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Internment: Personal Voices, Powerful Choices

Times Staff Writer

They were not death camps. But freedom, pride and dreams died a thousand times in California, in Colorado, in Arizona and in Wyoming, in the sprawling makeshift camps to which Japanese-Americans were herded shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Imprisoned by their own country for fear that they could be spies who would aid the Japanese, 120,000 men, women and children--two-thirds of them American citizens--were neither formally accused nor convicted of anything. They were simply incarcerated for the duration of the war, their farms and their livelihoods lost.

Across the barbed wire that kept these forced settlers separate from their neighbors sprang a friendship between two Boy Scouts, one a self-described chubby, pimply Caucasian, the other an animated Japanese-American.

Supporting Bill

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It was a friendship that lasted long after the war. Today those two former scouts--Rep. Norman Mineta (D-San Jose) and Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.)--are supporting the Civil Liberties Act of 1987, a bill that would officially apologize and pay $20,000 tax-free in reparation to each former Japanese-American internee still alive, estimated to be about half of the original 120,000. Because of the bill’s $1.25-billion price tag, a White House official said advisers would recommend that President Reagan veto the bill, which has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate soon.

The bill’s main sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga (D-Ha.), who, along with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Ha.), was wounded during World War II while fighting with the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Northern Italy. Matsunaga’s father, a Shinto Buddhist priest, was arrested in Hawaii the day after the Pearl Harbor attack but was later released because of the high respect for the 442nd, a unit of Japanese Americans that became one of the most highly decorated in the history of American fighting forces. Inouye lost his right arm in a battle in Northern Italy.

Unlike other bills that are decided after a flurry of special-interest lobbying and political bargaining, votes for and against restitution are being wrenched straight from the heart.

Stories from the camps are surfacing, some for the first time, as members of Congress share their personal, often poignant, experiences.

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First Time He Saw Father Cry

Kay Mineta had lived in the United States for 39 years when his native country bombed Pearl Harbor. The 53-year-old insurance agent, his wife, Kane, and their five children had just come home from services at the Methodist church when the radio screamed the news. Mineta, a leader in San Jose’s Japanese community, went into his office off the porch and closed the doors as frightened neighbors began to rush over, wondering what it would mean. For 10-year-old Norman, the youngest, it was the first time he saw his father cry.

Norman and his close friend, Joyce Hirano, used to crawl under the hedge that separated their houses to visit each other. But on that day, Rep. Mineta recalled, she ran over “yelling, screaming and crying that the FBI was there to take her father away.” Joyce’s father was the executive director of the Japanese Association of San Jose.

“My dad went over there right away. But by the time he had gotten there, Mr. Hirano had already been whisked away. It was a long time, something like eight months, before the Hirano family ever found out what happened to Mr. Hirano. He was in Crystal City, Tex.”

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‘Oh, My God, My Life Is Over’

It had been a wonderful time in the life of Yasuji Matsui. Born in San Francisco in 1916, he had been able to marry the woman of his choice rather than take a “picture bride,” as his parents and in-laws had done in the marriages that were arranged by their families. Yasuji and his American-born wife, Alice, had a 6-month-old baby, Robert, and a thriving produce business in Sacramento.

Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Matsui received a notice telling him the family was to be evacuated. It also specified, said his son, now a five-term Sacramento Democrat, “to make sure you take forks, spoons, one set of plates for each individual, and, I think, blankets, and sundry items like toothbrushes.

“My dad told me: ‘I just didn’t know what to do. I was told I had 72 hours to pack everything, whatever I could carry. I thought, “Oh, my God, my life is over.” I’ve got this child and this business and I don’t know what to do.’ ”

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‘People Came In From Everywhere’

Like all 10-year-old boys of that time, Alan Simpson listened to the progress of the war on the radio, re-creating the great battle scenes in his imagination. He had a map of Europe on the wall in his room to plot with red pegs the Axis power victories and with blue pegs the battles won by “the good guys.” Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a strange thing happened in Simpson’s little home town of Cody, Wyo.

“Suddenly we were told that every able-bodied man in the county, in the area of the Big Horn Basin, should come to this particular office if they had any skills in carpentry or plumbing or fencing or building, and the money was big,” Simpson recalled.

“They just dropped their hammers and went out to work at the, quote, Jap Camp, unquote, because the word had got out that there would be a war relocation center built between Powell and Cody. People came in from everywhere to work.”

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Daily Pickups; Rumor, Panic Abound

“In January,” said Norman Mineta, “all you could think about was, ‘What’s going to happen to all of us?’ ”

The answer came Feb. 19 in the form of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and used to move persons of Japanese ancestry, both American citizens and resident aliens, away from the West Coast due to “military necessity.”

