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There are many humorous things in the world, among them the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.
There was no poetry in campunless you can
mud is poetryunless you can say
dust is poetryunless you can say
blood is poetryunless you can say
cruelty is poetryunless you can say
injustice is poetryunless you can say
imprisonment is poetry!
Let's suppose that you are a United States
citizen and a high school sports star earning a full ride to a
major university. Or, perhaps you just married the girl of your
dreams and bought that cute little house with the white picket
fence around it, ready to pursue that "American Dream."
Maybe you're chatting to your teen about the "birds and the
bees" for the first time. Or, imagine that the nest is finally
empty and you are ready to sit back, relax, maybe travel a little.
Then comes the attack on Pearl Harbor during
the early misty hours of Sunday morning December 7, 1941.
Suddenly, there is a rap on the door and
two non-smiling dudes from the FBI rain on your parade. After
trashing your house, they instruct you to keep an eye out for
Executive Order No. 9066 a day or two later for further instructions.
You read it on a telephone pole telling you to report to a central
place. It was rush-rush. Mr. Duke Tanaka said, "We couldn't
take anything with us except some basic bedding (no mattresses),
linen, extra clothing, silverware, plates, bowls, cups, essential
personal items and toilet articles." No family pets were
allowed. Many children saw their pet given away or disappear to
Of course, one could not have a personal
vehicle. That had to be given away or junked. It was reported
that one woman couldn't take her vast amount of expensive wedding
dishes with her so, rather than sell them for a pittance, smashed
them all. The value of the property lost by Japanese Americans
will probably never be known. It's been estimated that the value
was probably 10 to 15 billion dollars.
Most lost everything. That is the basis
of at least one fairly recent novel called Snow Falling On Cedars
by David Guterson. The Pen/Faulkner Award winning book is a good
and interesting read. Mr. Tanaka volunteered that his family managed
to sell their large three-story home for $3,200.00. But, not every
Japanese family was that lucky. Most lost everything they had-never
to see it again.
After arriving to where you were told to
go, your government puts you and your frightened family on a train.
"It was very fearful," Mr. Tanaka described. "We
didn't know where we were going. They had boards covering the
windows, and, for good measure, blindfolded us." I'm sure
some had kept up with the goings-on in Europe and tearfully realized
what was happening to Jewish folks after they took a train ride.
This, without any doubt, was the most difficult
story I've ever written. It smacks of deep racial prejudice and
overtones for starters. As a matter of fact, a commission appointed
by President Jimmy Carter agreed. A study in the 1980s, came to
the conclusion that, "Race, war hysteria, a failure of political
leadership and widespread ignorance contributed to this policy."
It must have been s-o-o-o traumatic.
It is horrendous being betrayed by the authority
figures you may have helped put into office in the first place,
just because you had the wrong genes. The mere thought of being
herded like sheep behind barbed wire is beyond belief. Gazing
up at the clouds and seeing armed guards had to be terrifying.
The "American Dream" had become
the "American Nightmare."
The Japanese Americans, demonstrating that
they were loyal, and patriotic, walked quietly into the camps.
It is what they found that was so revolting. Mr. Duke Tanaka,
a New Sewickley resident, remembers first going to the Tandoran
Assembly, in San Bruno, California. It was far from being ready
for human habitation.
"We were put in newly emptied horse
stalls. They even had manure in them. We could bring only sheets
so we laid them on the straw. Those were our seats and beds."
Duke and his family were eventually transferred to Camp Topaz
in the middle of Utah. Mr. Tanaka pinpointed it as "being
in Twin Falls County." His secret?! "I kept very busy.
They made me recreation director for 10,000 prisoners. That helped,"
The Camp's "apartments" were very
low key. To begin with, they had no running water. Others didn't
have electricity for days. The heating system (if any) varied
and the only furniture was army-style cots. Many managed to get
wood scraps after a while and make more furniture. Today's generation
calls it a crisis if the power goes out and they miss their favorite
television program. Not being able to chomp down on the fast food
item of their choice would be another disaster. Perhaps the saddest
part was that it was supposed to be for their own safety. Drunks
with clubs would target Japanese. There would be signs such as
"$500 Reward, Japs, Dead or Alive".
The launch of what has been labeled, "The
worst mistake in United States military history" was the
infamous Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. Within two weeks,
politicians and other "citizens" were calling for the
harsh internment of Japanese Americans. The 20 year old Tanaka
was born here. Thus, he was of the Nisei Generation which also
made him as much a citizen as FDR himself. But, it didn't matter,
he too was looking up at those bright flood lights.
Let's rewind a bit. Following the attack,
Congress put tremendous pressure on Roosevelt. Several accused
him of "coddling Japs" while others called for all Japanese
to be deported. Most all agreed that something had to be done.
The music industry came out with "We've gotta trap and slap
that dirty little Jap."
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, of course,
personally got into the fiasco. Only he wanted Yankee star Joe
DiMaggio to be sent back to Italy first before dealing with the
"Japs." The "Yankee Clipper" was baseball's
darling at the time and had just set his 56 game hitting streak.
(This writer thinks J.Edgar was ticked off because of all the
publicity Joe got that summer.) Although he wasn't able to deport
Joe, he did manage to freeze his bank account and harass him.
