FIFTY YEARS ago today, World War II was brought home with terrible reality to those of us living on the West Coast. At dawn, teams of FBI agents in Los Angeles raided a Japanese-American fishing community at nearby Terminal Island on the first day of the nation's new enemy alien registration program.

It was only the beginning: On Feb. 19, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the secretary of war to designate certain coastal "military areas" and to exile "any and all persons" from them. Almost overnight, many of our neighbors of Japanese ancestry disappeared. Soon 120,000 West Coast Japanese-American citizens found themselves herded into 10 "relocation" camps for the duration of the war.

The government has since paid $1.2 billion in reparations to 66,000 survivors, and the mass internment is widely regarded as a disgraceful moment of national paranoia and racial prejudice. But a major motivation has remained largely unspoken and generally concealed from the public.

Based on an accumulation of evidence, we now know that the government's action was partially initiated by California corporate agribusiness interests hoping to satisfy their own lust for land while ridding themselves of competition from the state's most productive family farms.

Japanese-American farmers were a huge presence on the pre-war West Coast, producing more than 40 percent of California's commercial vegetable crop alone. A June 1942 federal report noted that "the Japanese people were the most important racial minority group engaged in agriculture in the Pacific Coast region. Their systems of farming, types of crops and land tenure conditions were such that their replacement by other farmers would be extremely difficult . . . . The average value per acre of all West Coast farms in 1940 was $37.94, whereas that of Japanese farms was $279.96 . . . . Three out of every four acres of Japanese farm lands were devoted to actual crop production, whereas only one out of every four acres of all farm land in the areas was planted in crops."

But despite the nisei farmers' importance, the federal dragnet that swept up Japanese-American citizens also gathered in their highly productive lands. Farm Security Administration (FSA) records indicate that 6,664 pieces of nisei agricultural property, totaling 258,000 acres, were involved in the evacuation process and placed under the agency's jurisdiction.

Much of the evidence pointing to an agricultural land-grab comes from a 1975 study done by Richard Johnson of California's Davis Research Group, a public-interest collective affiliated with the California Citizen Action Group Charitable Trust, and others. Additional evidence has been in the public record virtually from the beginning. The story is grim.

Only hours after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7. 1941, Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of California's powerful Salinas Valley Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, was dispatched to Washington to urge federal authorities to remove all individuals of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. In an interview for the May 1942 Saturday Evening Post, Anson told how he drew a frightful scenario for the War and Navy departments, the attorney general and every congressman he could get to listen to him: an invading army coming ashore in Monterey Bay and advancing into the Salinas Valley while Japanese residents blew up bridges, disrupting traffic and sabotaging local defenses.

Many in Washington, caught up in the war hysteria, believed Anson. But officials at the Justice Department and the attorney general's office did not. Some 42 years later, Edward Ennis, director of Justice's Enemy Alien Unit, said on CBS's "60 Minutes," "We told the president we didn't believe there was any need to remove these farmers who were helping feed the civilian population and the military, and it was really nonsense."

The commander of the Western Defense Command, he added, probably believed he was protecting the country from possible sabotage, espionage and even invasion by taking such action, "but he didn't move in that direction until he learned by political events -- not military events, political events -- that he would be supported . . . ."

Those "political events" and the motivation behind them were apparent to Ennis: "The farmer-growers association going to Congress asked for getting rid of these people. This was very largely a movement by a lot of different people to use the opportunity to get the Japanese farmer off the West Coast . . . . They got all their land, they got thousands and thousands of acres of the best land in California. The Japanese were just pushed off the land!"

Anson unabashedly admitted as much to Taylor in the Saturday Evening Post: "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We might as well be honest. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work and they stayed to take over."

In her 1965 book "Exile of a Race," Anne Reeploeg Fisher wrote that "the 'farmers' for whom Anson spoke were the 'Montgomery Street Farmers' -- Montgomery Street, San Francisco, being the Wall Street of the West -- considered one of the most powerful aggregations of wealthy corporations in the U.S."

Other organizations lent support, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the California Farm Bureau and its close ally, the quasi-facist Associated Farmers, who in large part were financed by the Montgomery Street Farmers and upon whose executive committee Anson served. On Feb. 2, the day of the FBI raids, a meeting was held in California Attorney General Earl Warren's office to map Japanese-American properties and demonstrate they were ideally located for espionage and sabotage.

Events moved swiftly. On Feb. 19, Roosevelt responded to pleas by California officials and others and issued his executive order. On March 5, the Treasury ordered federal reserve banks to take over detainees' "removable property." On March 16 the Wartime Civilian Control Administration ordered the FSA to confiscate their farms, facilitate a smooth transition to new owners and lend them funds to operate the farms and continue developing the land. The FSA held the first lien or mortgage and if payment could not be made in one year, the mortgage was foreclosed.

In some areas, farm managers already had their hands full with war production. The FSA initiated an advertising campaign, pressured reluctant operators to borrow and, Davis researchers later learned, often used questionable practices to recruit owners, including warnings to take over the evacuee farms or face the draft. Finally the FSA turned to corporate farmers, explaining: "Because of the nature of Japanese farming, it was found most practicable in many instances to encourage the formation of corporations -- often connected with growers' and shippers' organizations -- to operate a group of farms."

The FSA was officially responsible for protection of the evacuee property, but it usually acted as no more than a collection agency for its loans. After the war, many evacuees returned to find their uninsured homes and farms sold, destroyed or burned to the ground, their equipment stolen and their wells dry.

The Davis Research Group also found that several corporate agribusiness interests, as well as members of the Western Growers and Shippers Association, received confiscated Japanese land at practically no cost. Documentation showing which group received what vanished after World War II.

By the end of the war, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "farm ownership by Japanese amounted to about 30 percent of their total pre-war farm operations {and} ownership transfers to non-evacuees during and after evacuation has probably reduced these farm ownerships to less than a fourth of the total pre-war Japanese land holdings, including leaseholds . . . ." Few of the internees ever received full payment for their land.

A.V. Krebs is the director of the Corporate Agribusiness Project, which is affiliated with Ralph Nader's Center for the Study of Responsive Law, and author of "The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness."