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Barbed wire and free press

Times Staff Writer

“A combined throng of 600 dance lovers jammed the coronation ballrooms ... to pay tribute to queens Kideko Maeyama and Chiya Sokino in the Farm Management-sponsored ‘social of the year.’ ” -- Gila (Ariz.) News-Courier, Nov. 28, 1942

“On tiny suede match covers bearing the inscription, ‘It’s a match -- Ruby and George,’ the engagement of Miss Ruby Kanaya to Pfc. George K. Suzuki of Ft. Sam Houston, Tex., was made known before a group of 16 girls at the betrothed’s home."-- Minidoka (Idaho) Irrigator, Feb. 27, 1943

“Little 2-year-old Virginia Fujii of 33-13-4 and her neighbor, 2 1/2 -year-old Kingo Hankawa, got the wanderlust last Sunday morning and gave their parents a nerve-wracking two hours.... The two kiddies were finally located at noon -- placidly eating their lunch in Mess Hall 21.” -- Manzanar (Calif.) Free Press, Aug. 5, 1942

The items are redolent of Small Town U.S.A., but the newspapers that carried them weren’t exactly published in Mayberry.

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They were written and edited in the desolate internment camps of World War II -- fenced-off patches of desert that suddenly became home for the 120,000 Japanese Americans torn from their West Coast communities after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Each of the 10 camps had its own newspaper, staffed by people known in the bureaucratic parlance of the day as “evacuees.” Published as often as three times weekly, the papers covered events great and small, featuring humble notes about flower shows as well as ringing locutions on the timeless themes of democracy.

Over the last few months, the papers’ nearly 4,000 editions have been given new life on the Internet, posted by Densho, a Japanese American advocacy group based in Seattle.

“Our hope is that this will open up a new wave of interest and research in the camps,” said Tom Ikeda, a retired software engineer who heads Densho, which translates from Japanese as “to leave a legacy.”

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The legacy many in the camps wished to leave was frustratingly similar to that of others in America’s “greatest generation.”

“We have steadfastly evinced our desire to be true, loyal citizens,” an editorial writer at Manzanar’s Free Press observed in 1944. “Buffeted by the vitriolic and unceasing attacks against us ... we admit that we, at times, have wondered whether the principles of democracy upon which our nation is founded are real and existent, or whether we are embracing and cherishing principles built upon the shifting sands of empty, meaningless words.”

He was arguing -- futilely -- that Japanese American soldiers be allowed to fight side by side with their fellow citizens.

By war’s end, 23,000 Japanese Americans were serving, mostly in segregated units. One of them -- the so-called Go for Broke combat team -- was the most decorated military unit of its size.

“MRS. Arikawa received a wire from Washington saying her son had been killed in action in Italy, but no one in the block knew of it for the whole day. She and Mr. Arikawa ate their meals unobtrusively and as usual at their table in the mess hall, he with his omnipresent cane laid against the bench and she quietly leaning over her plate.... Made homeless and their security jeopardized by the very agency to which they have given their sons, they must wonder what their reward will be.” -- Manzanar Free Press, July 29, 1944

Until Densho’s project, the camp newspapers -- which vary from crude, mimeographed handouts to professionally printed 12-page sections available at 2 cents a copy -- were scattered through museums and university libraries. Much of what appears on www.densho.org was discovered on microfilm in the Library of Congress.

To troll through the papers is to glimpse the day-to-day lives of a captive population just trying to make the best of things.

“You won’t see a lot of bitterness,” said Ikeda, who has interviewed more than 250 camp survivors. “A lot of people had this cultural attitude, shikata ga nai, which means, ‘It can’t be helped, life must go on.’ ”

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Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the mass removal of all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast. They were stripped of their property and assigned to barracks in 10 remote “relocation camps” from California to Arkansas.

Their new homes weren’t exactly prisons, but they were close. Residents could sign on to work details when manpower-starved farmers or factory owners needed help, but they weren’t free to return to the cities where many of their families had lived for generations.

