For these Japanese Americans, an executive order stripped away their lives and dignity

Mine Ikeda remembers a gesture of comfort the day after Pearl Harbor

Mine Ikeda tells of a poignant and comforting gesture by a Clovis High classmate on the dreaded ride to school on December 8, 1941.
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Mine Ikeda tells of a poignant and comforting gesture by a Clovis High classmate on the dreaded ride to school on December 8, 1941.

On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Mine Ikeda boarded a school bus taking students to Clovis High School. She wasn’t looking forward to going to school that Monday.

“We all kind of dreaded it,” she said.

But the kindness of another student helped allay her fears. “Frank Mesple (the student body president) came and sat by me and held my hand all the way to school and didn’t say a word. That kind of set the tone.”

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. military to imprison 120,000 Japanese immigrant and Japanese American residents of the West Coast in internment camps.

When Ikeda got to school, the principal held an assembly and said the Japanese American students had nothing to do with the Pearl Harbor attacks.

Having a safe place, she said, was reassuring.

“The Japanese people had very good friends who were very vocal before and after the war who helped us a lot,” she said.

Nori Masuda of Fresno and a Japanese American friend had planned to enlist in the Army together. His friend signed paperwork the week before and Masuda was scheduled to enlist on Feb. 22.

“I told him, I’ll catch up with you,” said Masuda, now 100.

But after Order 9066 was issued on Feb. 19, he was classified as an enemy alien and couldn’t enlist.

During World War II, 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were held in internment camps. Nearly 20,000 were confined at temporary detention centers in Fresno and Pinedale and others in Tulare and Merced. But no Japanese American or Japanese-born relative ever was implicated in a plot against the United States.

Now in their 80s and 90s, some travel long distances to speak about the humiliation of their imprisonment and how they are adamant about ensuring it won’t happen again.

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Howard Zenimura, a freshman at Edison High School, had made the varsity baseball team and was going to start in right field on May 16, 1942, his 15th birthday.

The barracks were inside the racetrack, and people were staying inside the horse stalls.

Howard Zenimura of Fresno (Gila River, Arizona, internment camp)

Instead, his family was ordered to pack what belongings they could carry and go to the Buddhist Church in downtown Fresno, where they were picked up and taken to the temporary detention center at the Fresno Fairgrounds.

“The barracks were inside the racetrack, and people were staying inside the horse stalls,” said Zenimura, now 89 and a retired teacher.

Robert Yano, 93, who lives near Kingsburg, recalled how residents from the west side of Highway 99 fled to the east side to find places to live.

Kingsburg native Robert Yano, 93, registered for the draft at age 18 and was classified as ready for wartime service. Once in the Gila River internment camp, he found himself reclassified as an enemy alien.

Highway 99 separated free and imprisoned Japanese families in the spring and summer of 1942. Those west of the highway, about 5,400, would go to the assembly center at the Fresno Fairgrounds. Those east of Highway 99 could stay in their homes until they were ordered to internment camps.

“We had five or six families camping out here,” said Yano, who was imprisoned at the Gila River, Arizona, camp with his father and brothers before he joined the Army’s 442nd “Go For Broke” regiment and fought in some of the most pivotal battles in Europe. “We went to the assembly center to visit our friends. We were free, and we were on the other side of the fence visiting them. It was a screwed-up thing.”

But those confined to the fairgrounds weren’t any less American, he said.

More than 5,000 Japanese Americans confined to the infield of the horse racing track put on a Fourth of July show in 1942 to honor the same nation that imprisoned them, said Saburo Masada, who was a preteen at the time.

A family friend and teacher, Mary Tsukamoto, had her class participate in the Independence Day talent show. She had a large picture of Abraham Lincoln painted with an American flag behind him. Her class then recited the Gettysburg Address.

“Some people criticized her and scorned her because that wasn’t the kind of reading they should be doing here,” said Masada, now 86 and a retired pastor. “But others wept, because Mary said, ‘That was expressing our heart’s cry that our country would be of the people, by the people and for the people, and that’s what we wanted it to be focused on.’ 

Far from home

Residents of Fresno and the rest of the central San Joaquin Valley initially were sent to two of the largest internment centers in Gila River and Poston, Arizona, or to a center nearly 2,000 miles away in southeastern Arkansas.

The internment camp at Jerome, Arkansas, turned wintry within days of their arrival in November 1942, Masada said. The barracks weren’t equipped with heaters, he added.

Doctors were not prepared for seriously ill patients and only allowed to offer the most basic treatment. The health of Masada’s father, Ihei Masada, went downhill quickly.

“My father caught pneumonia and he died three weeks after we arrived,” Saburo Masada said. “The day he died, a potbellied wood stove showed up in our barrack.”

Masada’s wife, Marion, 84, and her family were moved from the fairgrounds in Salinas to Poston. It wasn’t long before her pregnant mother had a baby, and it became Marion’s responsibility to handle the family’s chores, such as laundry and ironing.

