rainyhaze: (candles and rose petal wine)
[personal profile] rainyhaze
Today I was reading about George Takei for some reason and saw mention of his internment during World War II. It made me think of my grandmother's experiences, so I thought I'd share them. In eighth or ninth grade, we had to interview someone who was alive during the War, and I picked Grandma because I figured there wouldn't be many tales from Japanese Americans. I don't know if anyone will be interested in reading about this, but if you are, here you go, copypasta'd from the email she sent me so many years ago.

I was 10 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Up until then, our family lived in a multicultural neighborhood where things were pretty peaceful. The Caucasian neighbors on either side of us were friendly, even right after Pearl Harbor. The school I went to, Berendo Jr. High, was about 1 1/2 miles away, and my 2 brothers and I walked there (my sister and oldest brothers attended L.A. High, which was about 2 miles or more away--they either walked or took the bus, if they had bus money). After the attack things became unpleasant at the schools. We weren't to blame for the bombing, but many kids began calling us DJs (dirty Japs) and harassing us in minor ways. There was no outright bullying or beating, but ostracism hurt just as much.

In the spring of 1942 the U.S. government declared the Pacific Coast off-limits to all people of Japanese ancestry, due to the fear of espionage and sabotage (no incidents were ever proved after the war). Under Presidential Order 9066 all Japanese, whether aliens or California-born, were ordered to assembly centers to be placed in various locations removed from the coast. With so little time to sell homes, businesses, cars, appliances, etc. most people lost everything but whatever they could pack in one suitcase per person. No one was allowed to bring cameras, guns or sharp objects that could be used as weapons. Fortunately, Grandpa Fukushima owned half of a market (the produce or greengrocer part); his partner, the butcher, kindly put our old house in his name and saved it for us when the war ended. People had their bank accounts frozen. Unless they somehow saved their passbooks and other financial documents for years, many lost even what they had spent years of hard work accumulating.

In April (I think) we were sent, along with the Japanese in our neighborhood, to Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, California (the Santa Anita Assembly Center). Barracks had been set up hastily for the internees, one room per family to a barrack regardless of size. Many people had to move into horse barns, which still smelled strongly of manure. There were barbed wire fences surrounding the center, with armed guards in towers. One of the towers was right by the barrack that served as the women's showers. There were several of these showers, separate for men and women, spread around the center. Other sets of barracks were scattered as open-stalled toilets for both men and women. There was a laundry washroom (no washing machines, laundry was done by hand and put up on clotheslines) in the middle of the center. Later the racetrack grandstand was converted into a place where the internees were paid minimal wages to build camouflage nets for the armed services. People volunteered to teach youngsters in the grandstands wherever there was room, but there were no books, writing materials, paper--this was a blab school, like in colonial days. There were 2 or 3 mess halls in the center, where internees volunteered as cooks (since the food was so terrible, obviously few had had experience as cooks). Rumors were spread outside the center that the internees had luxuries such as meat and butter that were harshly rationed on the outside, but this was not so. I remember watching the milk delivery (powdered milk, reconstituted) and seeing pint bottles with the tops blown off due to improper storage. Mostly we ate awful overcooked messes of oatmeal for breakfast (I opted for toast with apple butter, which I now hate), dried eggs that were reconstituted and scrambled (yucky!); lunch was usually a mixture of canned vegetables, rice, bread; dinner sometimes had small amounts of animal protein in addition to the usual lunch menu.

In the summer the internees were divided into groups that were sent to various relocation centers (Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arkansas), so we didn't see some of our relatives and former neighbors until after the war. Our family was sent to Gila River Relocation Center in -southwest Arizona, an extremely hot, dry, desolate area amidst sagebrush and cacti. (My brothers went to see the center a few years ago--only a few foundations remain, and the Gila River is bone dry.) It was also freezing cold in the winter. Again, families were assigned to barracks, but the space varied according to the size of the families. Our address was Block 32, Building 11, Apartment D (32-11-D, for short). I suppose we were "lucky" in being so close to the shower/toilet building (a cement block structure with open-stalled toilets, a trough with cold water for washing up, and a communal shower that had perhaps 6 shower heads) and the laundry facility, which had a dozen double-sinks, scrubbing boards and clotheslines outside (I don't remember whether each family was issued clothespins, bath and laundry bar soap or not, but this must have been so). Again, there was a mess hall where people ate in shifts--I suppose those who were really hungry could go to more than one shift, but again the food was so unappetizing not too many took advantage of this. I remember this period as the time when I gained lots of weight from eating mainly peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwiches.

