When Orange County sheriff’s deputies knocked on the front door, the sun had already set behind the farmhouse of Gensuke and Tamae Masuda.
It was the night of Dec. 7, 1941, and the hopes and dreams of the Masuda family were about to come to an abrupt halt.
June Masuda Goto was 19 then and remembers holding open the screen door for the deputies.
“The deputies hardly talked to us,” Goto, 69, of Fountain Valley said. “They said they came for Gensuke Masuda. My mother cried.”
“It was so sudden,” said her brother, Masao Masuda, 74, also of Fountain Valley. “They loaded my dad and other parents who were Issei and put them on a bus. We asked where they were taking them, but they didn’t give us any answers.”
Five months passed before they saw their father again. He was among 18 Japanese men interrogated by FBI agents that night at County Jail in Santa Ana. Ten days later, Gensuke Masuda, a father of nine children, was accused of “subversive activity” and sent to a stockade at Ft. Missoula, Mont. There was no trial, no opportunity to answer the accusations.
What happened to the Masuda family that fateful night in 1941 mirrored what was occurring all along the West Coast as thousands of Americans of Japanese descent came under increasing suspicion as possible saboteurs and spies for Japan.
Within months of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, families like the Masudas would be forced to abandon their homes, their businesses and much of their personal possessions as they were herded off to internment camps hastily erected in California, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Arkansas.
The Masudas, like other families, would suffer further tragedy while in camp. A son, Kazuo Masuda, a staff sergeant in the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, would die in battle in Europe, an American soldier later honored for his bravery.
Before the war, Orange County’s wealth wasn’t in condominiums or beachfront property. It was in the soil. The county’s Chamber of Commerce busily touted the region of 130,760 people as the “Majestic Empire,” one of the 10 wealthiest agricultural areas in the United States.
Orange County’s Japanese-American community wasn’t large, but it was thriving and included 1,855 people, according to the 1940 U.S. Census. They were mostly farmers living in parts of Buena Park, Anaheim, Wintersburg (now Huntington Beach), Talbert (now Fountain Valley) and other towns.
The families sent their children to public school during the week and to Japanese-language school on weekends, recalled Clarence Nishizu, 81, a retired Buena Park farmer and businessman from Fullerton and a contributor to the Japanese-American Oral History Project at Cal State Fullerton.
“Of course, in those days, most of the Japanese were farmers. Some had come to Orange County as early as 1910 and became agricultural innovators, especially with drying equipment for chili peppers,” said Nishizu, whose father moved from Los Angeles to Garden Grove in 1917 and whose family was interned at Heart Mountain, Wyo.
For a Japanese immigrant such as Gensuke Masuda, the life of a farmer seemed a perfect match. He came to the United States in 1898, working on a railroad in Oregon before moving to Talbert. He was short but powerfully built, his muscles hardened from farming 200 leased acres in Talbert, where he grew carrots, beans and other vegetables.
Everyone in the family worked on the Masuda farm--Gensuke’s five sons, his wife, Tamae, even their four daughters. The family eventually was able to buy 10 acres of land elsewhere in Talbert.
The Masuda children had studied about the Bill of Rights at Huntington Beach High School, where the boys lettered in sports during the prewar years. But nothing prepared them for the night their father was taken away or their internment that followed.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, setting into motion the internment of 120,313 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. The order gave the secretary of war authority to designate military areas and exclude anyone “as deemed necessary or desirable.”
Shortly after the order was signed, the Masudas decided to leave Orange County and move in with a relative in Fresno. In May, Gensuke Masuda was released by federal authorities, and he rejoined his family.
“He never talked about his jailing,” his daughter, June Goto, said.
She said the family surmised that he had been placed on the government’s “Class A” suspect list because he and his sons were part of a judo team that on occasion competed with Japanese sailors aboard their cruise liners. But “we were never certain,” she said.
