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Japanese Americans Recall Life as Internees : World War II: Nearly 1,200 trek to Arizona desert to mark 50th anniversary of camp’s closure.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 50 years ago, despite the searing heat and the blinding dust storms, Nao Takasugi played baseball on this desert floor.

Takasugi, now a state assemblyman, also taught Spanish and bookkeeping at a makeshift high school here. And, like other wartime prisoners, he waited to be set free.

His crime: being born to parents of Japanese ancestry in a country at war with Japan.

The Oxnard Republican was among thousands of Japanese Americans interned at the Gila River Relocation Center, each uprooted and deposited on this desert scrubland better suited to scorpions and Gila monsters.

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On Saturday, for the first time since the internment camp closed its doors half a century ago, Takasugi returned to the site of his incarceration. He bumped along a rutted dirt road, trying to pick out landmarks to help him piece together a mental image of the place.

The desert has changed since he had last been here. And all that is left of the camp are concrete blocks that poke out of the sand here and there, the skeletal remains of a Japanese community tacked together in a hurry at the start of the second world war.

“I was just a 19-year-old kid, full of idealism and hope,” said Takasugi, the former mayor of Oxnard and currently the only Asian American serving in the state Legislature.

“And overnight, to be brought to some place like this in the middle of the desert, was just crushing,” he continued. “To have your civil liberties taken away, your civil rights stripped away, for no good reason. Well, that’s still hard to take.”

Here in this Arizona dust bowl, nearly 1,200 people gathered Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Gila River war camp.

More than 13,000 people of Japanese descent--many of them from the Los Angeles area--were herded to this desolate stretch of desert during World War II, held behind barbed wire by presidential decree and by armed soldiers under orders to gun down anyone who tried to escape.

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Included in that number were about 600 Ventura County residents, most of theS. citizens.

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” said 71-year-old Masako Moriwaki, who in the spring of 1942 was shipped from Oxnard to a collection of white-washed barracks set deep in the sun-bleached sands near the Gila River, about an hour outside Phoenix.

“But it was hysteria is what it was,” she said. “We were Americans, but all they saw were our Japanese faces.”

Authorities, questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, forced more than 120,000 people off the West Coast and into 10 war relocation centers scattered across seven states. They were told the internment was for their own good, and they should consider it their contribution to the war effort.

For more than three years--in places with names such as Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Topaz in Utah and Manzanar in California--these prisoners of war did their part.

They lived and they died behind barbed wire. They held sock hops and Christmas socials and high school graduations. They married and made babies.

They mourned their dead, including those who died in camp and Japanese American soldiers who died defending their country.

To this day, half a century after the camps shut their doors, many of the former internees remain so deeply wounded by the episode that they are still reluctant to talk about it.

But some do anyway, driven by a sense that time is running out for telling about the internment experience.

Already, more than half of those interned have died, and each year fewer remain who can pass down firsthand accounts of the mass incarceration.

At the same time, camp survivors fear the public is losing interest in the episode as it fades further into memory.

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With that, the 50th anniversary commemorations at Gila River and other internment camps take on special meaning. They represent one of the last opportunities to draw together camp survivors, to have them share their stories and drive home the message that the war-time imprisonment of U. S. citizens was a shameful episode that should never be forgotten.

“We’re all kind of running out of steam,” said Sue Embrey, who for 25 years has orchestrated a springtime pilgrimage to Manzanar, the smaller of the two California internment camps.

“It’s been in front of the community for so long, people kind of take it for granted,” she said. “I have people telling me they’ve never made one of our reunions, but maybe they’ll go next year. I keep telling them, there may not be a next year.”

For Tsujio Kato, there isn’t a next year. Kato, also a former Oxnard mayor, was set to come to the 50th anniversary commemoration, but he died of a heart attack last month.

“He had a lot of fond memories of this place,” said his son, Tsujio. “Although it was rough on a lot of the older people, he had a lot of good childhood memories.”

Kato’s wife, Sumiko, and his son attended Saturday’s event. So did his oldest brother, Eiki, who was 8 years old when the family was rounded up and shipped to this place.

“They never notified us by phone or by letter,” Eiki Kato said Saturday. “They just hung the announcement on a post and gave us two weeks to get rid of most of our belongings.”

Tsujio was 4 years old at the time. Another brother, Victor, was born in camp. Their father won permission to leave camp early to work in the Midwest.

