Childhood Lost: the Orphans of Manzanar
The U.S. Army took 3-year-old Annie Shiraishi Sakamoto away in the summer of 1942.
Before the soldiers came, Annie lived at a Catholic orphanage in Los Angeles, the unwanted baby of a single mother and a married gardener.
Maryknoll nuns took care of the girl--first brought to them as a 2-pound premature infant, sick with double pneumonia--until she was forced to leave the only home she knew.
She was one of 101 Japanese American orphans and foster children--some as young as 6 months--quietly rounded up by soldiers during World War II. The children, some with as little as one-eighth Japanese ancestry, were sent to a hastily built orphanage at the Manzanar internment camp, 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The story of the orphanage, known as Children’s Village, is a largely untold chapter in the history of the camps. For more than 50 years, the orphans rarely talked about their war years, and the few remaining government documents on Children’s Village are in vaults at the National Archives in Maryland.
Now, scholars at Cal State Fullerton are beginning the first comprehensive study of the orphanage. Their project has taken on a sense of urgency with the recent deaths of several orphans and the fading memories of others.
The orphans want to see the history of Children’s Village written before it’s too late.
"[We need] to cite the injustice of innocent young people being targeted by prejudice,” said Sakamoto, 57, a Highland Park registered nurse. “It shows what human nature in any history is capable of doing.”
Even without the hindsight of history, Manzanar’s top official denounced the government’s treatment of the orphans in his final 1946 report on the camp.
“The morning was spent at the Children’s Village,” Manzanar director Ralph P. Merritt wrote, describing Thanksgiving Day, 1942, “with the 90 orphans [to date] who had been evacuated from Alaska to San Diego and sent to Manzanar because they might be a threat to national security. What a travesty [of] justice!”
Some former internees say the Army’s decision to detain the children, who were already institutionalized, underscores the wartime anti-Japanese hysteria. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Army evacuated about 120,000 residents of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast in its zeal to guard against espionage and sabotage.
San Diego resident Francis L. Honda was a 7-year-old orphan when authorities moved him to Children’s Village, the only orphanage among the 10 war relocation camps.
“It was a very lonely place and sad too, with babies crying and nothing to do,” Honda told a government commission on the internment camps in 1981. “It was like the end of the world for me.”
Manzanar’s history is well- documented and has seeped into the public consciousness through books, including “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Farewell to Manzanar.” But even experts on the camps contacted by The Times had either never heard of Children’s Village or knew only that it had existed.
Fullerton history professor Arthur A. Hansen, who is overseeing the research project, snared a rare carbon copy of a government report on the orphanage from a former Manzanar official, who unearthed it from his Laguna Niguel carport in the early 1970s.
The report--27 typed pages on faded onion skin paper--is a starting point for a team of graduate students that is interviewing more than a dozen orphans.
Some, including Honda, want to leave their bitter memories behind.
“I have always had jobs that paid a minimum wage,” Honda, now 62, said in his testimony before the government commission. “I will never have a good job because of my past sufferings at the Manzanar concentration camp.
“I went from being a good student at [a prewar orphanage] to a mediocre American citizen for the rest of my life.”
Nuns Moved Children Out of Evacuation Area
The mass evacuation of the West Coast began in March 1942.
In Los Angeles, Catholic nuns at the Maryknoll Home for Japanese Children didn’t wait for the Army orders. They tried to whisk their 33 orphans to foster homes outside the West Coast evacuation zone. (Eventually, only seven of their orphans were sent to Manzanar, Maryknoll records show).
Meanwhile, Father Hugh Lavery of the Maryknoll mission tried to press the Army: What would happen to the orphans?
He got his answer from Col. Karl R. Bendetsen, the Army’s chief evacuation architect in Washington, D.C.
“I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must all go to [an internment] camp,” Bendetsen told him, according to a 1949 article in the Pacific Citizen, a newspaper for Japanese Americans.
Bendetsen was true to his word.
He gave the first order to evacuate an orphanage--the Shonien, or Japanese Children’s Home of Los Angeles--in a telegram on April 28, 1942. Bendetsen ignored the frantic pleas for mercy from the home’s board chairman, T. G. Ishimaru, according to military records declassified in 1973 and filed with the National Archives.
Army memos imply that the orphans were evacuated with the consent of supervisors at the three orphanages for Japanese American children in California. Or, in the case of Maryknoll, “apparently . . . at [the orphans’] request.”
But orphanage records show that supervisors at all three homes emptied by the Army--the Shonien, Maryknoll and the Salvation Army’s Japanese Children’s Home in San Francisco--fought hard to keep the children.
Outside the three orphanages, other children got swept up in the evacuation frenzy.
One white woman who took care of her two half-Japanese grandchildren apparently felt compelled to turn them in to the Shonien. Neither of the teenage girls knew she was part Japanese, recalled Lillian Matsumoto, a former Shonien social worker.
“It was very chaotic, and people were afraid because there were all these orders coming out on what the penalties were if you housed a Japanese,” said Matsumoto, 84, a retired UC Berkeley librarian.
At a Los Angeles orphanage for white children, authorities marked 6-year-old Dennis Bambauer for evacuation to Manzanar. Bambauer, who was blond and fair-skinned, did not know his mother was Japanese American until someone checked his records, he said in a recent interview.
“It’s taken a long time to be more trusting of people,” said Bambauer, 62, a teachers’ union representative in Redding.