In October, 1942, the Masuda family was ordered to the Fresno County Fairgrounds, where thousands of Japanese-Americans from Northern California were told to assemble.
“Everybody thought it would be temporary. We didn’t know how long we would be staying,” Masao Masuda said.
The fairgrounds were hastily set up to handle the evacuees, who were given straw mattresses and army cots to sleep on. Armed soldiers were everywhere, and no one could leave. Visitors were allowed only on Sundays, and that meant that news about family, property and events back home had to wait.
“It was our introduction to what was ahead,” Masao Masuda said.
After 56 days at the fairgrounds, the evacuees were loaded into trains for a five-day trip to Denson, Ark., the closest town to the Jerome Relocation Center, a 10,000-acre internment camp that stretched over three southern Arkansas counties.
It was a bleak place. Summers were hot and sultry, with temperatures soaring to 100 degrees or more. In winter, it was biting cold, with the mercury dipping below 20 degrees.
Masao, who was 24 at the time, said he would trudge all winter in boots, jeans and jacket he had ordered from a Sears, Roebuck catalogue. There was a camp store, but evacuees preferred the Sears catalogue, especially for homey things like window shades and knickknacks to brighten up the barracks. Though the barracks were new, the exteriors were lined with black tar paper, giving them an unfinished, rough look.
Masao earned about $14.50 a month working as a mechanic repairing cars and trucks in the camp’s garage. Top pay was $19.50 a month for physicians, attorneys and others who had held professional jobs on the outside.
There was dirt everywhere, and when it rained, which it did often, rivulets of water would run between the barracks in hand-dug troughs built by the evacuees.
“I remembered we called the mud gumbo, Arkansas gumbo, " Masao Masuda said.
Wood was plentiful in nearby forests, but there were also plenty of rattlesnakes, he said. “Jerome was flat land, but it had a lot of forests all around. Big trees . . . lots of rattlesnakes. People used to go rattlesnake hunting in the forest.”
At first, no one was allowed to have cameras, which were deemed contraband. The War Relocation Authority made the rules, and white administrators carried them out. Inside, the supervisory positions were held by whites, who were in charge of the camp hospital, school and police.
But for the most part, the camps were operated by the internees. They cooked and served the food in the mess halls, helped teach the schoolchildren and operated the farms, where most of the camp food was grown.
To handle grievances, block captains were selected to represent various sections of the camp’s population, which, at Jerome, peaked at 8,497.
“We were assigned to barracks where my mother, father, brothers and sisters all slept in a room,” Goto said. “We slept on canvas beds, and our mattresses were filled with hay. We had bed check every night at 10 p.m., and the military police kept a constant vigil from towers near the barbed-wire fence.”
Internees had to wait in long lines, for mess hall or for toilets, she and her brother said.
The Masudas were relocated from Arkansas to Gila River Relocation Camp in Arizona when the government decided to close Jerome in June, 1944. Their stay at Jerome was almost 20 months, and they did not welcome the hot, dry Arizona desert. It was here that they received a telegram notifying them of Kazuo’s death on a battlefield in Europe.
Like most Japanese-Americans who had volunteered for military combat, Kazuo was initially mistrusted and put into a non-essential job. He ranked first in his radio training class but was rejected for the Signal Corps.
“It left him in tears,” his sister, June, said. “All he ever wanted was a chance to show his loyalty to America.”
As a staff sergeant in the 442nd unit, Kazuo earned the Distinguished Service Cross for fighting off advancing Germans in Italy with a mortar and an extra helmet he used as a base plate. He died a month later on the banks of the Arno River, in Italy, on Aug. 27, 1944. He was 24.
When the Army’s telegram arrived at camp, the eldest Masuda daughter, Mary, read it to her mother. For years, the mother remained solemn and from time to time would cry and say: “Why didn’t God take me? I lived my life,” Goto said.
