..........Former Nikkei Internees
Before discussions of a memorial took place, former internees or their descendants shared their experiences.
Former Tule Lake, Calif. renunciants Junichi Yamamoto (Poston camp 2), 89; Arthur Ogami, 88; and Hitoshi “Hank” Naito, 84, had all been at Fort Lincoln in 1945 and transported to Japan on the USS Gordon in December 1945.
Yamamoto, a Kibei who never reclaimed his U.S. citizenship and travels with a Japanese passport, had not returned to Bismarck since 1945. Yamamoto felt that he received better treatment at the DOJ camp than at the War Relocation Authority (WRA) camps.
“In the WRA camps, you’re an American but they treat you like a Japanese,” said Yamamoto. “That’s why you get mad. But here (Fort Lincoln), we became Japanese and they treated you like a Japanese.”
Yamamoto was never ashamed about his past but not everyone shared his view. He talked about one incident at a community basketball game.
“I went over to him and I said, ‘Hey, remember me? We were in Bismarck together,’” recalled Yamamoto. “He says, ‘Oh, don’t say that.’ He was ashamed to mention that, I think, so he took me into a back room.
“All these years, I never thought that way. I don’t brag about being here, but I never felt ashamed about being here. I thought I did the right thing, but some people, I guess, feel kind of ashamed that they were here.”
Yamamoto, whose family farmed in Salinas, Calif. before the war, had been imprisoned at the Salinas Assembly Center, Colorado River’s (Poston, Arizona) Camp 2 and Tule Lake. Yamamoto had bitter memories of Poston, where his father had passed away while awaiting travel permission to visit his regular physician in San Francisco.
“Poston was hell,” said Yamamoto.
In contrast, he fondly recalled the German internees’ welcoming party at Fort Lincoln.
“We were pleasantly surprised when the welcoming speech was made in Japanese,” said Yamamoto. Yamamoto also placed first in a swim meet between the Japanese and Germans. Although Yamamoto was born in landlocked Salinas, the Kibei learned to swim in Hiroshima.
Ogami, who had not seen Yamamoto in 65 years, remembered Yamamoto’s swimming expertise.
“When I saw his face, I imagined him at a younger age, and I distinctly remember him demonstrating how when a drowning person panics, they grab you, and he showed us how to flip them on their back,” said Ogami.
Like Yamamoto, this was Ogami’s first time back to Bismarck since 1945. He choked up as he shared that coming to the UTTC campus felt “like coming back home.”
“I had renounced my citizenship to keep the family intact,” said Ogami. “And when I renounced, I left the United States in 1945 with the idea that I would never return.”
The Ogami family had been incarcerated at the Manzanar concentration camp in California, but were transferred to Tule Lake after Ogami’s father applied through the Spanish embassy to have the family used in a civilian exchange between Japan and the U.S. Spain, as a neutral country, served to communicate between the two warring countries.
Ogami had never been to Japan, but once he renounced, he threw himself into learning the Japanese language at Tule Lake and then at Fort Lincoln. His father was sent to the DOJ camp in Santa Fe, N.M., while his mother and younger sister remained imprisoned at Tule Lake.
At Bismarck, the FBI questioned Ogami one last time before he was shipped to Japan. “They (FBI) tried to influence the young ones that had petitioned to go to Japan to change their minds,” said Ogami. “But there was no promise of having our American citizenship reinstated.”
For Naito, this was his second time back to Bismarck since 1945. He had also attended the 2003 opening of a Fort Lincoln exhibit titled “Snow County Prison: Interned in North Dakota.”
Unlike in 2003, Naito was more open about his incarceration at Heart Mountain, Wyo., Tule Lake and Fort Lincoln. He described this Bismarck meeting as “more productive.” While there were stories of German internees swimming naked in the Fort Lincoln pool, Naito laughed that the “Japanese weren’t all that modest either.”
Takashi Tsujita, another former Fort Lincoln internee, did not ship out to Japan. He was incarcerated at the Turlock Assembly Center, in California, Gila River, Ariz. WRA camp, Tule Lake Segregation Center, and the DOJ camps at Fort Lincoln, Santa Fe, and Crystal City, Texas.
Tsujita had a difficult time recalling his time at Fort Lincoln. “I’m trying to fill a gap, a blank,” he said. “You know, after the war, you have to make a living. You can’t just sit still and be bitter about it. You got to forget and go on.”
Tsujita thought he recognized the brick buildings but couldn’t be sure which one he was held in.
“I remember I went to Japanese school,” he said. “I had interaction with the Germans when they built an ice rink, but I don’t remember who I borrowed the skates from.”
Bill Nishimura, 90, was not imprisoned at Fort Lincoln but at Santa Fe. Unlike at Bismarck, where several wartime buildings still stand, Nishimura said the only indication that there had been a Santa Fe DOJ camp is a plaque.
In addition, while the UTTC administration welcomes a campus memorial, Nishimura said placing even a plaque at the former Santa Fe DOJ camp had caused a national furor because many survivors of Japan’s Bataan Death March lived in Santa Fe and objected to what they mistook as a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
“The atmosphere at Santa Fe is different,” said Nishimura. “It isn’t as welcoming as at Bismarck, so creating a monument that would represent all the Department of Justice camps is most important at Bismarck.”....................