The media was great at fueling the flames
too. Most publications, insensitive to the core, called the Japanese
"Japs"; "Yellow Vermin"; "Nips";
and/or "Mad Dogs." And, they weren't the Globe or National
Two days after the attack, the well-known syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler even went so far as to suggest, "We should set up camps and select 100 victims and kill them for each hostile action involving Japan." I was disappointed to discover in Roger Daniels' very informative Prisoners Without Trial that newscaster Edward R. Murrow had this to say at a Seattle function. He said, "I think that if Seattle does get bombed you will be able to look up and see University of Washington sweaters on the Japanese boys doing the bombing." He apparently believed the rumors that downed pilots at Pearl Harbor were wearing Stanford, UCLA or Notre Dame Class rings.
Then a popular newsman, Walter Lippmann,
apparently dealt the death blow. On February 12, 1942, he wrote,
"It is a fact that the Japanese Navy has been reconnoitering
constantly off the west coast." That opened the gates, and
FDR, one week later, on February 19, with the stroke of a pen,
sent 120,000 Japanese Americans to barbed-wire fortresses.
Mr. Tanaka, looking at the ground, emphasized,
"We were there four and a half years." After the war,
it was confirmed that Lippmann was wrong too since German vessels
were closer, some even on the east coast, than any Japanese ship
during all of February 1942.
Mr. Tanaka, meanwhile, was keeping busy.
"I taught weight lifting, basketball, and judo. I learned
judo when I was about five years old." He was also granted
special permission to send for his 100 phonograph record set so
he could teach ballroom dancing three nights a week.
As one might surmise reading his resume,
Duke excelled in Japanese high school sports. "We were required
to attend that after regular school. My aunt was my teacher,"
he winked "and I must admit I took advantage of that to skip
a little." But, the lean athlete did show up to race in the
low and high hurdles. "I pole vaulted some too" he added.
When the snow did "fall on cedars," he played basketball.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, as bad as it
seems, there were some positive things. The most important was
the fact that new American citizens born there numbered 5,918,
far exceeding the 1,862 who died of natural causes. Plus, those
that yearned to teach, could do so now. Can you imagine the uproar
if a Japanese American taught little Johnny or Gerri in the early
forties? Teens could now be student body leaders. Kids could play
sports, even be captains of various teams. Boy Scout and Girl
Scout troops and leaders were born.
For reasons unknown, "WASPS" have
always believed they are superior to people of color, be it brown,
red, black or yellow. Just the idea of tossing a group, who were
quiet and kept to themselves, behind a fence, is shocking to me.
The fact that two thirds were citizens like Mr. Tanaka is appalling.
The cordial and hospitable octogenarian also vividly recalls that, "we ate in mess halls" that in itself had to be a monotonous setting for monotonous food. "They fed us pork fat but no meat, cabbage, rice and Vienna sausages." He laughed and continued, "I can't even look at one now!" Officials set a limit of 38.7 cents per day for each inmate-and, that was for all three meals. Many prisoners, as soon as possible, managed to put in a small garden supplementing this dreaded diet.
"Our toilet facilities" the ever
smiling Duke stated "were outhouses. They were infested with
deadly scorpions and spiders. Whew, they were downright dangerous.
Prisoners Without Trial even points out that the toilet and bathing
facilities were minimal in all camps. They were unsanitary to
say the least, and reportedly even fell far short of the Army's
own standards of cleanliness. One woman wrote that, "The
toilets are one straight board with holes about a foot apart with
no partitions at all. The younger girls wouldn't go to them, at
first, until they couldn't stand it any longer, which was very
bad for them."
Army experts noted that kitchens didn't
meet their standards either. Dishwashing was not effective due
to there being no running hot water. Hospitals had no cribs for
babies and older children.
This writer will always remember the war
frenzy as I was growing up in North Sewickley. The News-Tribune
always printed those black silhouettes of Japanese aircraft day
after day. Several bakeries used them as stickers for store-bought
bread. Milk bottle caps were made with these images on them. Also,
I watched my mother and older brother frantically put sheets over
the windows so the Zeroes wouldn't dive-bomb us. I was a mere
tot but still could never see the Japanese taking a chance to
come clear across our country to bomb our factories. Besides,
Germany was closer and they worried me more.
Although 120,000 Japanese were held at first,
the number slowly dropped. The decline began in 1942 when four
grants were issued: 1. Students going to college; 2. Agricultural
workers; 3. Linguists; and 4. Those who wanted to return on a
Swedish liner to "The Land of the Rising Sun."
Camp population dropped to 107,000 in 1943 and fell to 93,000 in 1944. The January 1, 1945 total was 80,000. There were still 58,000 confined in late August of that year-and, the war was over! All camps but one finally closed down by December 1945. Tule Lake, California, saw its last inmate walk out of that remote prison in March, 1946.
The nightmare was over!
Japanese Americans may not have realized
it but they remained under a cloud for 35 years. President Gerald
R. Ford finally terminated Executive Order 9066 in 1976. Personally,
I think it takes a lot of gall to ask men, watching their elders
go through this, to fight. They did though. And, did they ever.
A total of 65,000 young men volunteered for the military service.
They formed the 100/442nd Regimental Combat
Team. The joke, over time, comes through louder and clearer. The
bureaucrats had their best fighters locked up. Pardon my chuckle,
but this unit became the most decorated of the war. They, to their
credit, had 560 Silver Star winners, 52 Distinguished Service
Cross recipients and won seven Presidential Unit citations.
A proud Mr. Tanaka closed, "they were tough, do you know they won more Commendation War Medals than were presented in all previous wars." He then let out a big heavy sigh, "I had bad eyes so I couldn't go in."