One other Masuda son, Takashi, served in the 442nd, which won eight presidential citations for its actions during World War II. Masao later joined the Army, serving as an interpreter in military intelligence in the Pacific Theater.
June’s husband, Takaji Goto, who is now deceased, also served in the 442nd. He spent the rest of his life with artificial legs after his were amputated because of shrapnel wounds. He had volunteered to join the Army while interned at the Manzanar Relocation Camp in California.
In 1945, with the war winding down, Mary Masuda was granted leave to check on home conditions in Talbert. It was a bitter homecoming.
Someone, without paying a cent or obtaining authorization, had farmed their land. Another family, the Masudas later learned, had moved into their farmhouse but left before Mary’s arrival.
While she was visiting friends, an unidentified man telephoned and asked if Mary Masuda was there. When Mary answered, the man told her “she’d better go back to the concentration camp because Japanese weren’t welcomed in Orange County,” June Goto said.
Then, four men, who said they represented the Native Sons of the Golden West, a group of self-proclaimed California “patriots,” paid Mary a visit. They told her that it would be in her best interests if they called a taxi for her return to Los Angeles, where she could catch a train and “get back to camp.” They hinted that the road to Los Angeles wasn’t safe for Japanese.
The intimidation didn’t work. That night, Mary lay awake thinking: “I came this far, I must fight for what Kazuo and all of the rest of the soldiers fought for,” her sister, June said.
Mary asked for police protection but was told that since no physical harm had occurred, the sheriff’s hands were tied.
More determined than ever, Mary returned to Arizona, and moved the family back to Talbert in September, 1945.
That December, Maj. Gen. Joseph W. (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell, with an entourage of Hollywood actors, paid a personal visit to the Masuda home and posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross--America’s second-highest military honor--for Kazuo’s bravery on the battlefield.
Accompanying Stilwell was a retired Army captain who, later that day, commended Kazuo Masuda and other Japanese-Americans at a rally at Santa Ana Bowl. “The blood that has soaked into the sands of the beaches is all one color,” the captain said.
That captain was a movie star named Ronald Reagan, who, as President 43 years later, would sign a bill apologizing for the internment.
“When Gen. Stilwell came to our home, he gave Kazuo’s Distinguished Service Cross to Mary and cited her courageous action,” Masao Masuda said. “The U.S. government then held a big ceremony at Santa Ana Bowl. It was because of Mary and what she did and the effort by the government (that prevented) discrimination from getting out of hand out here in Orange County.”
Mary Masuda died in 1987 at the age of 79. She never married and never saw the redress legislation enacted.
Her father, Gensuke Masuda, died in 1962 and her mother, Tamae, in 1964.
Kazuo Masuda was buried in a cemetery in Midway City, but not without a final indignity. The family wanted to buy a preferred plot but was not allowed to because of a racial restriction. Only after the Japanese-American community protested did the cemetery finally relent.
But time heals some wounds.
In 1975, the Fountain Valley School District named a school in honor of Kazuo Masuda. In addition, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3670 is named the Kazuo Masuda Memorial Post.
At Kazuo Masuda Middle School, Principal Steven W. Enoch said: “We make it a point to let our students know how special we are to be connected to a person of historical significance.”
June Goto is a familiar face at the school named after her brother. She visits and, from time to time, reads to the young students from a binder, which holds facts she compiled on her brother’s life and her family’s history.
“It was something to give my children, so they can remember what we went through,” she said.
Photo Album: Some of the earliest Japanese farmers arrived in Orange County in the early 1900s. They reared families and grew sugar beets for the Holly Sugar Co. Later, they became chili pepper kings, trucking hundreds of tons of dry chili peppers to the Los Angeles produce market. Nearly 2,000 Issei and Nisei were scattered during the prewar years in tiny enclaves in Irvine, Garden Grove, Buena Park, Wintersburg (Huntington Beach), Talbert (Fountain Valley) and Anaheim. These photographs are from the personal archives of Clarence Nishizu.