Some San Diegan's experiences

Letters from the End of the World, Part One
By Jeff Smith, Aug. 29, 2012

Santa Anita Assembly Center

Miss Clara Estelle Breed
      Tetsuzo “Tets” Hirasaki (Poston 322-14-A) loved to read and write. He became a “bookworm,” he joked, because he had the “ironic fortune to be a neglected child.” His mother died when he was five. His father, Chiyomatsu, a barber in San Diego, worked long days. When Tets was eight, in the late ’20s, “on strict orders not to stray and get into trouble,” he went to the children’s section of the public library, upstairs at Eighth and E. He became fast friends with Clara Breed, the librarian, who showed him “the tools for survival in that great temple of knowledge.” Breed sparked Tets’s lifelong passion for reading whatever came his way: books, newspaper and magazine articles, the backs of cereal boxes.
     “Someone said, ‘Knowledge is free,”’ he wrote, “‘but you have to bring your own container!’ I sure tried to fill mine. The strangest part is that, as the filling takes place, the more knowledge is required to fill the voids that keep appearing.”
     Years later, he wrote to Breed that poverty and “man’s inhumanity to man” are “directly tied to the growing numbers of people who…lack the key that opens the doors — THE ABILITY TO READ.”
Tets Hirasaki
     While a junior at San Diego High, Tets injured his shoulder. This gave him more time to pursue reading, but a tubercular lesion developed on his right arm. During his first year of college — late November, 1941 — it flared up and needed reconstructive surgery. He had to drop out of school.
     On December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It was a blow to everyone, wrote Breed, “but to the young Japanese Americans it was as if the world fell about [their] ears.”
     Tets was 21. Within days, the FBI sent his father to federal prison at Bismarck, North Dakota. The charge: he was an “Issei” (a first-generation immigrant) and a “leader of the Japanese-American community” in San Diego: therefore, a prime suspect. Like over 1300 others instantly incarcerated, Chiyomatsu became an “alien.”
     Somehow, Tets kept his sense of humor. At his doctor’s office on December 10, he joked, “Boy, did the orderlies cutting off the cast have fun with me, vowing to get even for Pearl Harbor!”
     On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066: the Army would establish a military zone, especially on the West Coast, “from which any or all persons may be excluded as deemed necessary” — meaning everyone of Japanese ancestry.
     On the night of April 7, four months after Pearl Harbor, the Army boarded 1150 Nikkei into two 16-car trains at San Diego’s Union Depot. Three boxcars carried all their possessions.
     Clara Breed drove Tets and his young sister, Yaeko, to the station. They brought only what they could carry, which meant Tets had to leave behind his personal library. After a four-hour wait, they rode with all blinds drawn to an “assembly area” at Santa Anita Racetrack.
     For the next two-plus years, Tets wrote letters, giving a guided tour — what he called the “inside poop” — on the Japanese “relocation.”
     The Santa Anita Assembly Center consisted of rows and rows of black tarpaper and wood, one-story barracks on the infield of the famous racetrack. One laundry area served 16,000 people. Toilets were few, in rows of four with no partitions, and flushed automatically every 15 minutes. A single sheet of toilet paper became known as a “Rose Bowl ticket.” Bartering sessions often began: “I’ll trade six Rose Bowl tickets for…”
     Armed guards patrolled the grounds and searched the barracks. “No matter what efforts were taken to normalize life at Santa Anita,” writes Donald H. Estes, “it was a concentration camp…. The presumption of the government of the United States was that the residents were enemy sympathizers whose loyalty was questionable at best.”
     An internee named it “Santa Japanita.”
      April 8, 1942, letter to Clara Breed: “I have been informed that it is possible to receive small postal parcels…. It seems the boys here all are asking me to cut their hair, so…please send my electric clippers that are in an unpacked box. The razors are not needed just now. My blanket roll is needed as I found that my barber towels are rolled inside.

