by Susan Yamamura
Editor’s Note: This is a two-part essay reprinted from the author’s first published memoir of her years in camp. OOV thanks Susan Yamamura for permission to reprint. Part 2 will appear in the 46th isue. A PDF of the unabridged excerpt will be available after the release of Part II in OOV 46.
Mother says there were a number of grim-looking white Americans who came to catch a glimpse of us—the hated enemy—at each stop along the way.
We traveled by train from the temporary camp, Camp Harmony in Puyallup, Washington, to the permanent camp at the Minidoka Relocation Center at Hunt, Idaho. According to information in Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese American Relocation Sites (an excellent reference), Camp Minidoka was located in Hunt, Idaho, about fifty miles west of the town also named Minidoka in Idaho. The closest towns were Jerome, fifteen miles west and Twin Falls, fifteen miles south. The train’s window shades were drawn so that onlookers could not see inside. There were soldiers on the train with us who served as guards and protectors. Mother says there were a number of grim-looking white Americans who came to catch a glimpse of us—the hated enemy—at each stop along the way. We arrived at our permanent camp to find a flat, dry, barren high (4,000 ft. elevation) desert with sparse, short vegetation—the opposite of the rolling, lush, evergreen-filled landscape of our Pacific Northwest, sea level Seattle home. It seemed an ugly place. Our tarpaper-covered wooden barracks rooms were laid out like an army camp.
Mother is the central figure of my Camp memories. In Camp, for the first and last time in her marriage, Mom didn’t work in the greenhouses and fields of the family farming, greenhouse, and florist businesses. She stayed with her two small daughters all day. In Camp, Jichan and Bachan were familiar, loving but distant presences. I’m sure I saw them every day, but I was not with them all day. Dad too, was gone during the day, like all of the other males in camp. The Camp years were the only years of their long marriage when Mom and Dad lived apart from Jichan and Bachan, until Jichan and Bachan died.
Where We Lived
I remember picking up one of my dolls, with a hole in my stocking, and I danced around under the bare light bulb, which was supposed to be the moon.
We lived in block 28, barrack 8C. Camp Minidoka was laid out like an army camp in neat rows of tarpaper-covered barracks. I was drilled in our block, barracks, and room number so if I got lost, I could tell adults where I lived. I estimate that our room was between three hundred and four hundred square feet with perhaps two windows and a door with steps leading to it. It had wooden floors and wood walls. Mom and Dad had a double bed with a screen made of rose chintz fabric fashioned into a curtain, secured at top and bottom and set in a black wood frame at the foot of the bed with the head of the bed against the wall. My bed was parallel to their bed against another wall. There may have been a window above my bed. There was a small black, probably wood-fired, pot-bellied stove for warmth by the wall opposite our beds, close to the door. I think my sister slept in a crib between my parents’ bed and mine.
We had electricity but no running water. I remember the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling close to my bed. A popular song of the time (circa late 1944) set to the melody of “Buffalo Girls Won’t You Come Out Tonight?” heard on our radio went something like this: “ … Dance with a dolly with a hole in her stocking, hole in her stocking, hole in her stocking … Dance with a dolly with a hole in her stocking, Oh dance by the li-ight of the moon …,” from “Dance With a Dolly (with a Hole in Her Stocking)” composed by Jim Eaton, Mickey Leader, and Terry Shand. I remember picking up one of my dolls, with a hole in my stocking, and I danced around under the bare light bulb, which was supposed to be the moon.
Rags were stuffed around the edges of the windows to keep the dirt from blowing in during the frequent dust storms that whirled through our desert camp.
On the wall close to the door was a chest and high up, on a blond-colored wood bureau dresser, made by Jichan, the radio sat under the other window in the room. We had newspapers, but the AM radio was our one precious link to the outside world and popular music. . . . We didn’t turn it on frequently, and often friends came to listen when we did. The radio was brown, with adjustment knobs on the front and probably one accessible station. Our radio had to be large enough to accommodate large vacuum tubes because the transistor had not yet been invented. The radio was kept high so that we children couldn’t touch it.