“Notices were posted on telephone polls, sides of buildings, very large cardboard signs, saying, ‘Notice to those of Japanese ancestry, alien and non-alien,’ ” Mineta recalled. His family immediately began to prepare for their evacuation.

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The insurance agency Kay Mineta had owned for more than 20 years was shut down after the state insurance commissioner suspended the licenses of all insurance agents of Japanese ancestry. “They sent out a regular license, but stamped on it was something like, ‘Suspended for the duration of the war,’ ” his son said.

The family’s savings accounts in the Yokahoma Species Bank were confiscated. The family dog, a wire-haired terrier named Skippy, was sold to a stranger. And the family car, a brand-new Packard Clipper bought five months earlier for about $1,000, was sold for $300.

“People would come and rap on your door and say, ‘I’ll give you five bucks for your refrigerator.’ They would just walk the streets, going in and out of Japanese homes, offering to buy stuff,” Mineta said.

“We’d have a dry run to see how much we could carry, and how much we could pack into a suitcase. There was a list of contraband articles: regular AM radios, irons, cameras, knives, scissors in excess of four inches or so. The only special thing I took with me was a baseball mitt I had gotten as an Easter gift in 1941. You couldn’t take a bat because that was a deadly weapon.”

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The uncertainty grew in February and March as Japanese Americans were being swooped up daily and no one knew exactly where they went. Rumor and panic abounded.

Kay Mineta gathered the family and told them that the children might be separated from the parents; he had heard talk that aliens born in Japan--as he and his wife were--might be sent to different camps or even traded for American prisoners of war in Japan, while Japanese born in America, like the Mineta children, would be herded off to other camps in the States.

“I didn’t want to be separated from my parents,” Mineta said, faltering. He had been recounting the story over lunch in the House members’ dining room, but stopped altogether as he started to cry. Listening in, one of his young congressional aides also started to cry.

The congressman composed himself. “We should have done this in the office,” he said, and then remained silent for a few minutes.

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Sister Born Blind

Yasuji and Alice Matsui and baby Robert became Family No. 25261 in the Tule Lake camp in Newell, Calif., just south of the Oregon border.

In the camp, Robert Matsui suffered an ear infection and high fever. He learned years later that he had a 20% loss of hearing in each ear due to nerve damage. His mother became pregnant and contracted German measles. His father, who had been sent to Idaho to work on a beet farm, asked permission to come back and check on his family before the birth. Permission was denied.

Alice and Robert were moved to a camp in Caldwell, Ida., where she gave birth to a blind baby girl, Barbara, in the camp. Robert Matsui said he does not attribute either his hearing loss or his sister’s blindness to conditions in the camp. These were things, he said, that could have happened anywhere in those days. “I wouldn’t want to even speculate,” he said.

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While Matsui was a toddler in Tule Lake, a baby girl named Doris Okada was born in the Colorado River Camp in Poston, Ariz. Many years later, the two would meet and marry.

‘A Day I Will Remember’

Norman Mineta saw his father cry for the second time on May 29, 1942, when the family boarded the trains for the camp at the Santa Anita race track in Southern California, 400 miles away.

In a letter to friends, Kay Mineta later wrote: “I looked at Santa Clara Street from the train over the subway. I thought this might be the last look at my loved home city. My heart almost broke, and suddenly hot tears just came pouring out, and the whole family cried out, could not stop, until we were out of our loved county.”

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Norman Mineta remembered: “We left about 1 p.m.; it was lunch hour, so some of my friends from school five or six blocks away came down to the freight yard to see us off. They had armed guards, Army MPs (military police) with bayonet rifles in each car. All the window shades were drawn, even during the daylight, so you couldn’t peek out to see where you were.

“There were about a dozen Boy Scouts and half a dozen Cub Scouts in our uniforms and we were designated to be messengers. We could go from car to car, but others couldn’t.

“I do recall I had commented about the excitement, I guess you might say, of going on an overnight train ride. It was going to be the longest train ride I’d ever been on to that point. No one knew where we were going to go.

“It is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

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‘An Issue of Shame’

Robert Matsui lived in internment camps until he was almost 4 years old. Although he remembered nothing of the camps, he recalled the foreboding silence that followed, a subtle message of shame that hung heavily over all Japanese-American homes.

“When I was a kid, 11 or 12, I was sitting down with my friend, Eddie Takahashi, in Sacramento in the backyard of my house on the porch. One day he just said, “I wish I wasn’t Japanese.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, me too.’

“We knew exactly what we meant. We were trying to repudiate our heritage or wash ourselves of our heritage because we were interned and there was a sense we were disloyal to our country, that we were spies or aliens, working for the Japanese government,” Matsui said.

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“My father and everybody in his generation couldn’t talk about it. Looking back on it now, I know why they couldn’t speak about it. . . . I can’t think of anything worse than being considered disloyal to your country.”

