Only 1 way in and 1 way out: Detainees were held in Montreat during World War II

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Though many Japanese Americans were rounded up and forced into internment camps during World War II, some joined other Axis country descendants in Montreat while they waited for repatriation.

Montreat has long been known as a destination for spiritual retreat. During World War II, it was a destination of a different kind.

Detainees of Japanese, Italian and German descent were held at local establishments throughout Appalachia such as the Grove Park Inn and the Montreat Assembly Inn, said Trevor Freeman of the Western North Carolina Historical Association.

In fact, a rooming list obtained by the Presbyterian Heritage Center showed 268 detainees were held at Assembly Inn, 133 Japanese women and children and 135 German and Italian men and families, said Ron Vinson, executive director of the center.

The WNCHA hosted a virtual History Hour on May 12, featuring Vinson, who discussed the experience of Axis families and individuals in Montreat during World War II.

WNCHA serves as a nonprofit historical group based in Asheville. 

"We're all probably familiar with the incarceration of thousands of Japanese American citizens the American West Coast during World War II, but there were also many individuals caught up in the conflict," Freeman said. 

Vinson, who has served as the executive director of the Presbyterian Heritage Center at Montreat since 2007, headlined the event, giving a lecture on the experiences of the Japanese and European detainees housed at Assembly Inn.

"We wanted to find out the accurate history," Vinson said. "As an independent research and education organization, we had no vested interest nor bias on the topic."

After 14 years of research conducted through primary sources, public records and and corroborated accounts, Vinson presented the findings along with discussion. 

Ron Vinson, director of the Presbyterian heritage Center in Montreat, delivered a virtual lecture on Axis detainees during World War II on May 12.

Vinson began with the subject of Axis and Allied diplomats and business people working abroad, caught in enemy territory as the war went underway. Vinson said while enemy diplomats were held for repatriation, given in exchange for American diplomats, many were held in Montreat. 

"There was also a secondary category called internment camps," Vinson said. "They were set up very specifically to allow the war department to be able to move descendants of countries that now were at war with America."

Vinson outlined the difference between internment and detention camps, highlighting the much more humane conditions of luxury hotels which functioned for detention. Similar to Montreat, Vinson said American diplomats and business people living in Germany prior to the war were held in hotels to await exchange. 

In 1942, Mountain Retreat Association President Robert Campbell Anderson wrote to the U.S. State Department to offer Montreat's services as a way to house Axis detainees. 

At Assembly Inn, detainees were able to roam somewhat freely, take hikes and walk to Lake Susan. Being so far from the coast, Vinson said they would've had nowhere to go if the were to try to leave. 

"There's only one way into Montreat and one way out of Montreat," Vinson said. "There was not a lot of concern that you would have escapes from these detention centers because they were basically going to be exchanged anyway."

Japanese Americans were rounded up and forced into internment camps during World War II. Ron Vinson's lecture explored the differences between internment and detention camps.

Vinson also included in his lecture stories, documents and historical artifacts telling the stories of Axis and Allied detainees during the war. 

"We've had grandchildren of detainees at Assembly Inn come and visit us," Vinson said, in closing. "We're always happy to get additional information." 

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.