There was no radio reception, only static, when dust storms passed through Camp. Rags were stuffed around the edges of the windows to keep the dirt from blowing in during the frequent dust storms that whirled through our desert camp. During dust storms, the air would get brown and gritty. People had to wear handkerchiefs drawn up around their noses to keep from breathing in dust whenever they went outdoors. The sandy dirt would get into our eyes and sting ferociously. Just opening the door to go outside brought in clouds of dust. We had to go outside to get to the mess hall and to the separate building with toilets and showers, but we could have managed for a short time with bucket commodes. Someone would have had to go out to fetch drinking water. Mom made rice using smuggled hot plates, and we made do in our barracks for some meals. We were not supposed to have large knives, hot plates, or anything that could be used as a weapon, but almost everyone had a hot plate and cooking utensils anyway.
Everyone left their original homes with only what they could carry. Mom and Dad must have purchased or made our furnishings and clothes after our arrival in Camp Minidoka. Perhaps some of the items, like the beds and blankets, were army issued. We had a small table and some straight-back chairs. Much of our furniture was made from stolen pieces of lumber.
There were several government agencies involved in site selection for the Camps and Camp management, including the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and the Wartime Civilian Control Administration (WCCA) under the control of the army. Site selection criteria included being in isolated areas, especially deserts or a swamp, where Camp inmates could provide cheap or even free labor. The sites were also to have railroad access and potential for agricultural development. Poston, Arizona, about twelve miles from Parker, Arizona, met all the criteria and also met a special agenda of the BIA. According to Passing Poston: An American Story, a 2008 film by Joe Fox and James Nubile (available on DVD), inmates were placed in Poston to provide the labor to build infrastructure not only for themselves but to be used after the war to draw Native Americans and the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to Poston. The Colorado River (Poston) Tribal Council and the Gila River Tribal Councils (Gila River) opposed use of their lands for our placement on their reservations, but their reservations were used anyway. Although the Native American tribes involved did not want to support doing to the Japanese what had been done to them, they did reap some benefit from our placement on their reservations. According to statements at the end of Passing Poston, the Poston infrastructures were very useful to the CRIT tribes such as the Hopi and the Navajo, postwar.
In the first days of the Minidoka permanent camp, there weren’t any real toilets or showers, just bucket commodes; cold, smelly outhouses with holes or trenches underneath; and faucets with cold water. I loved playing in the lumber piles outside the latrines. But I was quickly forbidden to do so. Adults told me that it was too dangerous to jump up and down on the long pieces of wood. As building progressed, the lumber piles quickly disappeared.
Our Neighbors and Friends
Mom says that the Tokita boys dreaded our arrival in their barrack room. Mitsuo’s face would fall as soon as he spotted us. For me, the covers of Mitsuo’s comic books were both terrifying and utterly irresistible.
Jichan, Bachan, and for a while, Uncle Minoru lived away from us in their own room and block. The same was true for Grandmother Sasaki and her son, Uncle Shosuke, Mom’s older brother. Thank goodness Mrs. Tokita lived next door to our room. She was a plump, warm-hearted lady who had a special fondness for my sister. Mrs. Tokita’s two sons were older than my younger sister and me. While one son, Kenji, would play with us and was fun to be around, I saw little of Mitsuo, who kept away from us. Mom somewhat disapproved of Mitsuo because he read Batman comic books and was unfriendly to her little girls. I can imagine how detestable two little girls must have been to Kenji and Mitsuo—they didn’t want us touching their precious comic books or breaking their toys. Mom says that the Tokita boys dreaded our arrival in their barrack room. Mitsuo’s face would fall as soon as he spotted us. For me, the covers of Mitsuo’s comic books were both terrifying and utterly irresistible. The Joker was an especially scary character. His face gave me nightmares so I was forbidden to look at either boy’s comic books.
I know only a little about medical care in Camp. We were given standard preventative inoculations. All were administered one particularly painful vaccine, perhaps the smallpox inoculation. I seem to remember having a large inoculation scar on my left arm. Mother instructed me not to cry when I received the shot, and I complied. According to Mom, I did blanch white, even turning white under my fingernails, but I did not cry. The scar disappeared over time.
