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Shameful time in history

  • From left, sisters Alyce and Norma Sugiyama, both 90, and their sister-in-law, Marie Sugiyama will never forget the pain, confusion or shame from being placed in Japanese internment camps at the start of World War II. Photo by Bill Hanson

By: Bill Hanson
February 17, 2017
Day of Remembrance for those put in internment camps is Sunday

The Day of Remembrance (DOR) is Sunday, Feb. 19. This day recognizes the internment of people of Japanese ancestry at the beginning of World War II. Although many people today do not know of this period of American history, the stain on our country’s history is real.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it the “day of infamy” and our country declared war on Japan. Three days later, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler formally declared war on the United States, and this was the beginning of our country’s official participation in World War II. The United States had been supporting England with shipments of war material and essential goods for nearly two years. This stepped-up production stirred American industrial production that was still recovering from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Pearl Harbor shocked America awake. Our military readiness had decayed in the years since WWI, considered then to be the war to end all wars before we numbered them. The need to support the broken economy during the Great Depression kept our resources aimed at domestic priorities. Keeping our military readiness up to date was low on the list. After all, who would have the audacity to attack the U.S.?

Within two months, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave broad police powers to government law enforcement to arrest and detain American citizens of Japanese, German and Italian ancestry. This had a profound effect on Japanese Americans living on the west coast. 

Right after Pearl Harbor, outright hatred toward Japanese-Americans was so intense the Chinese took to wearing a button that stated “I am Chinese” to prevent harassment on the street. America has a long history of institutional prejudice toward minorities. Prior to 1938 an Asian could not be buried in the same cemetery as whites. Not until 1952 could any Asian-American even apply to become an American citizen. If you bought property, it had to be held in the name of a friend or relative. 

Alyce Sugiyama (nee Yamasaki) of Petaluma was only sixteen when ‘9066’ was signed. At her kitchen table recently, Alyce spoke of confusion and shock after Pearl Harbor. “We were all scared and there was lots of confusion about how America would respond,”

she said. “After all, we were Americans and worried that there might be an invasion of the mainland. Our family had lived here for years and worked hard to make a living.”

Her dad was the first of their family to immigrate. Sisters-in-law Marie Sugiyama and Norma Sugiyama joined us at the table to give some of their impressions.

“Many people came here to make a lot of money, then planned to return to their home countries wealthy,” Alyce said. “After living here, the going home part was set aside as not many wanted to go back to the old ways. Many had had no contact with Japan whatsoever. Japanese nationals thought we did not understand the language. Once, we went into a travel agency to ask about something. The two guys were talking in graphic detail about their hemorrhoids, thinking we could not understand them. We couldn’t wait to go back outside, we laughed like crazy over that one. On a visit to Japan in the ‘70s, people there called us “Gaijin” foreigners. We thought, this must be what it’s like not having a country.” 

Alyce has an engaging personality and clearly retains her innate intelligence. Clear-eyed and articulate, she spoke of that time. 

“A lot of people don’t like to speak about the internment,” she said. “They say they are ashamed of it. Of what? We didn’t do anything! What I learned is that the government can do whatever it wants to do. Right after the attack, the government started arresting people, anyone who was any kind of leader in the Japanese community. Right here in Sonoma County, were taken away. Government police went to the Seed Farm in Rohnert Park and arrested men without telling them or their families why they had been arrested and put them in a special prison. Men were taken away from their homes or jobs and just disappeared. Whole families had no idea where their fathers had gone. We wondered how they could do this? My husband’s family lived in Sebastopol. He was to graduate from Analy High School in June of ’42. Executive order 9066 ended that idea.”

Norma, 16 at the time of Pearl Harbor, said, “The FBI came to our home and took away our father and seized our radio because it had short band listening capabilities. We were really scared. Dad was just a hardworking guy without any connection to any organized party. All Japanese were ordered to keep within five miles of home and had to be back inside their house by 6 o’clock in the evening. Right away people began to harass us. I remember guys coming up the lane we lived on and calling us dirty Japs.”

Marie has done volunteer work as a guest speaker and participated in other activities to educate people who have no idea of what happened. 