    “Sincerely, Ted.   “I haven’t any place to put books yet.”  

     April 13, 1942: “Little did I think that I would see Santa Anita, where once trod the millions of pleasure-seeking fans of the sport of kings — horse racing. Why, I’m actually treading the ground where the mighty Seabiscuit won his great duels. The staterooms are not bad since the roof didn’t leak at all during the rains we had.”
     The “staterooms” were 8x20-foot horse stalls where Nikkei from San Diego had to live. They disagreed which was worse: lack of privacy or the smell, a combi-nation of horse manure and urine.
     Tets roomed in “bachelor quarters” near the barbed wire. He was several years older than most of the young people. He had two jobs: messenger by day, barber at night.
“Yesterday I covered the whole section — pretty close to 80 barracks. What a walk!!”
     April 16, 1942: “We are eating in mess halls that seat anywhere from 750 to 5000 (Mess Hall #2). We have electrical facilities but no gas. Every day is so much alike that I have trouble remembering the date.
     “I can’t seem to find my wolf’s clothing so I am still alone as far as feminine companionship is concerned.”
     April 22, 1942: Breed sent Tets a large box of books and barbering equipment. After thanking her, he said he wished she’d sent the items in installments: the box made “many of the other people feel bad seeing one fellow getting so much at one time.
     “The postal setup is getting better now.... The employees from Arcadia [took] a beating. We did too. They did not know one Japanese name from another and we had to stand in line for hours before we could get our mail. Finally the postal authorities ‘got wise’ and placed the Japanese boys back on the job.
     “I am glad to report that Dr. Tanaka [from San Diego] was finally placed on the staff. Now that I am barbering my arm seems to be getting better all the time. I am glad you heard from my father. I have not received news from him as yet.
     “The food situation can be improved greatly (the tea and coffee are such in name only). I have spoken to the officials in charge and I am sure after talking with them that conditions will improve.”
     May 4, 1942: Now that we have a number of San Diego men working in the kitchens, the food has improved a bit. I heard we are to receive meat soon, but I think it will mostly be stew meat, because we are not allowed knives, only spoons and forks as eating utensils.”
     In late May, many left the camp for “seasonal leave,” to work the fields. Others sought new, “relocated” lives in the Midwest.
     May 26, 1942: “Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and St. Louis are the ‘big towns’ that are attracting the most,” Tets wrote.
     “What a difference time makes! The cry was ‘Go West’ (young man), now it’s ‘Go East’ (young Nisei).
     “The outlook for a family to relocate outside is not very encouraging. Many families came into camp with only two to three suitcases per member. They had sold their furnishings for the home. Furnished houses are very rare or are too expensive. As a result, if the family goes out, they must start all over to furnish a house on an income that has…decreased during the past year.
     “Another thing: many things that were sold are now not available or else priced much higher. This problem alone keeps many in camp. Couple that…with the uncertainty of the attitude of the people, jobs to support a family (majority of jobs now are menial), and then you have the bottleneck to relocation. So at present those who can afford the expense…are the ones relocating.
