On the other side of the fence.....
November 29, 2004 by Kendall Middlemas
Bay County resident of Japanese descent gives his account of how life changed after Pearl Harbor
He was a young American soldier, guarding a one-time concentration camp. It was his job to keep German prisoners of war behind the fence. Just a few scarce years before, this young American soldier, the grandson of Japanese immigrants, had been on the other side of another fence — not in Germany, but in his own country. He was not a prisoner, per se — his government avoided that term. He was an "evacuee," and his relocation and confinement were borne of "military necessity." Young American soldiers kept him behind the fence.
Like every American who was alive at the time, Eugene Nakamura (Poston block 22) can remember exactly where he was on Dec. 7, 1941, when news broke that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. "Farmers, at least in the San Diego area, worked on Sundays because they picked produce for the Monday market," he said. "I was in the field working with my dad. We didn't know what was going on or what the implications were right at that moment." But the implications soon would become clear. Japan had become a reviled enemy. And Japanese-Americans, even those whose families had been in the United States for three generations, were presumed guilty by association and ancestry.
"There were a lot of prejudicial statements, racial epithets, that sort of thing," Nakamura said. "There were signs warning us to stay from certain places." He remembers one sign: "No Japs or dogs allowed."
"I don't know what they would have done if a dog had come in," he said. Then, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 9066. Citing a danger of "espionage" and "sabotage," the order authorized the designation of "military areas" in California, Oregon and Washington from which Japanese-Americans would be excluded.
"That was the purpose of getting us off the coast. We were suspected of being spies," Nakamura said. Over the next few months, roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans would be evacuated from their homes and taken to internment camps, which the U.S. government called "relocation centers."
When it came time for an area to be evacuated, the signs would appear. "INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY," the signs read, followed by orders on where and when to report for relocation. "There were posters like this tacked onto telephone poles all over the place, telephone poles and buildings," Nakamura said. There wasn't much time to prepare once the "evacuation" order came. But neither was there much to pack.
"All you could take was what you could carry," Nakamura said. He left a cherished gun collection with a friend back home in California. "I gave them to a classmate to hold until the war was over, until we got back," he said. They never got back. He never saw his gun collection again. With soldiers guarding them, and with the windows shaded, they rode a train through the desert to the place that would be their home for the next year and a half, and where Nakamura, now 78, would spend his 16th birthday. "We couldn't look out of the train. All the window shades were pulled down," Nakamura recalled. "It was hot, because we were going through the Mojave Desert." Their destination was the Colorado River Relocation Center, also known as Poston [camp 1, block 22] , in a barren corner of Arizona.
Poston was the largest of 10 relocation centers. At its peak, it housed nearly 18,000 Japanese-Americans. A map of Poston shows a group of blocks, each containing carefully patterned rows of 14 army-style barracks. Each barrack was divided into four units. "We lived in one of those units," Nakamura said. There were five of them — Nakamura, his two sisters [Yukie Joyce & Fujiye Irene] and his parents [Shoichi Clarence & Chiyo Nakamura] — sharing the 20-by-20-foot quarters. There were few comforts of home in the crude and crowded housing — "the winters were cold, the summers were hot," he said. They slept on beds of hay. "We were issued these mattress covers and were told to go to stacks of hay bales and put hay in the mattress cover and that was our mattress," Nakamura said. And there were the dust storms. "The wind would blow all that fine sand all over the place," he said. Sand would penetrate the walls and creep up through the floorboards of the barracks. If a dust storm came up at mealtime, the meal was ruined — turned into a gritty mess. "You just had to quit," Nakamura said.
To the extent possible, the relocation center functioned as a community. The children went to school. There were basketball and softball teams, and muddy, makeshift "swimming pools" that provided respite from the heat. "We had social events. Young kids like us would have dances," Nakamura said. There was a camp newspaper, The Poston Chronicle, where Nakamura's uncle worked the mimeograph machine. There were police and fire departments and a hospital. There were Girl Scout troops and Boy Scout troops and a community band. Soldiers guarded the outside, but for the most part, the internees managed their own affairs on the inside. "The only soldiers I saw were at the entrance to the camp," Nakamura said. There was a guard tower equipped with a machine gun, "which incidentally was pointed into the camp, and not out."
Youngsters took to camp life better than adults did. "The older folks were very resentful because they were uprooted from their livelihood," Nakamura said. "They became totally dependent on camp authorities and the government. "Young people tried to make the most of it. I made a lot of friends in the camp that I'm still in contact with today."