‘Lack of Self-Worth’

Matsui says that instead of solving this problem by deciding they didn’t love their country any more, many Japanese Americans decided in an unspoken way that they didn’t love themselves. It was a way to make sense of what happened and remain here. “I think that happened to all of us,” said Matsui, “a sense of lack of self-worth.

“I have not heard much bitterness (against the government) out of the Japanese American community. You would think, ‘My God, how could they not be?’ But it just hasn’t happened. I guess they were very stoic about it. They didn’t speak out against it until the last 10 years. Before that, it was an issue of shame.

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“One way in which the experience changed my parents’ lives is that they wanted us to be mainstream Americans,” Matsui added. “They didn’t want us to know anything about our culture, our ethnic background. That’s why you’ll find a whole generation of people about my age who cannot speak Japanese. It’s almost embarrassing when I run into somebody from the embassy and they’ll speak it. Our parents wanted to really demonstrate their loyalty to their country, that they were really Americans.”

‘The Stench Was Still There’

When the Minetas arrived at the Santa Anita camp they were loaded on trucks and taken to the stables, where they gathered enough hay to stuff into mattress covers. “We were fortunate,” said Mineta, “because we were one of the last ones to go into camp and we were not in the horse stables. We were in barracks buildings that had been built. I remember going to visit friends of ours who were over in the horse stables during the hot months of the summer. They might have swept out the horse stables but the stench was still there. How, frankly, they lived in those, I’ll never understand.

“We were in a clean barracks building, six of us in one room about 15 by 20. It was literally wall-to-wall beds. Your suitcase became the dresser bureau.” As he spoke, Mineta drew a diagram of the camp on his luncheon place mat, making rows of circles for the barbed wire fencing. His barracks was the third row in, and the search light from the guard tower passed through a window back and forth across his face all night, making it difficult to sleep.

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“Some say the camps were for our protection,” Mineta told his House colleagues. “If that was so, why were the submachine guns pointing in at us?”

Bullets Whistled By

For amusement one day, Mineta and a young friend went to watch a riot that broke out when police came to search the barracks for contraband irons--not tire irons but the irons used to press clothing. Bullets whistled by as the two watched from the white paddock fence, so they hit the dirt. Several people were wounded, Mineta recalled.

“Right across the street was the Arcadia Theatre,” Mineta added, “and I remember as kids we used to go over to the fence and sit there and look at the marquee to see what was going to be playing at the movies, and thinking, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t that be nice to be able to go see a movie?’

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“We used to take showers in the paddock where the horses used to get showered. Generally you take showers with friends, so three or four of us would go down there. Over each of the shower paddocks there would be a sign dedicating this shower stall to Man ‘O War or Seabiscuit, all the great horses of the day.”

“So we would say, ‘Now, let’s see, who are we going to take a shower with today?’ ”

‘Keep Up With the Joneses’

In October the Mineta family was put on a train for five days, destined for the camp in Great Mountain, Wyo., where they would live for three years. On the way, the train was to stop in Salt Lake City.

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Guyo Okagaki was living in Salt Lake at the time and knew that her family from the West Coast, good friends of the Minetas, would be coming through on the train on a certain day. But she didn’t know what time, so she had to spend the day waiting at the station. She had brought her father a box of his favorite cigars to take to Great Mountain.

When the train pulled in, people who had come to the station to visit were kept two platforms away by a string of armed guards. The people ran up and down the platform, trying to spot their loved ones in the various cars.

Broke Cigars in Half

“She gave the cigars to a guard, who gave them to an officer,” said Mineta, who again started crying in the dining room. “The officer opened up the cigar box, went through as if to inspect every cigar and broke every one in half in full view of everybody on this platform. That probably made more of an impression on me than anything else I probably experienced. We all knew Mr. Okagaki loved cigars.”

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An icy Wyoming wind whistled through the camp as the group arrived at their new barracks, which were larger than at Santa Anita, about 18 by 25 feet, and contained potbellied stoves. “We had regular mattresses this time,” Mineta said. The periodic winds would kick up the sand and blow it right through the floorboards, so that the family often had to sit inside with handkerchiefs over their mouths.

Innovative Improvements

“People started becoming very innovative about doing things in these units. They would throw up a string across the room so that the ‘living quarters’ would be separated by an Army blanket.”

Some people made desks out of crates, and the improvements became a kind of “Keep up with the Joneses” affair, with each unit trying to outdo the other. Many of the inmates were from warm California climates and had to order heavy jackets from the Sears catalogue, a favored method of shopping.

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“In camp we started getting organized because we knew we’d be there for a long time. There were schools, theaters with candy counters; movies were a dime. So the life was probably typical of what it might have been in any community anywhere, except you had barbed wire, armed guards, the sentries and the search lights.”