     “I am sorry to report that many have begun to like this camp life — so easy-going with hardly any worries aside from what other way time can be more leisurely spent. I think that it harms the youths more than anyone else…. Live on the government is their creed — after all, ole Uncle Sammy will take care of them so why worry about the future? They are pretty disillusioned and cynical. However, there is hope, because now with all the young fellows going out many are becoming conscious of the outside.
     “Nothing definite regarding relocation of either my sister or me. Too many things uncertain.”
     July 28, 1942: “The hot weather is really sapping my energy so that I flop on my bed for a few hours after work to recuperate.”
     August 3, 1942: “Monday morning and blue as usual. Feel a little bit stiff as a result of an afternoon of badminton yesterday….On Saturday I had one of the doctors here in camp check my lungs. He told me there was nothing to worry about. Later I am going to have him x-ray both my lungs and arm.
     “Ten men came into Japanita from North Dakota. Four were former San Diegans. They told me dad is getting along all right and that he is barbering in camp. He had his trial but as yet does not know the verdict.”
     On August 9, military police made an unannounced search for contraband. Along with scissors, knitting needles, and other potential “weapons,” they smuggled out money. A small group of Nikkei caught a uniformed thief in the act and beat him with chairs. Newspapers screamed “mass riot.” The Army shut down the camp for three days.
     August 10, 1942: “Dear Miss Breed: You have by now read about the presence of military police here in camp. They were here Tuesday afternoon to Friday afternoon. The only people working were those in the mess division and certain sections of the maintenance and recreation department. Even the U.S. Mail was at a standstill.
     “What a sad surprise when mail was resumed. I had a letter from dad saying that he had received notice of internment for the duration. There is a chance of reopening his case. In order to do so, he requires an affidavit of conduct.”
     Breed petitioned William Fleet Palmer, United States Attorney, on behalf of Tets’s father. Along with a strong character reference, she added, “If Mr. Hirasaki could be sent to Santa Anita, the family could become a unit again before they are moved to a relocation center.”
     Santa Anita had been a way station. For six months, the Nikkei speculated about their ultimate destination. Most rumors said it would be far inland: the “snow country” of Utah, Idaho, Colorado, or Wyoming — or even Arkansas. “Wherever we go,” Fusa Tsumagari (Poston 323-11-D) wrote to Breed, “we all realize it will be ‘rough going,’ because other people have refused to live there before us.”
     On August 20 the camp newspaper, The Pacemaker, announced: “The complete evacuation of the Santa Anita Assembly center will begin on Wednesday [August 26], when a contingent of approximately 600 persons will leave by train for the Colorado River at Parker, Arizona. An additional group of 600 evacuees will leave for the same destination on Thursday [August 27]. The two groups will be made up of families evacuated…from San Diego city.”
     Parker, Arizona, wasn’t on many maps. Eighty miles from the nearest service station, it had only one telephone. Poston, the “relocation center,” was 16 miles south of Parker in what looked like endless wasteland: one of the nation’s hottest areas (said to be ten degrees hotter than the Libyan desert), and one of the windiest. Storms flared up in seconds and coated everything — skin, hair, teeth, sinuses, eyes — with a layer of fine dust almost impossible to remove.
     August 26, 1942, written on a blue postcard: “Dear Clara: Leaving for Poston tonight.”