I contracted the chickenpox and was whisked off to the hospital and placed in isolation for two weeks. Though Mom was terribly apprehensive about the separation, perhaps remembering her ill treatment during my baby sister’s birth in January of 1942, I was treated very well and returned to my family, completely recovered and a bit spoiled. While I was in the hospital, my sister got the chickenpox, too. Mom and Mrs. Tokita felt that my sister was much too young, at less than one year of age, to be taken away to the hospital, and she was secretly cared for in the barracks by Mom and Mrs. Tokita.
We saw little of our fathers during the day. There were jobs—mostly in manual labor—in Camp, digging or repairing irrigation ditches, farming and growing the food served in Camp…
My so-called boyfriend in Camp, Genji, lived a few barracks away, at least for a time. Mother didn’t allow my baby sister and me to play with many children. Genji was one of our few playmates. I looked for him eagerly on several occasions, but he was often sick at home. I asked Genji once what had happened to him during one of his long absences, and he pointed at his behind. He had run a high temperature for several days and had to have an enema. He said it was awful, and it sounded shocking to me. He was very thin and quiet. His mother was elderly and plump with a pleasant looking face.
I don’t remember Genji’s father but, like all fathers, he worked. We saw little of our fathers during the day. There were jobs—mostly in manual labor—in Camp, digging or repairing irrigation ditches, farming and growing the food served in Camp or, under special circumstances when Camp inmates were needed for harvesting a bumper sugar beet crop, jobs outside Camp in the surrounding farming community. Any work that could be found was quickly taken.
Hank, my husband, and his family were in Camp Minidoka, also but I didn’t know him or his younger brother then. Mom would have probably found Hank to be unsuitable company, for she didn’t know his parents.
What We Ate
Entering the mess hall, we formed a line carrying plates on trays. Our plates were filled with food. Then we placed our food on long table-like structures, which were laid out in rows end to end with backless benches on either side. We were probably fed substandard army food. I remember it tasted bad. We were in sheep country. With all the wartime restrictions on food, on the rare occasions when we got unprocessed meat, it was mutton, mainly in the form of stew. To me, the smell of the mutton was overpowering and unappetizing. I tried to pick out the carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables from the rest of the smelly broth and avoid as much of the greasy mutton as possible. In the novels of Tony Hillerman, mutton stew is a mouth-watering dish. Perhaps a taste for mutton is all in the preparation and the associations. Dessert, if available, was usually pretty-colored gelatin with perhaps a bit of milk over it. Little or no rice, a staple of our diet at home, was served in the mess halls.
When we were moved into Camp, the area had been infested with rattlesnakes. Over time, the Camp prisoners learned how delicious rattlesnake meat tasted (somewhat like chicken when cooked, I’m told)…
I suppose everyone had a dish that was especially hated and frequently on the menu. Mac Yamamura, Hank’s father, who worked as a Camp cook, hated macaroni and cheese. Cheese and milk products were unfamiliar to Mac, who was brought up in Japan. Like many Asians, he found the smell of cheese incredibly offensive. The food was not particularly tasty, but we never starved, though we were likely undernourished. Mother made me swallow a dropper filled with cod liver oil every day, which left a lingering, foul taste in my mouth.
Once, everyone got food poisoning and diarrhea from the mess hall food. It was evening, and people, almost simultaneously, started rushing to the latrines or crouching behind sparse desert plants. The guards thought camp inmates were rioting and trained spotlights and guns from the guard towers on everyone below. Fortunately, no shots were fired, and everyone in charge soon realized what was happening. “Just imagine,” said Mother, chuckling, “the guards were supposed to be protecting us but instead of pointing their guns outward, they were pointing their guns inward, toward us!”
There was one beneficial side effect of our limited diet. When we were moved into Camp, the area had been infested with rattlesnakes. Over time, the Camp prisoners learned how delicious rattlesnake meat tasted (somewhat like chicken when cooked, I’m told), and the rattlesnake population in Minidoka and the surrounding areas declined to near extinction. I doubt our family ever ate any rattlesnake meat because Dad has always had a horror of snakes.
Dad loved to sneak out of the barbed-wire fence surrounding Camp and fish in the local streams for trout. We feasted on the fish he caught and shared his catches with good friends. The closest Dad got to a rattlesnake was when he picked up a discarded rattlesnake tail on one of his fishing expeditions. I remember looking at the rattle, shaking it and shivering with fear at the awful sound.