She says, “The Enmanji Temple in Sebastopol was vandalized right after Pearl Harbor, there is still a section of the roof that still has charred wood exposed. An artifact of an attempt to burn it down. There was a youth group at Analy High who got together and stood watch at Enmanji…that stopped the vandalism.” 

Alyce remembered, “Only two months after Pearl Harbor, the government knew where everybody was. The order to evacuate people of Japanese ancestry was sent out in early April. In San Francisco were given one week to dispose of their assets and report to special transit buses. People raced to get white friends and neighbors to take over their business and property. We lived on a chicken farm, and dad made some kind of deal with a neighbor to take over our place. It all happened so fast. Two months after the war started the order was signed, one month later we were outta here! We got on a bus and taken to Merced (in the Central Valley), where we lived in terrible conditions.” Authors note: Japanese who lived in the west were first housed in temporary detention centers to await assignation to permanent relocation centers further inland. At the Merced center there were approximately 200 tar paper barracks hastily built (each 20-by-100 feet and divided into units for five families), 11 mess halls, five laundries, 40 shower areas, and 30 toilet areas. The detention facility was fenced in with barbed wire 4½-feet high. One hundred sixty soldiers guarded the prisoners. About 1,000 of the 4,669 prisoners were school-aged children.

Alyce’s face took a stern continence as she remembered, “The food was terrible. They served us eggs in the mess hall in the morning. I couldn’t eat them…they tasted and smelled like they had been in storage for months. We were used to eating fresh eggs at home. There was no privacy. Our whole family were crammed into a small space not much bigger than two bedrooms at home. At night you could hear what people were saying at the other end of the building. We were angry and confused. How could they do this without some kind of due process? In June/July we were ordered onto a train and shipped to the Amache Concentration Camp in Colorado. During the train ride the shades were drawn so we couldn’t look out the window. What did they think we were going to do? We lived in thin-walled barracks, not much protection from the elements in the high desert of Colorado. We had only a small coal burning heater and one light bulb for our space.

Many of the men accepted menial jobs working on nearby farms. Later we were also allowed to start gardens outside the fence. Gradually the food got better with fresh vegetables and fruit. Once a month an internee could get a pass to go into nearby Granada to shop. We also had a kind of PX to shop at inside the wire. We also had store catalogs we could order from. We didn’t worry about how we were dressed too much. We weren’t going anywhere. I don’t remember any weddings or parties going on. Life did get on, so there must have been births, deaths and other normal things. I did not have a boyfriend there. I did know of Harry, our families were both in Amache, but we were no more than aware of each other. The government sent recruiters in to get men to sign up for the war. Harry was drafted and ended up as a driver for army transport in the European war zone. I find it odd that they trusted them to fight in the war but considered us alien enemies at the same time.”

Marie added, “Before Pearl Harbor all young men were rated 1-A, which meant you were eligible to be drafted. After Dec. 7, Japanese men were rated 4-C (enemy aliens) and still they served with honor.”

For a school project granddaughter Leslie Sugiyama wrote, “I think of the pain and suffering brought on by World War II and yet there were glimmers of hope shining through the cracked ground in the high desert of Amache.” She was one of those dreams.

Japanese relocation camps began to close in 1945 and many people moved east as there was little or nothing left of their old lives on the west coast. The Yamasaki family found their way back to Petaluma, eager to return to a “normal” life. Alyce and Harry met at an event. 

Alyce says, “The Japanese community in Sonoma County is small, we often do things together. Nobody wants to know about how we met and the details of our courtship and marriage…it would just be boring.” 

The newlyweds were in their late 20s, the late start a result of life interrupted. Alyce and Harry Sugiyama had two children and three granddaughters. Harry passed away in 2014.

The ten relocation centers (concentration camps) held more than 120,000 Japanese internees. Today little remains of the camps except the memories held by so many from that time. The recent fears of government actions against Muslim travel, fear of mass deportations and the possible loss of liberties have many people concerned that we may be going backward in our country.

The Sonoma County Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) will sponsor an event Saturday, Feb. 18 from 1:30-4 p.m., at the Enmanji Memorial Hall, 1200 Gravenstein Highway South in Sebastopol.