Breed, Clara, “Americans with the Wrong Ancestors,” Horn Book Magazine, July 1943.
Daniels, Roger, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, New York, 2004.
Estes, Donald H., and Estes, Matthew T., “Further and Further Away: The Relocation of San Diego’s Nikkei Community,” Journal of San Diego History, Spring 1993.
Hirasaki, Tetsuzo, letters, gift of Elizabeth Y. Yamada, Japanese American National Museum. (93.75.31G)(93.75.3EL)(93.75.31FK).
Oppenheim, Joanne, “Dear Miss Breed” True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference, Singapore, 2006.
Tunnell, Michael O., and Chilcoat, George W., Children of Topaz, New York, 1996.
Interviews: Joanne Oppenheim, Joe Yamada, Lynn Eller.

Letters from the End of the World, Part Two

By Jeff Smith, Sept. 5, 2012

     Tetsuzo “Tets” Hirasaki, his sister Yaeko, and 1200 other Japanese-Americans from San Diego were “relocated” to Poston, Arizona, in early September, 1942. After a 20-hour train ride, with shades drawn and no idea where they were headed, they came to a military-style camp in the midst of a bone-dry wilderness: rows and rows of bay-type barracks, many still under construction. The nearest town, Parker, Arizona, was 12, 16, or 20 miles away. No one knew for sure.
     They’d spent the previous six months in a cramped “assembly center” at Santa Anita Racetrack. Many slept in former stables with tar-papered floors. Someone named it “Santa Japanita.”
     Poston was three separate camps four or five miles apart, and would incar-cerate almost 18,000 Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry) ordered from their homes, on short notice, four months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
     When she saw Poston for the first time, Louise Ogawa (Poston 330-9-D) wrote: It’s “so far away from civilization, it makes me feel like a convict not allowed to see anyone. I’d much rather sleep in the Santa Anita horse stables.”
     Many called Poston the end of the world. They also wondered why no Japanese Americans from Arizona — and only a few from Hawaii — had been sent to relocation camps.
     As he did at Santa Anita, Tets wrote letters “home” to San Diego librarian Clara Breed.
     September 7, 1942: “Dear Miss Breed. This is ole prodigal writing you amid the heat and dust of this h- hole called ‘The Colorado River War Relocation Project.’ The natives told us we were lucky to have come ‘on a cool day…only 104 degrees and not dusty at all. Wait ’til it really gets hot and dusty.’ How true those words — how true!
     “After ‘signing away my life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness’ [War Relocation Authority enlistment documents], we were assigned quarters in a 12´ x 20´ room. Then we went to the mess hall for our first supper. Rice, wieners, pickled cabbage, bread, and water…. Dining room seats 300.
     “Have been keeping busy helping everyone so I won’t have time to get heartaches thinking of SANTA ANITA and the friends left behind. Somehow it works most of the time.
     “The evenings are wonderful, cool and refreshing. The sky so black that the stars fairly pop out…aside from that, the view is very drab, unless I look through my green sunglasses.”
     Along with temperatures reaching the mid-120s, coarse sand and fine dust coated everything, even in the barracks; the knotty floorboards had wide spaces between them. Internees learned to leave shoes upside-down, so scorpions couldn’t climb inside.
     Showers and latrines stood along walls with no partitions. Blankets or sections of cloth, hung from laundry lines, afforded the only privacy. The heat was so oppressive, the military had to construct a second roof over the first, leaving an open space in between, to keep the barracks from boiling.
     September 7, continued: “On the eve of my birthday, I went out for a walk at night by myself. I sure felt blue. Things around here just got me down. Felt so small and bewildered. Saw a moth fluttering against a street lamp. That’s the way I felt. Like butting my head against a brick wall.
     “My whole being rebels against some things — the WRA [War Relocation Authority] set up sloppy, no foresight, red tape, grafting…. That’s why Poston is a He- of a place to live in. We’re so d- far away from the public who are interested…. At an Assembly Center on the coast complaints can be seen by a visitor, but what fool would venture out to this forsaken land just to see if the Japs are being looked after?
     “So ran my thoughts until I just ran out. Then I figure, well, I’m here so I gotta make the best of it! And SOOOO to the Future — may it be what it shall be???”
     October 3, 1942: “Life is beginning to settle down to the monotonous regularity that is truly depressing. People have gotten so that they don’t leave their own block. Let alone leave their ‘home’ (apt.). Not much sociable visiting going on at all…. And who wants to walk in dust up to the ankles.