Meanwhile, babies were born, baseball leagues formed, crates of shoes were shipped in and Scout troops raised the colors. All of it was dutifully chronicled.

“AS Manzanar slumbered peacefully in the early morning hours of September 25, tragedy stalked the village leaving murder and suicide in its wake.... The cryptic key to the slaying and suicide lay in the three letters left by the husband, which are now being translated by the police.” -- Manzanar Free Press, Sept. 26, 1942

At Manzanar, a destination for many members of Los Angeles’ Japanese community, a young former union organizer named Jimmy Oda lobbied reluctant War Relocation Authority administrators for an all-Japanese supplement to the camp’s Free Press.

“I told them that if we don’t put out a part of the paper for people who spoke only Japanese, there would be great confusion in the camp,” recalled Oda, now 92 and living with his wife, Mary, a recently retired physician, in Northridge.

Despite the fear that messages in Japanese could be used by dissidents to stir up trouble, the plan went through.

“Somehow, they trusted us,” Oda said, recalling that as an editor he confronted administrators more over shortcomings in the mess halls and the plumbing system than on the broader issue of civil liberties.

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“We reported in such a way as to take a neutral stand,” he said.

“ONLY 25 passes will be issued daily for Lamar and 25 for Granada, effective immediately, declared Stanley E. Adams, assistant chief of internal security.... All persons going into town are warned against buying any liquor, for those who are guilty of such a misdemeanor shall be denied the privilege of going out of the center again.” -- Granada (Colo.) Pioneer, Feb. 20, 1943

At some camps, the officials overseeing each paper made sure nothing controversial appeared in print. In the Manzanar paper, for instance, there was no mention of the riot on Dec. 6, 1942, when two residents were fatally shot and 10 wounded by military guards.

Mostly, though, the censors were more passive, allowing editors -- some of them experienced journalists -- to print what they wanted.

At 85, Paul Yokota still marvels at his relative freedom as the 21-year-old editor of the Denson Tribune in Arkansas.

“I was given free rein in situations where other administrators would have clamped down on the kind of information being released,” said Yokota, who later spent 27 years as a Los Angeles elementary school principal.

The paper covered a work party striking over bad food and families falling apart under the pressures of camp life. In an editorial, Yokota took on Tom Stewart, a Democratic senator from Tennessee who demanded that Japanese Americans be stripped of their citizenship.

“Perhaps we should thank God that there are comparatively few of your kind,” Yokota wrote, as if he were lecturing the lawmaker.

At the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming, Bill Hosokawa penned a denunciation of the congressional Dies Committee, the forerunner to the House Un-American Activities Committee.

When a committee member falsely claimed in 1943 that evacuees were allotted 5 gallons of whiskey each and were dining on prime beef, Hosokawa wrote a blistering front-page editorial:

“We charge the Dies Committee with playing on racial hatred, aping the tactics of Tojo and Hitler to arouse a national hysteria and deprive American citizens of all civil rights.... We charge that funds earmarked to root out un-Americanism are being spent to foster an un-American pogrom.”

Now 92 and long retired as a top editor at the Denver Post, Hosokawa said he “didn’t have any problem getting that kind of position cleared by the man in charge.”

Even so, crusading had its limits. When the administration erected a barbed-wire fence, complete with floodlights and watchtowers, the newspaper sponsored a petition of protest, asking: “For what shall it profit the citizens of the United States if they save the whole world and lose their own freedom?”

The fence -- enclosing a settlement of 10,000 that had in mere weeks become Wyoming’s third-largest city -- stayed up, as did those at the other camps.

“AND a word to the men. We bet they didn’t know that every word they speak in their showers can be heard through the walls in the quiet cubicles where the girls bathe. Better watch yourselves, fellers.” -- Topaz (Utah) Times, Feb. 6, 1943

At the Minidoka camp in Idaho, Cherry Kinoshita wrote a women’s column called “Feminidoka” for the camp’s Irrigator newspaper.