That left Eiki Kato as the head of the house. Fifty years later, the experience still stings.

“They took my youth, because I had to grow up so fast,” Kato said. “There’s nothing anyone can ever do to make up for that.”

The former internees remember the Gila River war camp being a work in progress when they arrived. The barracks were unfinished, and there were open trenches everywhere.

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But eventually, it developed into a model facility, so much so that it was selected to be visited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The camp had two newspapers, the Gila News-Courier and the Gila Bulletin. A camouflage net factory operated from the fall of 1942 to May, 1943, and a model warship factory produced 800 replicas for the Navy.

Gila had the most extensive agricultural operation of all the camps, at its peak farming 7,000 acres, while maintaining 2,000 head of cattle, 25,000 chickens and 110 dairy cows.

The camp also had a number of schools, including the high school from which 68-year-old Moorpark resident Bob Yoshimoto received his diploma in 1944.

While striding up a steep hill Saturday to a monument honoring the war dead, Yoshimoto pointed to an outdoor amphitheater where movies were shown. He said he didn’t think life was too bad at Gila River, especially for a teen-ager.

“I don’t really feel bitter or anything like that,” he said. “I guess I try to take things in stride.”

That’s not to say that life wasn’t hard. Families split up, as some members went east to look for work. And the barracks were so close together that there was very little privacy.

Summer temperatures soared as high as 125 degrees. And dust storms swept through the camp, shooting sand and wind through cracks in barrack floors and walls.

Against a blazing sun Saturday, Thousand Oaks resident George Higa spent a good part of the afternoon scouring the desert floor in search of his old barracks.

He found a fish pond his father had built, and a cellar he and his brother had dug out together.

“It brought back a lot of memories,” he said. “I don’t find it depressing or anything. We shared a lot of good times in that camp when I was a kid.”

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But he’s quick to point out that there was a larger reason for returning to Gila River, one that goes well beyond the search for his childhood. It is the same message that former internees repeated over and again as they sifted through desert sand Saturday.

“Being put in camp was a rude awakening,” Higa said. “We thought we were Americans, but pretty soon you’re taken to camp and you find out that you’re something different. I guess it’s a matter of showing other people this did happen and it should never happen again.”

The forced evacuation ripped through the fabric of Ventura County’s small but vibrant Japanese American community.

In early 1942--when President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, setting the stage for the mass incarceration--672 people of Japanese ancestry lived in Ventura County. By 1950, the population was barely a little more than half that size.

Most lived in Oxnard at the time, concentrated in an area along Oxnard Boulevard near the downtown district.

The evacuation buried that community forever.

“The Japanese community was very strong in Oxnard before the war,” said Tim Schiffer, curator of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, which later this week will feature an exhibit on the history of the Japanese in the county.

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“In many ways, they had assimilated to a significant degree in the society,” he said. “But because of their race, they were immediately suspect.”

Immediately after the evacuation order, a curfew was imposed prohibiting Japanese Americans from being on the street after 8 p.m.

They were told they could only take to camp what they could carry, prompting many to sell their most valuable possessions, including cars and businesses.

Many of the Japanese farmers got together and auctioned off tractors and heavy equipment at bargain-basement prices. Some internees stored what they could not bear to part with at the local Buddhist Church, or gave their valuables to friends for safekeeping.

Masako Moriwaki remembers her family selling off most of what they owned. They even sold the family car, and had to be driven to meet the train that took them on the first leg of their journey toward internment.

Like most other Japanese Americans of that era, she said she never suspected that one day she would become a prisoner of war. She was born and raised in Oxnard, a product of the local schools.

Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a few months after she graduated from Oxnard High School in 1941, she didn’t think much of it.

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After all, what did it have to do with her. She knew little about Japan, and even less about war.

“I was angry at the world,” she said. “But it got to the point where you just had to live with it. What choice did we have?”

In a torn and tattered scrapbook, mixed with all the birthday cards and Christmas greetings, Moriwaki keeps her memories of Gila River.

A poem written by a girlfriend about the barbed wire fence that encircled the camp. A pale green coupon book good for the purchase of $2.50 in items at the camp canteen. A commencement program from one of the high school graduations at Gila River.

These things will have to keep her memory strong for now. She was unable to attend the 50th anniversary commemoration, unable to see for herself what had become of the place she once called home.

“It’s just now that many people are starting to talk about it, to talk about what happened to us,” she said. “And it’s important that people know, that way it never happens again.”


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