     “We have to buy what we used to get free from S.A.A.C. (Japanita). Brooms, buckets, baby food, fresh fruit, mattresses. At the present time, soap is being delivered to the mess halls since we fought for it. After all, the dishes had to be washed.
     “There’s quite a bit of graft going on, and I think we’re going to get rid of that now that we ‘agitators’ from S.A.A.C. are waking up the people of Poston.
     “I hope to have more ‘inside dope’ soon.”
     Tets worked in the mess hall, and as a barber. Joe Yamada (322-14-A), one of San Diego’s foremost landscape architects, had known Tets before relocation. They shared a barracks: Unit 14A, Block 322, at the western end of Camp III. Yamada, age 12 at the time, remembers Tets as a “genius with carpentry.” He “made furniture and it was perfection — no nails showing.” Tets and others scrounged wood from piles of scraps left over from the barracks.
      Tets also taught himself the ukulele and, Yamada remembers, was one of the best dancers in camp: “All the women, even the married ones, wanted to glide around with him. The rest of us just did the ‘Poston Shuffle’ — you know, one stiff     leg at a time.”
     What Yamada remembers most: “He played an important role to us younger kids.” And Tets encouraged everyone, as did his mentor, Clara Breed, to develop a love for reading. The year before, he’d had a tubercular lesion removed from his right arm. It continued to give him trouble.
     November 16, 1942: “Guess who? Yup, it’s ole unreliable again. Gosh the wind’s been blowing all night and all morning. Kinda threatening to blow the roofs down. My arm is all right. Not near so strong as at Santa Anita…. Have been doing a little carpentry, as many of us don’t have no furniture other than cots.
     “The medical situation here is pitiful. The main and only hospital is at Camp I, 15 miles away. Here in Camp III, there is one young doctor with not too much exper-
ience and one student doctor working in an emergency clinic. They are supposed to take care of approximately 5000 people! And they (the Big Shots) wonder why we squawk about medical attention.”
     The Colorado River was three miles west.
     “No. I haven’t hiked to the river yet. I’d better do it soon, ’cause there is going to be a fence around the camp!! 5 strands of barbed wire!! They say it’s to keep people out — ha ha ha, what people? It’s also to keep out cattle. Where in the cattle countries do they use 5 strands of barbed wire? If they don’t watch out, there’s going to be trouble.
     “At Santa Anita, at the time of the riot, the armored cars parked outside the main gates, pointed heavy machine guns inside, and then the army had the gall to tell us that the purpose…was to keep the white folks from coming in…. Same with the guards on the watch towers…hah, hah, hah…
     “What a morbid letter this turned out to be!”
     As the months passed, internees dug ponds and lakes. They planted trees and gardens. The camps grew into green oases amid the endless desert drab.
     November 16, continued: “We are learning to make beautiful things out of ugly scrap...ugly dead mesquite branches and twigs and turn them into a thing of beauty by attaching paper orange blossoms or cherry blossoms made from Kleenex…. Words just can’t describe the beautiful carvings, paintings, knitting, crochet work, dress making, etc. If I only had a camera.
     Tets sent Breed a nameplate carved from mesquite. Joanne Oppenheim: “It remained one of Clara’s treasures.” Tet had carved the wood “with a bedspring he turned into a chisel.”
     December 1, 1942: “Receiving things from the outside is such a rarity that most of us share what we receive, no matter how little it is.”
     February 19, 1943: “This is prodigal reporting. Things have been popping rather fast lately…. When the Army came here to Camp III to…take volunteers for the Japanese American Combat Unit, it was the best piece of news we Nisei [Japanese Americans born in the U.S. and therefore citizens] have had in a long time. We were despairing in ever becoming recognized. But now we have the chance to prove our loyalty, because after the evacuation, Nisei were classed as aliens ineligible for military service.
     “I am proud to say that the San Diego group has the most volunteers of any other in camp. All together, in our block we have just about 15 volunteers, including yours truly, which makes about the best record yet.”
     About this letter, Breed told a friend that it “had a lift and exhilaration that has been absent from former letters. He is an idealist and this experience has been hard for him.”
March 3, 1943: “Still waiting for orders. All of us are getting quite impatient. Rumors are going fast as to when we are going. Rather nerve wracking!!”