“It was very frivolous,” said Kinoshita, an 83-year-old retired real estate broker who became a forceful voice in securing reparations to Japanese Americans from the federal government. “It dealt with things like what to do with your hairstyle in the constant windstorms. When I look back, I think, ‘How stupid!’ ”

But more than her own efforts, Kinoshita recalls the somber articles about young men from the camp who were killed in action.

“Issue after issue, another one would be reported deceased,” said Kinoshita, who now lives in a Seattle retirement community. “It just struck me how we were losing our young fellows.”

Minidoka suffered 73 battlefield deaths, more than any other camp.

Researchers such as Jim McIlwain are scouring the papers for just such information.

“I’ve found when the boys were called for physicals, when they were inducted, when they were called to active duty, when they were injured, when they were killed,” said McIlwain, a retired Brown University neuroscience professor. “You even see which families had more than one son go from the camps to the front. It’s an extraordinary story.”

“MRS. Misa Sakura’s four sons -- Kenny, Ted, Chet, and Howard (‘Chip’) -- signed up with Uncle Sam’s army the other day, and edged out the Onodera brothers as the largest contingent of volunteers to come from one family. ‘Long before Dad died,’ Chet explained, ‘he told all of us that if Japan and America should ever engage in war, there would be only one thing for us to do -- live and fight to uphold the U.S.A.’ ” -- Minidoka Irrigator, Feb. 27, 1943

After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were treated as “enemy aliens”; and in early 1942, young Japanese American men were, as potential enemies, declared ineligible for military service. Some Japanese Americans already in the military were discharged and others given menial tasks. The next year, however, the government changed its policy and sought volunteers for segregated Japanese American combat units.

It also required internees to take a confusing and controversial loyalty test. Those deemed disloyal were shipped to Tule Lake, a harsh, maximum-security camp in Northern California. Young men determined to be loyal could then be drafted, starting in 1944.

“There were many family conferences where parents urged sons specifically not to sign,” Kinoshita said. “It was quite a stressful time.”

The only camp under martial law, Tule Lake was the seat of resistance to both internment and military service. Swept up in panic and confusion, more than 5,400 -- about 70% -- of the adult U.S. citizens there renounced their citizenship. Some did it to protest their confinement. Others believed they would be deported and that their families, often composed of both U.S. citizens and Japanese nationals, would have a greater chance of staying intact in Japan without the burden of American citizenship. Most of those who gave up their citizenship had it restored after years of postwar litigation.

As the war raged, the government gradually allowed evacuees deemed loyal to leave the camps and attempt to rebuild their lives in areas away from the West Coast. Articles started appearing about a hotel in Chicago accepting housekeeper applications, beet farmers in Montana seeking field hands, a railroad in Utah seeking men to lay track.

“WITH a little initiative, resourcefulness, patience, faith, spirit and a hardy pair of shoes, dreams can come true in New York City. Hundreds of evacuees now residing in the throbbing metropolis, fresh and wide-eyed from the seclusion and restrictions of relocation centers, are realizing this.” -- Minidoka Irrigator, Jan. 15, 1944

But jobs alone weren’t enough, wrote an editor in Manzanar; Japanese Americans wanted to regain their standing by fully contributing to the war effort.

“In seeking to resettle and re-establish ourselves, we realize the unwisdom of trying to force ourselves upon a people who view us with suspicion,” he wrote. “We only want to join in the drive for Victory.... We will not shirk.”

Meanwhile, life in the camps went on.

On New Year’s Day 1944, the Free Press raved about a three-hour home-grown “cocktail of puns, skits and minstrel” featuring a band called the Jive Bombers.

And Hayao Chuman published an ode to his wife in the paper’s Japanese supplement:

“To my Dear Wife:

1. Little pigeon who married me without any brilliant romance.

2. Hereafter, we’ll have a brilliant romance. I shall love you as long as my life time.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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