People were very grateful to have any jobs that paid small amounts of money so they could have access to the limited goods sold at the store (sort of like an army PX, but not nearly as well stocked) or to buy things from the Montgomery Ward or Sears Roebuck catalogs. Grandpa had various responsibilities at the center, the most important one being the foreman of the crew that built the auditorium for the school; Uncle Archie graduated in this auditorium. Grandma was the janitress at the toilet/shower, which took a few hours of her time every day. (I forgot to mention that when we first arrived at Gila the toilets weren't hooked up to a septic tank and were all overflowing, and the showers didn't work either.).

32-11-D was so cramped there was no privacy. We all slept on army cots under the 2 army issue khaki wool blankets everyone got. Somehow Grandma made pillows for us out of old clothes and Grandpa made a table and a chair out of discarded scraps of lumber; needless to say, these were not models of carpentry, but we were grateful to have them. There was an oil heater for winter but no fan in the summer. There was one wire in the center of the room for a light bulb an an outlet for ironing. There must have been a clothing allowance for each family, but I don't remember what it was--certainly the things we were allowed to bring from home couldn't have lasted for 3 years. An elementary-through jr. high and a high school were established soon after (that's how Grandpa got the job as foreman on the auditorium project). The teachers were all volunteers, mainly from the outside--nobody asked for teaching credentials--with a few from the older internees. We used discarded, tattered textbooks from the Arizona Department of Education. Eventually we were issued pencils and paper and the schools got some obsolete film and filmstrip projectors so the teachers could show us boring educational materials. The Caucasian principal tried hard to make the school as "normal" as possible, encouraging athletics and intramural contests, talent shows, student government. Later on the director of the relocation center managed to get fairly current movies to show the internees in a natural bowl set amidst the buttes (a long, dusty walk at night, and still hot--the movies were held only in the non rainy season). I actually saw a small cattle herd in the sagebrush with cowboys one summer--it was so hot the heat waves from the volatile oils in the sagebrush made the scene seem wavily unreal, except for the noise, dust and smell.

Most people took up some sort of gardening or art to pass the time and to make life bearable. The barracks had one outside water spigot per building, which enabled people to make small, narrow gardens of water- and heat-resistant plants and some vegetables and flowers that took daily care. Most religious leaders of various denominations tried to hold weekly services in the barrack that served as the office building for each block. (The office was also the only place with a telephone.) I lost my faith in the benevolence of God while we were in Arizona and never regained it. Grandpa and Grandma were basically Buddhists who accepted the Episcopal creed as payment for being in America, so I don't know whether they believed they had been abandoned by Buddha or not. My brothers and sister were more religious and went to services, which gave them them a social network I lacked. I hated the camp experience!

Many children who were born in the camp and knew no others except Orientals cried when they saw blue-eyed Caucasians. Traditionally devils in Japanese mythology have blue eyes. I don't ever recall seeing blacks (sorry, African-Americans, though that term was far in the future) or Latinos. The one time the school took us on a field trip to a nearby town an old man spit at us and cursed us, so I never wanted to take another trip outside again. In 1944 Grandpa volunteered to serve as an interpreter in the OSS; he had graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in his youth and was fluent in English, although to his dying day he omitted some articles (Japanese grammar lacks them). He went to Camp Lejeune (North Carolina?) and was made a captain, although he never was sent overseas as the war ended a year later. It must have been a very lonely, trying time for Grandma but she never complained (as a good Japanese wife, it was her lot to bear meekly whatever life gave her).

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese surrendered, peace was declared, and we were allowed to go back to our own neighborhoods. To this day I detest the desert for the unhappy memories being interned gave me, but after 50+ years I don't dwell on the injustices or the pain anymore. Life DOES go on.

Date: 2009-12-15 02:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] loanwords.livejournal.com
I also did not know that your grandmother is Japanese-American... why did I not know this?

Date: 2009-12-15 07:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rainyhaze.livejournal.com
'Cause I don't talk about it? :D I dunno. When I was posting this, I thought about you and Dai.

(Also, I keyed mail for a Michelle Matsuura in Salt Lake today and that also made me think of you.)


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