Army officials also sent to Manzanar several Japanese American children who were living with white or Latino foster families. They got the children’s names by combing through federal welfare records, military documents show.
Records of the former War Relocation Authority do not explain why 209 Japanese American children--including orphans and juvenile offenders--were excused from the evacuation order.
An Army spokesman declined to comment on the orphanage, noting that key players who could address questions are dead.
Girl’s Patriotic Song Moved Soldier to Tears
On the Army bus to Manzanar, social worker Matsumoto tried to keep the orphans entertained and urged a 4-year-old girl to sing.
A young military policeman listened to her song--"God Bless America"--and wept, recalled Matsumoto, who became assistant superintendent at Children’s Village.
On June 23, 1942, the first 40 orphans arrived at Manzanar, which housed 10,000 people on less than one square mile, surrounded by barbed wire.
In the next three years, 61 more children were booked into the orphanage, records show.
The orphans included babies born to schoolgirl mothers at other internment camps. Others were classified as orphans only when the FBI arrested their fathers--later, authorities admitted, for no valid reason--and their mothers were dead or hospitalized.
The Army decided to move the orphans to Manzanar because it was the first camp to open and the closest to the three orphanages.
Children’s Village included three tar-papered barracks next to a pear and apple orchard. Its buildings were bigger than the other barracks and included a wrap-around porch and broad lawn. And unlike the rest of Manzanar, it had running water and toilets.
The orphans had no family to lean on but relied on each other.
In one room, teenage internee “John” Sohei Hohri would tell a nightly bedtime story to the 14 small boys in pajamas who slept on metal folding cots.
There were few books around, so Hohri--whose family lived in a nearby barrack--told his stories from memory. He would tiptoe around the room, acting out Jean Valjean’s theft of silverware in “Les Miserables” or his first meeting with his adopted daughter.
In the small girls’ room, Sakamoto used to hide under her thin Army blanket from the sweeping searchlights of the watchtower’s armed guards.
Takatow Matsuno, a 61-year-old mechanic, used to play marbles, baseball and a war game, “Capture the Flag,” on the orphanage grounds after school.
Once or twice, he got caught raiding the pantry’s candy can and got sent through the “swat line,” between the legs of the other kids, who got to whack at his bottom.
Many of the orphans did not think of how the war years touched their lives until decades later.
Tamo Isozaki, a 70-year-old retired TV repairman, remembers that he felt lost as a teenager in Children’s Village. There was no quiet place to study there, no adult to answer his questions about girls.
Isozaki, a Monterey Park resident, felt the void when he became the father of five children.
“I couldn’t teach them math and history and to be a doctor and that kind of stuff . . . I didn’t have it in me, how am I gonna give it to them?”
For the orphans, the hardest part arguably came after the war, when the government closed Children’s Village in September 1945.
In the early 1950s, Sakamoto, who was placed with a white foster family, had a hard time adjusting. Sometimes, she would gather up her few books and clothes and stack them on a table in her room. That way, in an emergency, if her life were disrupted again, she could grab them and run.
Life was also tough at her Los Angeles junior high school, where she was subjected to racial slurs. Who was she anyway?
“I wish I were never Japanese,” she said she recalled thinking.
Reunion Honors a Dead Brother’s Wish
Most of the Manzanar orphans lost track of each other after the war.
But in early 1991, Matsuno, the mechanic, decided to push for a 50-year reunion in memory of his deceased older brother, Shioo Matsuno, who had talked about seeing his “brothers and sisters” from the orphanage one last time.
Matsuno and his friend, Isozaki, who lives a few miles away, began compiling addresses and placing notices in newspapers.
They knew it would be tough.
Some of the orphans maintain the enryo, or emotional reserve, of their Japanese-born parents. You don’t advertise that you’re without parents. In Japan, some consider orphans part of the burakamin, the untouchables.
Matsuno persisted. He called people, even knocked on doors, urging people to come.
Finally, in May 1992, on a sunny Memorial Day weekend, 34 people from as far away as Vermont gathered at a San Gabriel Valley hotel. Sakamoto said she and the others had a great time, laughing, sharing pictures, trading inside jokes.
Among the reunion topics was Honda’s bitter testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Honda could not be reached for further comment.
(The hearings led to government redress in 1990, when officials began mailing checks for $20,000 and letters of apology to surviving internees, including the orphans.)
The reunion, and the public fight for redress, helped some of the orphans open up. They were ready--if a little wary--to talk when Fullerton researchers came to them in March 1993.
“Wouldn’t you suppose that some of us would have blocked it out?” asked Bambauer. “It was a bad part of our life.”
Former Fullerton graduate student Lisa Nobe had heard about the orphanage in a chance encounter with a park superintendent on a class visit to Manzanar in fall 1992. Later, she learned that her professor, Hansen, had found almost no research on the topic.
Nobe, 25, a second-generation Japanese American, decided to take on the project, with the help of three other graduate students. Hansen is seeking funds to publish their findings in book form.
Later this year, the National Park Service will erect a historic marker on the Children’s Village grounds, as part of its preliminary work on the Manzanar National Historic Site.
Only a few cement blocks now mark the spot.
The unexpected recognition excites Sakamoto. She long ago resolved her ambiguity about her heritage and Manzanar years after joining a Japanese American church.
Still, for more than 50 years, she did not talk about Children’s Village, except with her husband and two children.
“It didn’t occur to me,” she said, “that anyone would be interested.”
Times researcher Sheila Kern contributed to this story.