My Life in Internment Camps During World War II- Hitoshi Yamada
One of the fond memories I have as a child was going to the Los Angeles County Fair. I was fascinated with the different produce and farm equipment displayed and the smell of food sold by the different venders.
I never dreamed one day I would be living on the parking lot of that fair. December 7, 1941, changed everything. I was eight years old when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor and destroyed a lot of the warships that were anchored and killed military personnel. When President Roosevelt signe
d Executive Order 9066, all people of Japanese ancestry were ordered out of the West Coast. We were given only a short notice to move, so many had to sell their possessions at giveaway prices. My mother burned a lot of Japanese books. The wind-up phonograph player was also burned. I took the remains of the phonograph player in a gunnysack and threw it into a ditch on the far side of the farm. Dad turned in the fold-up Kodak camera to the authorities. The government gave us a family ID number 5562, and Dad painted it on all the furniture he left behind. The government stored it for the duration of the war. We were allowed to take only what we could carry. With no information as to where we were going, we could not prepare for the future. I was the oldest of five children. The youngest child was only six months old. We were ordered to go to a section of Baldwin Park, a place I remembered going to on family outings. Dad drove us there in our family Plymouth sedan. We had to get out of the car with the baggage. It was loaded on trucks while we boarded a bus. Our car was impounded and sold cheap. When we arrived at the gate, armed soldiers with rifles were everywhere. The parking lot was now surrounded by barbwire and chain link fence.
Our barracks were near the entrance to the fairgrounds. It was divided into three rooms with a family living in each room. I remember that the boards dividing the room had about half-inch space between them. Dad happened to have a large canvas that he brought along. He put it up, and it covered most of the wall.
In the beginning, the mess hall was not well organized, and food was scarce. Food was served on round metal pans with a handle that folded over. It was what the soldiers used in the war zone. Over 5000 people were packed into this small camp. Every night about 10:00 to 11:00 PM, men came around with flashlights counting heads to make sure no one was missing. Small children would awaken and cry at the loud knock having their sleep interrupted.
As the hot summer wore on, the dust in the camp grew deeper until the government began moving us out 500 a time in August to more permanent facilities at Heart Mountain Relocation Campsite in Cody, Wyoming. We lived there from August 1942 to October 30, 1945. Long lines were marched to the railroad tracks near the fair grounds where old drab passenger cars waited. The trip was tiring and long. We saw mostly barren lands, deserts, mountains and small towns. We were ordered to put down our shades as we passed through towns. Apparently, rocks were thrown at the previous trains when some townspeople found out that Japanese were being transported. With the outbreak of World War II and all the war hysteria that the news media aimed against the Japanese in America, it was no surprise that we were classified as enemy aliens.
The train finally came to a stop on a plateau, and we saw our future home in the distance. Tarpaper covered barracks seemed to be everywhere. We were directed to a health inspection room where we were briefly checked out and then taken to the camp about a mile away.
Later at the onset of the harsh winter, many were found without adequate clothing. Those who were able ordered winter clothing from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Others stood in line to receive used GI socks, long underwear, coats and wool pants. Some of the clothing had large patches over the holes and torn parts. Though battle-scarred and mended, my parents were thankful to have warm clothing. Each block had 24 barracks that were divided into six rooms, one for each family. There was a potbelly stove on one side of the room. Each one was given two army blankets and a cot with cotton stuffed mattress. Each half a block had a laundry-bathroom building and a mess hall, which had large coal-burning cook stoves.
Since Dad was hired as a cook, and our family had only young children, volunteers came and insulated our barracks. The laundry and bathroom building had a huge coal-burning boiler used for heating water for the laundry rooms and the showers. Men skilled in wood working made square wooden "ofuros", (Japanese booths), where we soaked after our showers. One part was usually hotter than the other. I enjoyed soaking in the hot tub. It took away the chill in my bones during the cold winter months. Three shifts of men were on duty twenty-four hours a day just to keep the boilers fed with coal. Some of the pipes froze and burst during the cold winter. By 1943, while still incarcerated, we were given permission to go outside the barbwire fence. One of the first things my friends and I did was to go down to the Shoshone River about a mile away. On our hike we came upon a huge canal filled with water, so we could not get to the river. Then we noticed people in the deep ravine walking under the canal. We followed them through a large drainage pipe to the river. Other children were already wading in the water. We made many treks to the river to catch minnows or mud suckers for our gallon bottle aquarium. The internees were offered small plots of land on the north side beyond the barbwire fence for "Victory Gardens." My dad received a plot and planted cucumbers, cantaloupe, melons and other vegetables. For fertilizer he borrowed a rusty wheelbarrow and together, we looked in the nearby hills for rabbit dung plentiful under the sagebrushes. In 1944 there was danger of an early frost that would freeze the melons. I remember Dad picking green ones and taking them to the mess hall. He salted them down to make pickles (tsukemono). It was a nice addition to the menu. When it became known that we would be leaving camp to face the real world, I wanted to show my almost four years old brother, Harry, the Shoshone River. In August 1945, I was eleven years old and carried him most of the way to see the river that I had visited so often.
These and other memories welled up in my mind after visiting the campsite 57 years later. It was good revisiting the place where I had lived during the war years and seeing it again was like a proper closure to that part of my life. Heart Mountain still stands changeless through the years like a sentinel on duty watching over the territory that was once my home in captivity.