Then, before passing in front of the guards, they hid the forbidden purchases in the baby carriage underneath a blanket on which the two of us sat. Purchases on the list of allowed items were carried back openly.
Dad probably did bring home an unwelcome visitor from one of his fishing trips. Mom is sure that Dad picked up the tick that bit one of the Tokita boys, sending Kenji to the hospital where he was diagnosed with the dreaded, tick-borne Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Kenji survived, but Mom made sure that her girls lived in fear of picking up ticks from the surrounding sagebrush bushes. I scrupulously avoided touching any of the larger pieces of outdoor vegetation, as well as the areas of long, green grass and admonished my younger sister to do the same. Even today I still fear ticks and fleas as carriers of plague, hanta virus, Lyme disease, and other diseases.
Sometimes, when Mom could get grade “C” milk, I got to experience the magic of making butter from the cream, which rose to the top of the bottle. Mom poured the cream carefully skimmed from the top of the milk bottle into a lidded glass jar, and we took turns shaking the jar until a bit of pale white butter formed. With more shaking, the bit of butter would get bigger and bigger—this was a magical experience with delicious results.
Sometimes Mom and Dad got a pass to go into a neighboring town. For a long time, I believed that they walked to Twin Falls to shop. However, from Confinement and Ethnicity, I learned that Twin Falls is fifteen miles north of the Minidoka Camp in Hunt, Idaho. Mom and Dad must have taken a bus or train between Camp and Twin Falls. On the trips to Twin Falls, my younger sister and I were both placed in a big black baby carriage. They pushed us out of Camp in the carriage, between the guards posted at the gate towers and then rode into the town. My parents bought things like our hot plate, cooking utensils, other forbidden items, and allowed items, like new clothing, in Twin Falls. Then, before passing in front of the guards, they hid the forbidden purchases in the baby carriage underneath a blanket on which the two of us sat. Purchases on the list of allowed items were carried back openly.
We children were forbidden to go to the canals alone for fear that we would fall in and drown. More than one Camp Minidoka inmate had drowned in the canals. But like all children, we were irresistibly drawn to water.
The guards were friendly and waved goodbye when we passed through the gate. One of the guards, a young boy, perhaps remembering his own family and sisters, gave me a wonderful present, a pair of brown gloves with the face of Mickey Mouse on the back of each glove! I was ecstatic and kept the Mickey Mouse gloves with my most precious possessions.
One day, Mom, my sister Louise, and I went on what seemed to me a long walk to a canal. Looking at the Camp Minidoka map in Confinement and Ethnicity, the canal might have been the North Side Canal, which ran along the western perimeter of our Camp. However, Camp Minidoka inmates dug a five-mile-long irrigation canal from the Milner-Gooding Canal to our camp. The Milner-Gooding canal extension ran along the eastern perimeter of our camp and looks a bit smaller than the North Side Canal in the map in Confinement and Ethnicity, so we might have gone to the extension to the Milner-Gooding Canal. We children were forbidden to go to the canals alone for fear that we would fall in and drown. More than one Camp Minidoka inmate had drowned in the canals. But like all children, we were irresistibly drawn to water. We took a big, empty tin can with us so that we could fish in the canals. It was a lovely sunny day, and we passed a lush green patch of long grass. The grass looked cool and inviting, but we worried it might harbor ticks, so we continued walking to the canal.
At the canal, we took off our shoes and waded in a shallow side creek feeding the canal, where we spotted a school of little black minnows. We spent the rest of the day filling up our big tin can with the live minnows and creek water. It was a great adventure. We were very tired at the end of our fishing fun, and we still had the long walk back to our barracks, this time hauling the heavy tin can filled with minnows and water. Mom must have felt very tired too. When we passed the lush patch of green grass on the way back home, Mom lay down on the grass and shushed me for warning her about the possible ticks in the long grass. I cried in terror, but Mom laughed it off and continued to lie in the long grass. I tried lying next to her, enjoying the comforting smell of her face powder, but remembering my fears, soon jumped up and cried some more, forcing Mom to get up.