Marion Masada, 84, recalls feeling like an “old lady” though she was just a child at the World War II relocation camp. She took on family responsibilities after the birth of her sister. She also remembers a traumatic event - being molested - that

“I felt like an old lady at 10,” she said. “At 10 or 11, I was molested by an Issei (older generation Japanese man). I was so traumatized I couldn’t even tell my mother before she passed away.”

The trauma extended to everyday life, especially for girls and women. The bathrooms and showers lacked partitions and privacy.

120,000The number of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans from the West Coast imprisoned by the U.S. government during World War II

Mine Ikeda, who also was confined at Poston, said the experience was degrading.

“We had to take showers together and go to the bathroom together but after awhile you got used to it,” said Ikeda, now 92.

Ikeda and other women were allowed to leave the camps to become domestic workers across the country – except the West Coast. Some men left, too, by attending college, working on farms in different states or going into the military. Other families were allowed to leave camps if they moved to inland communities or the East Coast.

In 1944, two and a half years after signing Order 9066, President Roosevelt rescinded the order, and by the end of 1945 the last internment camp was closed.

Some internees returned to their West Coast homes. Marion Masada’s family home in Salinas had been looted.

“We lost everything,” she said.

Saburo Masada’s family was more fortunate. Their Caruthers-area farm had been preserved by neighbors, but not everyone was so welcoming.

Within weeks of their return in the spring of 1945, gunmen shot into their home.

“A shot from a .22 [caliber rifle] hit a table where my sister was sitting; no one was injured,” he said. “They hit three other Japanese American homes, too.”

Robert Yano also got some bad news. After fighting in Europe, he wanted to stay in the Army and go to Japan to join his mother before returning home, but his father told him to return to Kingsburg. That’s when Yano learned his mother, who had gone with his aunt in the spring of 1941 to visit relatives in Japan but then was not allowed to return to the U.S. after the attack on Pearl Harbor, had died in Japan.

“She got sick there and we didn’t know anything,” Yano said. “Later on, through the Red Cross, my dad and brother found out, but I didn’t know; I was in Italy.”

Sharing their history

The history of Japanese Americans during World War II is unknown to many younger Americans. But the Masadas and others are trying to change that by visiting schools across the country and telling their stories.

On a visit to a West Virginia college, Saburo and Marion Masada asked if anyone knew about their confinement. Only one student, who was from San Jose, raised his hand.

At the University of the Pacific in Stockton, a student told the Masadas that she thought the Japanese were imprisoned for their own protection.

That idea is ridiculous, said Kerry Yo Nakagawa, a Fresno historian on Japanese American baseball whose sister, parents and grandparents were imprisoned in Jerome, Arkansas.

“The government took away their civil liberties, their constitution, their radios, their cameras, and guns in the gun towers were pointed inward, not outward,” he said. “You can’t argue it was for their protection.”

The Masadas aren’t the only ones visiting schools.

Nakagawa, Howard Zenimura and Robert Yano have traveled to a small town in Wisconsin to tell grammar school students about their experiences during the war.

Robert Yano shows us his “zendebadi,” a treasured part of his combat legacy during World War II, which took him through Europe as a member of the Army 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The belt has a thousand red dots, sewn by women in the Gila River

Fifth-grade teacher Colin Hanson has been bringing historical figures to Edgar, Wisconsin, since 2008 to offer students a firsthand understanding of history from those who lived it.

In addition to Japanese internees, he’s brought a Navajo code talker and Women Airforce Service Pilots who served during World War II; individuals who participated in the civil rights movement; Tuskegee airmen; and a Nazi concentration camp survivor.

The speakers make a difference in bridging cultural differences by bringing diverse experiences to a tiny, nearly all-white Wisconsin town, Hanson said.

“These speakers are impacting central Wisconsin kids, and our kids will carry those stories when they go to college and when they have kids and when there are no more people left from World War II,” he said.

Our kids will carry those stories when they go to college and when they have kids and when there are no more people left from World War II.

Colin Hanson, fifth-grade teacher at Edgar Elementary School in Wisconsin

Hanson said the assemblies have poignant, dramatic moments.

In front of more than 1,800 students, Tetsuo Furukawa – who was relocated at the age of 14 from the Central Coast to the Tulare County Fairgrounds before going to Gila River, Arizona – started his talk by silently carrying a suitcase and a duffel bag, Hanson said.

When he spoke, Furukawa asked the students if they were forcibly removed from their homes, “What would you bring with you?”

Yano spoke to 1,500 students from seven Wisconsin school districts about his internment and combat experiences in Europe.

His daughter, Chris Yano-Goss, a teacher at Clay Elementary School near Kingsburg, said it was important to her father to share his history.

“Dad said he was excited to do the schools because that’s where you need to start, with the children, in hopes that it doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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