‘Absolute Swift Rapport’

As some 15,000 Japanese Americans streamed into the Great Mountain camp, which had sprung up from a field of sagebrush, Wyoming citizens became full of fears and questions.

“The war hysteria was at high level,” Sen. Simpson recalled, “and the people said, ‘Do you realize the third-largest city in Wyoming is now sitting between Powell and Cody and what would happen if those people somehow broke out of there and armed themselves? They would take over the area!’ ”

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Storekeepers in nearby Cody hung signs in the windows that said “No Japs allowed,” and Simpson recalled one day that someone tacked a message on one store door, saying, “My son was killed at Iwo Jima.”

Some townspeople wanted to reach out to the inmates, and Simpson’s Cub Scout troop decided it would visit a troop inside the camp and have a jamboree. “We wanted to go,” said Simpson, “but we were all a little frightened. If you went out there, might you be captured? We had been playing Japs versus Americans in games.”

Played Mumbletypeg

When their bus finally got by the barbed wire and the sentries, Simpson was struck by the rows of potato cellars the internees had made, and by the scout uniforms the kids wore. “They had merit badge sashes and they played mumbletypeg with knives, where you see how many times you can flip the knife up and have it come down with the blade in the ground.

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“I’d say, ‘I see you got a health badge. How did you get that?’ And the guy would say, ‘I went to a hospital and did a report.’ There was an absolute swift rapport because of scouting.

“I didn’t hear any comment about, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’ I didn’t hear them complain. We were into kids’ stuff. ‘Did you ever see this Blondie and Dagwood?’ I thought, God, they have the same earthy humor, the same outrageous stories. Suddenly I realized as much as you can realize at that age that these were just like guys from Powell, Wyoming, or Cody, Wyoming.”

Renewed Friendship

Simpson spotted Mineta as a soulmate right away because Mineta was “animated and active, always messing around.” Today, each of the lawmakers claims the other still is the better knot-tier. They became close friends and continued to send each other Christmas cards through their high school years.

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Then they lost touch until Simpson read in the Cody newspaper of Mineta’s election as San Jose mayor in 1971. A photo caption said the new mayor had been interned in Great Mountain. Simpson, who was then a member of the Wyoming Legislature, called Mineta and they renewed their friendship. Seven years later, they were living in the same city again after Simpson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978. Mineta, whose parents are both dead, has been in the House since 1974.

‘A Very Confounding Time’

At the Great Mountain camp, the Japanese-American scouts invited the visitors to see where they lived. “This was row on row on row of tar paper shacks,” said Simpson. “The old wind can blow pretty hard in Cody, Wyo. There may be a three-day wind that will pound on you, pound here, " he said, pointing to his head.

“I remember distinctly walking inside and seeing a lot of personal things, lamps, teak, tassels. There would usually be a mother but not very often a father because the fathers were maybe 25 or 30 and they were in the United States Army. So on the bureau would be a picture of a U.S. soldier or a Navy guy and they’d say, ‘That’s my brother,’ or, ‘That’s my father.’ And we’d say, ‘Well, where are they?’ And they were fighting in Italy or Germany. And that would puzzle you as you thought about it for a minute or two.

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Visit With Woman

“Then I so distinctly remember a very lovely woman, white-haired, about 60, and she said, ‘Come and sit down. I don’t want to know anything about scouts. I want to know, do you have grandmothers? What do they look like? How are they?” ’

“She asked what kind of home I had. ‘What is in your home? What does Cody look like? Maybe I’ll see that one day.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure you will.’ I didn’t know what’s going on. She was thirsting for information about life outside that place.

“Then the mother came in, I suppose she was 40. She asked, ‘What is Wyoming like? What is this place, this Heart Mountain? Is Yellowstone Park near?’

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“Now that was the most curious conversation I’ve ever had. It was a very confounding time.”

‘The Survivor Syndrome’

Long after World War II had ended, in fact during all the time Matsui can remember, his mother kept as many as 100 boxes of Jell-O in her closets. Also boxes of tissues by the score.

“One day I was in San Francisco meeting with some Jewish leaders, and this woman said, ‘I have to leave now and go see my mother. She’s got all this Jell-O.’ And I said, ‘What?

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“She said, ‘My mother has Jell-O coming out of the closets.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? Because my mother had Jell-O when she was alive; that’s all she had, Jell-O, and all these supplies.’

“And she said, ‘That’s the survivor syndrome.’ Her mother was a survivor of the Holocaust.

“And I said, ‘My God, I just can’t believe that. Here all these years I thought it was just eccentricity.’

“I did a little reading on survivors and found out they have a need to accumulate basic necessities. And Jell-O was, I guess, one because it’s something you could keep.”

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Matsui’s 71-year-old father still works for the produce business he went back to after the war.

“My mother has been gone three years now,” Matsui added, “and we’re still using her tissue paper that’s 6 years old.”


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