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A Half-Century Later, Free to Graduate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s just a piece of paper, a graying Ruth Matsuda started off humbly.

But the high school diploma the 71-year-old Garden Grove woman will receive Thursday from Anaheim High School, 52 years late, helps heal a wound, she said.

She and former classmate Toru Sugita, 72, would have graduated from Anaheim High in the mid-1940s. But halfway through their high school education, war broke out in the Pacific. They and 110,000 other Japanese Americans in the West were uprooted and sent to internment camps, to live for years in cramped barracks surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

Now, they are preparing for a long overdue rite of passage. They will join about 300 other Anaheim High School seniors in this year’s graduation ceremony.

“You can’t change what happened, but this makes me feel proud,” Matsuda said.

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Matsuda’s son, a teacher at Orangeview Junior High, approached the Anaheim Union High School District this year about the Japanese American alumni who had never received their diplomas after he learned that his mother was among them.

School officials took up the cause, but had difficulty finding the 30 or so other alumni who were interned from 1942 to 1945.

“We wanted to honor them for living through an unfortunate time period,” Principal Doug Munsey said.

Matsuda and Sugita faced similar travails. Both lost their mothers early in their childhoods. Both of their widowed fathers were left to care for six children.

As second-generation Japanese Americans, they were well assimilated in their communities. But when the war broke out, xenophobia stung them. Their classmates shunned them. Finally, the government forced them out of their homes.

“It was really awful at first,” Sugita said softly. “The seven of us squeezed into a 20-by-20-foot room. When we got there, we had to make our own mattresses by stuffing straw into gunnysacks, and that’s what we slept on.”

Their days were spent working and attending classes at a makeshift adobe schoolhouse, built by the internees.

“Looking back, that’s why I ditched class so much,” Matsuda said. “I hated the whole situation.”

Sugita recalled the schooling as inadequate, but enough to prepare them for their return to society after the war ended in 1945.

When released from the camp, Matsuda hopscotched from city to city, to wherever work was available. In Denver, she worked as a salad maker for a restaurant. In Chicago, she landed a job as a caregiver at a convalescent home. Then, she moved to a millionaire’s mansion and worked as a maid.

“I never knew I was poor until I grew up,” Matsuda said.

She finally returned to Southern California to start a family, as did Sugita, now of Midway City. But he added that when he left the camp, he was overcome with mixed emotions.

“We were free to go, but going back to California meant returning to the discrimination against Japanese Americans,” Sugita said.

Wrong was committed, educators and others say now, and even said then. Paul Demaree, then-principal of Anaheim High, denounced the internment movement. He called a school assembly, urging students to not discriminate against their Japanese American peers.

When Matsuda wrote to him from the camp, Demaree responded by encouraging her to keep up with her studies. The late Demaree also will be remembered at Thursday’s graduation, school officials said.

Additionally, the school district intends to adopt a comprehensive curriculum on the Japanese American internment experience. The materials, compiled by the Japanese American Citizens League, is composed of historical documents and photos for social science courses.

“It was so long ago,” Matsuda said. “But we must record this in history, put it in the books so that it will be kept alive.”


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