When we returned to Camp, we proudly showed off the live fish we had caught. The next morning, my sister and I rushed to the tin can, filled with our new pets, only to find that all the minnows were dead. I remember that my younger sister was very sad and cried bitterly. We knew we had done a bad thing.
Any source of income and work was sought avidly. Much has been written about the patriotism shown by incarcerated Japanese, who worked in the sugar beet fields around Minidoka to harvest a bumper sugar beet crop in the midst of a wartime shortage of workers. Mom’s response was, “Hah—patriotism nothing—we needed the money!” Every able-bodied person, including Mom and Dad, worked in the sugar beet fields to bring in the harvest. Not being able to work was probably one of the hardest things for the adults to endure in Camp.
Dad was a great favorite of the salaried Caucasian fire captain. Mom and I were even invited into their home.
For Mom, whose instincts had been attuned to survival from an early age, food gathering was of primary importance. When anything could be gleaned for free from the fields, developed by Camp inmates, Mom was there. She would come home with the most vegetables such as beets or cucumbers from any field in which she was allowed to glean. She had always known much more about surviving than Dad. She didn’t have the luxury of being raised by pampering grandparents like Dad and was thrust into adulthood suddenly, around age nine, when her father died. She was told from an early age that she was not pretty or bright, like her adored older brothers. She was taught that she was meant for a supporting role and hard work, and she soon excelled at both.
Though Dad had paying jobs, he was also a member of the Camp Minidoka volunteer fire department. There was no pay attached to this activity, but it was an important community function. Dad was a great favorite of the salaried Caucasian fire captain. Mom and I were even invited into their home. Mother tells me that I was very impressed with the beautiful home with many rooms, the carpets on the floor, and the indoor bathroom. She said I couldn’t stop talking about the fire captain’s house. Sadly, I have no memories of it today.
The importance of work and working hard, rapidly, and reliably was something instilled in me at a very young age. Everyone around us worked. Mom taught us about work as a necessity for survival. She also became our teacher of English so that she could give us that other essential survival skill in America, the ability to use American English. My work in Camp was to learn to read English. Mom drilled me daily in my ABCs and I was spanked for not being able to recite or recognize the letters of the alphabet.
Though dyslexic, Mom taught me how to read by her own kind of phonics, in which each letter of the alphabet had an associated set of sounds. She read to her two daughters constantly, and we knew all the nursery rhymes and fairy tales by heart. I found recognizing short words by sounding them out to be another kind of wonderful magic, much better than turning milk to butter.
Long after leaving Camp, Dad told me that he had been humiliated by having to take remedial English at the University of Washington. Educated in Japan until about age eight, Dad had attended the University of Washington when anti-Japanese feelings were strong. Dad swore that his children would not suffer, as he had, for lack of English skills. As far as my parents were concerned, the abilities to read, write, and speak in English meant survival. Family pride required that we be proficient in English. I would want to study Japanese later but knew enough spoken Japanese to get by in Camp. Before Camp, the Japanese language schools had been closed as subversive, and they remained closed for many years after the war was over.
The Minidoka Interlude 1942–1943
Some Camp prisoners froze to death, and some were shot. I can only guess at the emotions experienced by my parents.
Residents of the Minidoka Relocation Center at Hunt, Idaho, published a book, The Minidoka Interlude (see the Works Cited section for more information). It is a book about life in the Camp from September 1942 to October 1943. A picture of a lovely community queen, called the Sweetheart of Minidoka, is close to the front of the book. A list of the sweethearts representing each block is on another page. Only the introductory pages reveal something of the terrible agony of that time. My husband Hank and I had two copies of The Minidoka Interlude, which was made in the first year of our incarceration in Camp Minidoka. We each received a copy from our parents. Both sets of parents smiled lovingly at us as they handed over their gift. They wished us to have the best of Camp. Even after all of these years, I can barely open the book without tears. Much of the pain comes from the sense of being pulled apart. We gave the best copy of the two to our son Mark. He treasures the book for the pictures of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
My childhood memories of Camp, as presented to this point, give a gentle presentation of life in Camp. I was well protected by Mom, Dad, Jichan, and Bachan. Perhaps I was shielded, too, because I was too young to understand the conversations of the adults around me. Communications then were not as instantaneous as they are now, and much negative news was simply not communicated. Some Camp prisoners froze to death, and some were shot. I can only guess at the emotions experienced by my parents. In the next section, I try to imagine what my responses, as an adult, might have been to events that I learned about while researching this memoir.
