Girl Scouting and Japanese Internment during World War II

Girl Scouts participate in the National Defense effort by collecting scrap metal, circa 1940s.

Girl Scouts participate in the National Defense effort by collecting scrap metal, circa 1940s.

In honor of Asian – Pacific American Heritage Month, the Girl Scout National Historic Preservation Center (NHPC) would like to share with you how Girl Scouting was brought to Japanese American girls in internment centers during World War II.

On December 7, 1941 the United States was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base located in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. On this day – one which President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared would “live in infamy”- the U.S. Pacific Fleet was destroyed and countless American lives were lost. This attack, which was retaliation on the United States embargo on Japanese exports, resulted in the United States’ entrance into World War II against Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, national security concerns swept the nation, with fears that Japanese Americans on the West Coast would partake in espionage against the United States. As these concerns grew to hysteria, anti-Japanese attitudes emerged and threatened the well-being of both Issei, who were first generation Japanese immigrants, and Nisei, their second generation American-born children. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which relocated all persons of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens, outside of the West Coast military zone to internment centers in the interior of the country. It wasn’t until the end of the war that Japanese Americans were able to leave these relocation centers and rebuild their lives.

Amid the disheartening conditions that Japanese Americans faced, a variety of community and social activities were introduced at the internment centers, including Girl Scouting. In 1942, at the request of the Girl Scouts’ Seattle council, the Girl Scout National Field Committee agreed to use a small portion of the Juliette Low Memorial fund to provide Girl Scout program materials to the internment centers and to have the Director of the southern section of Region XI determine the need for such materials. Before acting on this recommendation, the National Board of Directors decided to bring the issue to the attention of Gen. Frank McCoy of the Foreign Policy Association, Mr. Norman H. Davis, Chairman of the American Red Cross, and Grace Coyle of Western Reserve University, who were conducting a study of the relocation centers for the United States government. After conferring with Grace Coyle it was agreed that Girl Scouting would be brought to Japanese American girls in the form of lone troops and that program materials would be sent to the centers’ libraries.

In Girl Scouting, lone troops were established when there was no local Girl Scout council in the community that the troop could affiliate with. Lone troops required a group of girls, a leader, and a troop committee, which in this case, was to be appointed by the chief of the community service at the relocation center.

Girl Scouting seemed to flourish among Japanese American girls during this time. According to the News Letter of the National Headquarters, a Girl Scouts of the USA periodical, by December 1943, there were 743 Girl Scouts registered in the Topaz, Utah and Manzanar, California internment centers. In the Poston, Arizona internment center, the News Letter notes that 9 Girl Scout leaders cooperated with Boy Scouts on a paper drive and a Mother’s Day observance. It appeared to Girl Scout national staff who visited the Poston center that Girl Scouting helped both Japanese girls and leaders adjust to internment life.

In 1944, the War Relocation Authority – which had been established to handle Japanese internment – announced it would lift the Exclusion Order of the West Coast and begin to evacuate the internment centers. Since many Japanese American girls were registered as Girl Scouts, the Girl Scouts National Board suggested troop leaders contact national headquarters when girls left the centers so they could be put in contact with local Girl Scout councils.  In 1945, the Girl Scouts National Board adopted the recommendation that Girl Scout regional chairmen be advised of the War Relocation Authority request that Girl Scouts cooperate in the resettlement of Japanese Americans. Girl Scout councils were instructed to assist those who settled in their communities after years of internment. It was clear that Japanese American Girl Scouts and Leaders were interested in continuing the program, as one leader stated, “I’m sure there are many more Girl Scouts among our Japanese American people as a result of their Girl Scouting here, and I believe we will take it with us wherever we relocate.”


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