     March 15, 1943: “Still waiting for orders. The sentiment in camp is very good now. Thanx to the S.D. group…the ball has been rolling toward the good ole American spirit. The majority of the people are now behind us…Our camouflage net projects are going full speed. Caucasians are amazed at production. Yessiree, everything OK.”
     In early April, Tets took his physical for the military.
     April 21, 1943: “Regret to inform you that for the good of the country and morale of the U.S. Army, I have been ‘rejected for general military service’ as a result of the physical examination.
     “I have applied for limited military service, although present plans do not include limited service men in the Japanese American Combat Unit…. At any rate, until further orders, I am in the rejected class.”
     June 17, 1943: “Well, I’m the ‘last of the Mohicans’ now. Early this morning, the next to the last of our old gang left for Colorado. Just about all of the volunteers have gone outside to wait for the Army call.”
     September 27, 1943: “Dear Miss Breed: Good news!! My father has been paroled [just days after Pearl Harbor, he was imprisoned as an ‘enemy alien’]. Your affidavit did much to bring about parole. Thanks a million and more.”
     December 29, 1943: [re his father, Chiyomatsu, who by this time was working as a barber with Tets at Poston]. “We have been so busy cutting hair that that is all we have time for during the day. Everyone wants to look his best for the New Year.
     “It rained Christmas night, and I couldn’t help but to think back to that Christmas two short and yet long years ago when we were all together — now there are hundreds of miles separating us.”
     June 10, 1944: “Six years ago today, I graduated from San Diego High School. Tonight, the first graduating class of Parker Valley High School [Poston III] marched into the partially constructed auditorium and received their diplomas. The students can rightfully be proud to say ‘It’s my school,’ for they built it [of adobe bricks] with sweat and toil during the hot summer days Poston is noted for. The class gift was a beautiful American flag. I believe this is the first American high school graduation to have a Buddhist blessing.
     “The class motto: ‘The past, forever gone; the future still our own.’
     “The doctor advised me that the arm bone is in a dubious state and would take some time to clear up. I could have walked under a snake’s belly. I felt so low. Then I read some articles…of heroic deeds of the Nisei soldiers, of the hardships they suffered. I woke up. What I am going through is nothing compared to the fighting man on the front.
     “I am back in training now. I am weight lifting to condition my body. Exercise seems to do my arm more good than resting it all the time. I have started playing golf. The arm is a handicap, but after all, there are one-armed golfers who do all right. Besides, I have fun.
     “I am trying to learn how to play bridge too. Just now with all the exercising and music lessons, I am kept busy after work. It certainly helps keep my mind off the fact that I can’t relocate just yet.”
     After the war, Tets returned to San Diego. He took a job at Consolidated, an airplane factory, and later worked for General Dynamics. Lynn Eller, his niece, says he was reticent to talk about the past, but would answer questions if asked. Inspired by Clara Breed, he remained a voracious reader all his life. He died in 1991.
Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada
     Late in life, Tets wrote: “The letters Miss Breed sent to her ‘children’ during the war years helped all of us keep the faith. I am sure those of us who were touched by her avoided bitterness over our fate.”
     Elizabeth Kikuchi Yamada (Poston 329-8-A), who met her husband Joe (322-14-A) at Poston when both were 12 years old, after the war: “My parents and many internees resumed or searched for a new life and occupation without time for the ‘negative’ feelings. Tets, like most Nisei, worked hard to support his family without regrets. As we now say, ‘it is what it is’ — ‘shikata ga nai.’” ■

— Jeff Smith

Daniels, Roger, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II, New York, 2004.
Estes, Donald H. and Matthew T., “Further and Further Away: The Relocation of San Diego’s Nikkei Community,” Journal of San Diego History, Spring, 1993.
Hirasaki, Tetsuzo, letters, Gift of Elizabeth Y. Yamada, Japanese American National Museum (93.75.31G), (3.75.3EL), (93.75, 31FK).
Oppenheim, Joanne, Dear Miss Breed: True Stories of the Japanese American Incarceration During World War II and a Librarian Who Made a Difference, Singapore, 2006; interview.
Schlenker, Gerald, “The Internment of the Japanese of San Diego County During the Second World War,” master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 1968.
Interviews: Lynn Eller, Joanne Oppenheim, Elizabeth Yamada, Joe Yamada.

Source: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2012/sep/05/unforgettable-letters-end-world-part-two/

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