The Loyalty (No-No) Questionnaire February 1943
The War Relocation Authority (WRA) and the War Department required every adult in all Camps to fill out what was actually a loyalty test and draft registration questionnaire, given the misleading title of “Application for Leave Clearance.” The title is doublespeak, straight out of George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four. I located the form on the web (after searching for “Application for Leave Clearance”) and found a five-page questionnaire. According to Prejudice, War and the Constitution, by Jacobus tenBroek, Edward N. Barnhart, and Floyd W. Matson, the form, with some additional questions, had the same questions as the WRA short term (no more than thirty days) leave questionnaire. Though the questionnaire had an innocuous sounding title, I’m sure I, had I been an adult, would have been extremely concerned about being required to fill out a form, especially after reading questions 27 and 28. I would probably have lost everything that I owned except for what I could carry and been forced to live in a tarpaper wooden barrack room. I had been deprived of my American civil liberties. All had been done to me on the basis of my Japanese ancestry. As a student of American history, I might have wondered if, in angrily seeking national security, my government and country had revoked, on a racial basis, many hard won rights I believed were mine as an American. It might have seemed to me that the survival of the United States was being treated as the end that justified any means. I would, of course, have been unaware of the genocide occurring in Europe, but I might have feared genocide, nonetheless.
Around February 8 1943, every male citizen of Japanese ancestry in a Camp, 17 years of age or older, was required to fill out DSS (Selective Service or the Draft) Form 304a and Form WRA 126. Question 27 on the DSS form was: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?” If I were 17 years or older, as a female with citizenship, I would have been given WRA Form 126 Rev., with a question 27 of: “If the opportunity presents itself and you are found qualified would you be willing to volunteer for the Army Nurse Corps or the W.A.C.?” Aliens, regardless of gender, had to answer question 27 as it was stated for female citizens of Japanese ancestry. Question 28 was, “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attacks by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power or organization?” The ambiguities in question 28 caused great concern among Japanese aliens in Camp.
Yet, the WRA and War Department were surprised by the extent of the opposition by Camp inmates to the questionnaire with nine thousand requests for repatriation and expatriation to Japan by 1943.
Both questions 27 and 28 aroused confusion, anger, and fear in Camp prisoners. American citizens wondered why they were asked to renounce loyalty to the Emperor of Japan when they had never pledged their loyalty to the Emperor in the first place. For aliens, saying yes to question 28 meant renouncing their Japanese citizenship when there was no possibility of becoming naturalized United States citizens, leaving them stateless. On February 12, an alternate Question 28 for aliens was, “Will you swear to abide by the laws of the United States and to take no action which would in any way interfere with the war effort in the United States?” but the first statement of Question 28 had already caused a great deal of fear and confusion among the Issei.
Nisei males who refused to answer the questionnaire were threatened with prosecution for violating the Espionage Act. Yet, the WRA and War Department were surprised by the extent of the opposition by Camp inmates to the questionnaire with nine thousand requests for repatriation and expatriation to Japan by 1943. Those who answered no to both questions 27 and 28 were segregated into the disloyal group and sent to the Tule Lake Camp in California. Dad, as a Nisei and citizen, must have answered yes to both questions for we remained in Camp Minidoka. I don’t know how Jichan and Bachan answered the questions. I’m sure that I would certainly have answered yes to question 28 but no to question 27. On July 1, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Denaturalization Act of 1944, allowing citizens to renounce their citizenship. Jimmy Mirikitani, the artist featured in the DVD, The Cats of Mirikitani, was one of the incarcerated who, misunderstanding the questionnaire, renounced his citizenship. Late in life, he regained his citizenship, but for many years, he could not claim Social Security benefits and lived on the streets of New York City. The Application for Leave Clearance form set the stage for enforcement of the draft in Camp in 1944.
(To be continued in OOV 46)
© Susan Yamamura