|Photo credit:Dianne Kiyomoto.|
November 26, 2013
It was the spring of 1942, after the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that the U.S. government began relocating American citizens of Japanese ancestry as well as their immigrant (issei) parents living in California and other states on the Pacific coast. Their new “homes” would be behind barbed wire.
Memories of the concentration camp came flooding back to Nakagawa and other Japanese-Americans from Reedley who attended the November 19, 2013 dedication of a memorial tower built at Simonian Farms in Fresno.
|Simonian's "Soul Consoling Tower"|
The memorial tower is constructed entirely of 70-year-old Poston, Arizona concentration camp wood from the barrack. The tower rises more than 25 feet with three Japanese language written characters, translated to read, “Soul Consoling Tower.” It was taken from the inscription on a memorial located at the Manzanar concentration camp in eastern California.
Although Sammy Nakagawa was not in one of the five families honored, he was invited to the dedication ceremony since he was incarcerated at Poston camp III, where most Japanese families from Reedley and the surrounding areas were imprisoned. Approx-imately 5,000 people lived in that camp.
As a 12-year-old, Nakagawa said he didn’t realize the depth of the situation. “I was so young, I didn’t know any better. My parents did the bulk of the worrying,” he said.
The Nakagawa family was incarcerated for almost three years, during which time Sammy Nakagawa attended school at Poston – from the 7th grade through his freshman year in high school. He said the curriculum in the camps taught about “the American way,” which he felt was hypocritical considering their circumstances.
Although the children at the camp were kept busy, Nakagawa said his time in the camp felt like an eternity, especially during the dust storms and hot temperatures typical of Arizona. “For us young kids, we were not angry because we didn’t know the whole story like our parents did,” he said. “For us young kids, we were not angry because we didn’t know the whole story like our parents did,” he said. “Our parents didn’t know what was going to become of us – whether we were going to be eradicated or executed. They just did what they were told and came out OK. They were all in the same boat.”
Nakagawa said he longed to return home. “We couldn’t get out. It was like a big jail,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would ever see our home again.”
When the Japanese internees were finally released from the camps, Nakagawa said his family was lucky because they had a ranch to return to. A family friend looked after their property while the Nakagawas were gone. Some families were not so fortunate. “Some families lost everything. A majority had no place to go,” Nakagawa said.
Although grateful to be back home, Nagakawa was immediately faced with a new battle. Orosi business owner Franklin Abe (305-11-B) called it the “war of bigotry” which continued following return at home. Abe was one of three speakers at the dedication event.
When Nakagawa returned to classes at Reedley High as a teenager, he experienced prejudice from some classmates, he said: “They gave me a bad time. Some said they wanted me to go back to the camp. I just ignored them.”
Not everyone was so cruel, Nakagawa said. Many longtime friends and neighbors stuck by his family, which is the primary reason that Nakagawa chose to remain in Reedley. He and his wife raised their three daughters here.
Nakagawa still lives with his wife on the same Reedley ranch that his parents purchased in 1934. As he grew older, Nakagawa said he felt resentment about the incarceration, but that resentment has now disappeared. Still, he said, “I don’t understand why we were put in the camp. We were Americans. We could have done more good out of the camp than in the camp. We could have helped out a lot more. We had doctors, teachers – these were all good people.”
Despite what happened, Nakagawa kept a strong affection for the United States, a country he also fought for. Between 1951 and 1955, Nakagawa served in the United States Air Force during the Korean War. He flew 30 missions over Korea in a B-29 aircraft.
Stan Hirahara, the president of the Reedley Japanese American Citizens League, also attended the dedication ceremony at Simonian Farms. Hirahara – who was born in an concentration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming in 1945 – expressed heartfelt emotion about the Soul Consoling Tower. “It’s important to remember the incarceration of the Japanese people so that something like that never happens again,” Hirahara said. “It was such a mistake by the United States government that a redress was passed in 1986 and the government issued an apology.”
Former Reedley native Dianne Kiyomoto (Poston Community Alliance Board Member) – whose mother and grandparents lived in a concentration camp in Poston camp III (305-5-A, 305-11-C) – is assembling a directory, listing everyone who was in the Poston camps. She said it’s an effort to preserve this information for future generations, since many of those who lived in the concentration camps are now dead. In the process of gathering data, Kiyomoto said she learned that Reedley was initially considered a safe haven for many Japanese-Americans during the war because it was primarily a Mennonite community, and most Mennonites did not choose sides.
She said many people of Japanese descent who lived along the California coast flocked to Reedley in hopes of avoiding incarceration. In the long run, however, almost all Japanese people living in California were forced into camps. (Exception: Terminally ill.)
At the recent dedication ceremony, owner Dennis Simonian said in his speech: “Every day, I fly 26 American flags at my business, and I am a proud Army Veteran. But there are times when I have not agreed with what my country has done. I hope to create an awareness of what the government did to the Japanese people. It was not right. This monument was built for everyone who lived in the concentration camps. I am hoping for the cleansing and healing of souls.”