Last updated: September 17, 2020
The Presidio of San Francisco, located in San Francisco, California, has a history spanning over 200 years, but its activities during World War II are of particular importance in regard to Japanese Americans and others of Japanese descent. During the war the Presidio served as the headquarters for the Western Defense Command, the U.S. Army command responsible for the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent from the West Coast of the United States. In addition, the Presidio housed the Military Intelligence Service Language School, where second-generation Japanese Americans taught the Japanese language to military personnel.
El Presidio de San Francisco (the Presidio of San Francisco) was, until 1994, one of the oldest active military fortifications in what is now the U.S. Established as a fortified military settlement by Spain in 1776, the Presidio became a Mexican outpost in 1822. In 1847, during the Mexican-American War, the New York Volunteers occupied the Presidio which became a U.S. Army post in 1848. The next 147 years saw the Presidio grow to become one of the U.S. Army’s most critical West Coast installations, playing important roles in the Spanish American War, the Philippine War, and World War II.
During World War II the Presidio became the center for Army operations in defense of the western U.S. with Building 35 serving as the headquarters for the Western Defense Command (WDC). It was from this building that the U.S. Army managed the evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, General John L. DeWitt, commander of the WDC, was concerned that people of Japanese ancestry in California, Oregon, and Washington were conspiring to sabotage the American war effort. General DeWitt recommended that they be removed from western coastal areas. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed, issuing Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, which authorized the establishment of military areas "from which any or all persons may be excluded."
In March 1942, General DeWitt issued Proclamation No.1 designating the western halves of Washington, Oregon, and California, and the southern half of Arizona as Military Area No. 1. The eastern half of the three states including northern Arizona was designated as Military Area No. 2. Japanese Americans and people of Japanese descent were excluded from Military Area No. 1 and were encouraged to voluntarily relocate. When this "voluntary evacuation" failed, the relocation became mandatory. General DeWitt had Area No. 1 broken into 99 smaller sections and from late March through August 1942, the WDC issued Civilian Exclusion Orders for each section from the headquarters at the Presidio. These orders announced the exclusion of "all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens" from Military Area No. 1. People were given one week to prepare for evacuation. On the day they were evacuated each person was allowed to bring only what they could carry and anyone who failed to evacuate was subject to arrest. The evacuees were sent to assembly centers, eventually being moved to one of 10 larger inland relocation centers for internment.
By the beginning of June, all persons of Japanese ancestry had been removed from Military Area No. 1. General DeWitt then turned his attention to Military Area No. 2, ordering the removal of people of Japanese ancestry from the eastern half of California, but choosing not to remove those in the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon or in northern Arizona. By August 1942, the evacuations were complete; 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry had been removed from the West Coast.
The actions of the Federal Government caused irreparable damage to Japanese American culture. Areas such as Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, the largest Japanese community in the U.S., became ghost towns almost overnight. For the next two and a half years, many of those interned endured extremely difficult living conditions and poor treatment.
The discriminatory treatment of people of Japanese ancestry stands in stark contrast to the U.S. Army’s use of Japanese Americans as valued linguists and translators. As diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Japan deteriorated, the U.S. Army established the Military Intelligence Service Language School (MISLS) at the Presidio. Classes began on November 1, 1941, with four instructors and 60 students enrolled in a yearlong program. The students consisted of civilian Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) and Kibei (Japanese Americans born in the U.S. and educated in Japan) and two Caucasians – the only military personnel who had a good command of the Japanese language. They were instructed in how to teach the Japanese language to military personnel and to provide support in deciphering documents and interrogating prisoners.
The school was located in Building 640 at the Presidio’s former Crissy Field. An active airfield from 1921 to 1936, Crissy Field was closed in the mid-1930s and its Hanger Building 640 was converted into classrooms and a barracks for the MISLS. The hangar looked nothing like a traditional school and outsiders were told it was a laundry facility in order to protect its secrecy. Students studied in their makeshift classrooms, played volleyball for recreation, and walked to the nearby Bakers and Cooks School in Building 220 three times a day for meals. With America’s entrance into World War II, the yearlong training program was shortened to six months.
By early 1942, 35 MISLS students had graduated and were ready for deployment. With the evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast the school, along with its Japanese American students, was moved from California to temporary quarters at Camp Savage, Minnesota. In 1944 the school was moved to larger facilities in nearby Fort Snelling. Six thousand MISLS-trained linguists served with distinction throughout the Pacific Theater, working with combat units to interrogate prisoners, translate intercepted documents, and eventually using their knowledge of Japanese culture to aid the U.S. occupation of Japan. They were so successful that Major General Charles Willoughby, General Douglas MacArthur's Chief of Staff for Military Intelligence, stated, "The Nisei shortened the Pacific War by two years and saved possibly a million American lives and saved probably billions of dollars." In 1946, the school returned to California, moving to the Presidio of Monterey. It was renamed the Defense Language Institute, eventually becoming the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, and is still the U.S. Military’s primary language school.
In 1994, the Presidio of San Francisco was transferred to the National Park Service, ending 219 years as a military post and beginning a new era of mixed commercial and public use. The Presidio Trust, created by the U.S. Congress in 1996, oversees and manages 80% of the Presidio’s lands and buildings, with the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area managing the remaining 20% along the coast. The Presidio of San Francisco has 1,491 acres, including forests, beaches and bluffs, hiking and biking trails, and 768 historic buildings and structures and is one of the largest and most innovative preservation projects in the Nation.
The Presidio of San Francisco, a National Historic Landmark District, is located at the mouth of San Francisco Bay in San Francisco, CA and is part of the National Park Service's Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio of San Francisco has been extensively documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey. For more information, visit the Presidio's webstie: https://www.nps.gov/prsf/index.htm
Discover more history and culture by visiting the World War II in San Francisco Bay Area travel itinerary.