Eventually, the U.S. government started releasing internees under carefully prescribed conditions. Nakamura's father left the camp before the rest of the family. He wasn't allowed to return to California. But he had a cousin in Chicago who ran an art repair shop. The cousin gave Nakamura's father a job. He went out and got settled and rented an apartment, and later called for the family to join him. Nakamura attended his last year of high school in Chicago. There, he didn't forge any lasting friendships like the ones he'd fostered at Poston.
When he turned 18, Nakamura had to register for the draft. He wanted to be in the Navy. "I went down to the recruiting office and the man took one look at me and asked if I was of Japanese ancestry," he said. "I said yes." No thanks, the recruiter said. "Just prejudice, I guess," Nakamura said by way of explaining the rejection. The Army didn't have such qualms. It drafted him. He was in basic training when the war ended in Europe and in military intelligence school when the war ended in Japan. The Army offered to send Nakamura to interpreter school, with the anticipation of stationing him in post-war Japan. "I said no. I wanted to go to Europe," he said.
And so he joined the occupational forces in Germany. "We were guarding a concentration camp where the Nazis had interned a bunch of people," he said. The concentration camp had been converted to a prison camp for Nazi prisoners of war. "I ended up guarding an internment camp," Nakamura said, noting the irony. But comparisons between German concentration camps and Japanese-American internment camps are misplaced, he said. "The similarity is we lived in barracks and there was a fence around it. Aside from that, we were not prisoners of war." At the erstwhile concentration camp, there were relics of atrocities that had occurred there, like a brick building with the word "crematorium" over the door. "There were big ovens with metal trays," he said. He saw "huge piles of shoes and all the good leather on top of the shoes had been cut out. I saw men's shoes, women's shoes and little kids' shoes. It was kind of gruesome."
Early on, Nakamura was posted at the camp's entrance gate, and every day he watched a woman pass by, struggling for a glimpse inside the camp. One day Nakamura spoke to her, and was surprised to learn that she spoke English. It turned out she was from St. Louis. The Nazis had drafted her American-born son and he had become a prisoner in the camp Nakamura was guarding. Nakamura was one of a dozen or more Japanese-American soldiers in his division. He said they rarely questioned serving a country that had uprooted and confined them just a few years before. "At that age, most of us were probably not mature enough to think about the implications of what had happened to us," he said.
Back at Poston, boys who turned 18 while in the camp had to register for the draft. They were asked two "loyalty" questions: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, whenever ordered? " "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? " Young men who answered in the negative were called the "No-No Boys." "They were shipped off to a second camp," Nakamura said.
Nakamura doesn't recall much of such "disloyalty," as the U.S. government termed it. "There were hardships to put up with, but everybody was being exposed to it," he said. For the most part, Nakamura took his cues from his parents. "My parents never really talked much about the whole affair," he said. "They just figured this was something they had to do. They didn't like it, of course, but they complied. I don't think my parents were of the mind to be resistors."
After leaving the Army, Nakamura returned to Illinois and attended the University of Illinois, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees. Even then, with the war long over, Japanese-Americans were still mistrusted. "I was extremely conscious of my ethnicity. It was probably part of my immaturity," Nakamura said. "That sort of thing stayed with me for a while." Only when he moved to Hawaii, where Japanese-Americans made up the state's largest ethnic minority, did he shed his discomfort. "I was no longer a minority," he said.
Nakamura moved to Panama City in 1971. For 22 years, he directed the National Marine Fisheries Service's Panama City laboratory. His time in the internment camp is not something he has dwelled on. Even his grown son, Keone, knows little of his father's experience. "I seldom talk about it," Nakamura said.
For a time, the former residents of Poston held reunions every five years. That was a time to talk about the past, he said. At the most recent reunion, in 1998, the attendees were told it would probably be the last. "The group was getting pretty, pretty small," Nakamura said.
Every once in a while, contemporary events can rouse memories of the post-Pearl Harbor period. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack was one such event. Like Japanese-Americans 60 years before, Arab-Americans found themselves the targets of suspicion and hostility. "I started sympathizing with them and empathizing with them because I knew what they were going through," he said. Otherwise, he said, his history is just that — history. "I've just put it in the past," he said. "It's been made right."
He has a letter from former President George Bush, recognizing "that serious injustices were done to Japanese-Americans during World War II." Nakamura and other former internees each received $20,000 in reparation. "You know what I did with mine? I bought a Japanese car."