often minors born in the States but living with their non American parents), were evacuated away from the coasts to inland camps administered by the War Relocation Authority.

Talks to repatriate each other's detainees were quickly begun. However, negotiations foundered on Tokyo's insistence that the exchanges be governed by the principle of reciprocity, both numerically and - more problematically - in social status, thus: "The war relocation centers were created and administered in a manner that sought to satisfy Japan's concerns over reciprocity."

During the wartime exchanges - one in the summer of 1942 and another during autumn of 1943 - approximately 3,000 U.S. civilians returned home on the "Gripsholm"; many were women and children, who might not have survived the increasingly harsh Japanese mistreatment of prisoners.

WWII Secret Wartime Civilian Exchanges These secret exchanges benefited both countries, allowing many Japanese citizens to return home in the midst of the war, often to care for elderly parents. Notably, 20,161 Japanese, or 18 percent of all ethnic Japanese in the camps administered by the War Relocation Authority, "offered to participate in the official U.S. Japanese exchange program by returning to Japan." After the war ended, however, most elected to remain in America and over time became naturalized U.S. citizens.

Picture one: Crowds of Japanese gathering in an American relocation center to say farewell to those exchanges who had volunteered to return home to Japan

Picture two: The Swedish luxury liner, MS "Gripsholm," was chartered by the U.S. government to take Japanese exchanges on the American leg of their journey home.

War Relocation Authority

WIKIPEDIAThe War Relocation Authority (WRA)
United States government agency established to handle the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. It also operated the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter in Oswego, New York, which was the only refugee camp set up in the United States for refugees from Europe. The agency was created by Executive Order 9102 on March 18, 1942, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was terminated June 26, 1946, by order of President Harry S. Truman.

After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing military commanders to create zones from which certain persons could be excluded if they posed a threat to national security. Many people of Japanese ancestry were also suspected of espionage after the Pearl Harbor attack. Military Areas 1 and 2 were created soon after, encompassing all of California and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Arizona, and subsequent civilian exclusion orders informed Japanese Americans residing in these zones they would be scheduled for "evacuation." The executive order also applied to Alaska as well, bringing the entire United States West Coast as off-limits to Japanese nationals and Americans of Japanese descent.

The WRA considered 300 potential sites before settling on a total of ten camp locations, mostly on tribal lands. Site selection was based upon multiple criteria, including:

  • Ability to provide work in public works, agriculture, manufacturing.
  • Adequate transportation, power facilities, sufficient area of quality soil, water, and climate
  • Able to house at least 5,000 people
  • Public land

The camps had to be built from the ground up, and wartime shortages of labor and lumber combined with the vast scope of each construction project (several of the WRA camps were among the largest "cities" in the states that housed them) meant that many sites were unfinished when transfers began to arrive from the assembly centers. At Manzanar, for example, internees were recruited to help complete construction.

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MS Gripsholm (1924)

WikipediaMS Gripsholm was an ocean liner, built in 1924 by Armstrong Whitworth in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, for the Swedish American Line for use in the Gothenburg-New York City run. She was of great historical importance as the first ship built for transatlantic express service as a diesel-powered motor vessel, rather than as a steamship.

From 1927 onwards, the Gripsholm made transatlantic passenger crossings and regular recreational cruises. Gripsholm was one of the first ships to call at the Canadian Pier 21 immigration terminal in Halifax, Nova Scotia and made 101 trips with immigrants to Pier 21.

Exchange and Repatriation Ship
From 1942 to 1946, the United States Department of State chartered Gripsholm as an exchange and repatriation ship, carrying Japanese and German nationals to exchange points where she then picked up US and Canadian citizens (and British married to Americans or Canadians) to bring home to the USA and Canada. She also made at least two voyages repatriating British and Commonwealth POW's in the spring of 1944 to Belfast and summer of the same year to Liverpool. In this service she sailed under the auspices of the International Red Cross, with a Swedish captain and crew. The ship made 12 round trips, carrying a total of 27,712 repatriates. Exchanges took place at neutral ports; at Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in Mozambique or Mormugoa (now Goa) in Portuguese India with the Japanese, and Stockholm or Lisbon with the Germans.

After the war, Gripsholm was used to deport inmates of US prisons to Italy and Greece.

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