A Poignant Pilgrimage to Site of WWII Internment : History: Japanese Americans mark 50th anniversary of Arizona camp's closure.


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

Takasugi, now a California assemblyman, also taught Spanish and bookkeeping at a makeshift high school. 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.

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

On Saturday, for the first time since the internment camp closed 50 years 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 had changed a lot 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 World War II.

"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."

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

More than 13,000 people of Japanese descent--most 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 shoot anyone who tried to escape.

"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 whitewashed barracks set deep in the sun-bleached sands near the Gila River, about an hour outside of 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 that the internment was for their own good and that 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 died behind barbed wire. They held sock hops and Christmas socials and high school graduations. They married and had children.

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 closed, many 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 people remain who can provide firsthand accounts of the mass incarceration.

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

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 camp survivors together, to have them share their stories and drive home the message that the wartime 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 wasn'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.

His wife, Sumiko, and his son, Tsujio, attended Saturday's event. So did his oldest brother, Eiki, who was 8 years old when the family was rounded up.

"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 the 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," he said. "There's nothing anyone can ever do to make up for that."

Summer temperatures soared as high as 125 degrees. And dust storms swept through the camp, shooting sand and wind through cracks in barracks' 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 fishpond his father had built, and a cellar he and his brother 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."

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 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."

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