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August 13, 2020
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Japanese Internment Remembrance Day

  • Sitting in the warm and inviting kitchen of Margarette Murakami

By: Bill Hanson
March 1, 2019

Japanese Internment Remembrance Day, the legacy of executive order 9066 1942 

Sitting in the warm and inviting kitchen of Margarette Murakami, (Japanese name: Makiko – happiness and joy) she recalled some of her thoughts during the war-time years and the devastating effects the war had on her family.

Young Margret Masuoka was eleven years old in the sixth grade in December 1941 “There had been talk among the tightly knit Japanese/American community that the governments of Japan and our country were not going well. The newspapers were full of stories; things began to get heated up. We knew something was going to happen, but not when or where. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a complete surprise. We were all in shock, walking around stunned that tiny Japan would do such a thing to us.”

On that fateful cold Dec. day, she had two older brothers that were already in the service, “My brother Hank had been drafted and assigned to Camp David Grant in Illinois before Pearl Harbor and brother Pete had been working for a newspaper in San Francisco when he received notice.

“The next day was Monday. Everyone was quiet at school; we were all walking around talking in whispers. No one said anything to me, but there were stories about harassment, name calling and like that. There were two Chinese kids in school, a brother and sister, they showed up with little signs pinned on their shirts, ‘I am Chinese’. 

“Mr. Akutagawa was a friend of our family, he tended a small orchard and he had a regular job, he also worked with some of the youth in our church, teaching them traditional Japanese culture, it had nothing to do with politics. A few days after the attack some FBI guys came and arrested him in the orchard while he was pruning his apple trees. They wouldn’t let him go up to the house and change into clean clothes, they took him to jail in Santa Rosa. A few days later my brother Pete took him some fresh clothes and toiletries.

“Things were really getting scary for us (Japanese) then. Right after Pearl Harbor there were some rules printed in the papers addressed to all Japanese: ‘No travel beyond five miles from home.  Everyone had to be home by five o’clock and no lights after dark. Cameras, movie projectors and of course all guns were seized.’ We had to turn in any radios and other things we might use to ‘aid the enemy’. My dad had a radio and an old shotgun that he took to the police station in Sebastopol.”

“My mother taught Japanese to students in Sebastopol, Santa Rosa and Petaluma. Dad worked in different jobs. I remember him working long hours during the apple harvest, everyone did. Dad was born in Japan, his father (he had been a Samurai) sent him over to learn about agriculture from a cousin in Ukiah. Dad loved America. He loved the freedom and the ability for anyone to work hard to improve life. After a cousin visited him he told my grandfather in Japan that they better bring him home, he was fast becoming an American. My grandfather got busy and found a wife for him to marry, Dad was called home. Dad talked to Mom and eventually convinced her to move to America. They immigrated as husband and wife. The rules then were like today, children of immigrants born here, called Nisei, were automatically citizens.”

At that time, early 1900’s, there were special rules barring Asians from owning land, voting and they could not be buried in a white cemetery. An Asian, native Indian or a black man could not sue a white man and could not bear witness in court. In 1938 an amendment changed some of the old discriminatory laws that dated back to the 1850’s; an immigrant still could not own land. 

General DeWitt, commander of the Presidio in San Francisco, and head of West Coast military operations, was at the head of a fierce move to address the ‘Japanese problem’. In January of 1942 a bill was passed that required all people of Japanese ancestry over the age of fourteen to register with the government. Then a congressional bill was passed on Valentine’s Day, “...immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage and all others, aliens and citizens alike, whose presence shall be deemed dangerous...”. Then, just days later on Feb. 19, 1942. President Roosevelt, under tremendous pressure from many citizens and lawmakers, reluctantly signed Executive Order no. 9066. Among other things the order authorized federal troops to ‘act to remove anyone deemed necessary for national security’. This was the final blow that gave legality to the evacuation DeWitt and others were demanding. 

Margarette remembered, “We were given two weeks to wrap up our affairs and to pack up only what we could carry in one suitcase and to report to the train station in Santa Rosa. A friend volunteered to look after our place while we were gone.” Reports of vandalism and plundering of Japanese property were common during the evacuation and continued during the years of internment. “My brothers’ friend drove us to the station that day. We traveled to a holding camp until longer term assignment came through. It was at the Merced County fairgrounds. The startling thing was the lack of privacy. We had outhouses and thin walls between family spaces. You could hear everything the family next door was doing. Armed guards stood guard at the fencing. Some of the boys reached through the fencing to steal some grapes that were ripe, it was summer time. One of the guards told the boys, ‘Next time you reach through the fence you will get shot.’ 

“Months later we were assigned to camp Amache in the high desert of southern Colorado. We were assigned Block 6 H Barrack 8 apartment B. There was still no privacy but things were getting organized inside the camp. My dad volunteered for the police unit inside the fence, they were under the supervision of a white guy. A school was put together. People were able to walk, talk and socialize. Life began to settle in. The worst thing for me was the dust storms. There was nothing to stop the wind on the desert, it was like being sandblasted when the dust storms were going.”

Margarette brought out some material she has saved. One is an extremely rare yearbook for Amache High School, done in the same manner as any American high school yearbook. Very few have survived through the years. It had been loaned out and copied several times. The signatures and pictures are still an important part of her memories. Another is a hardcover book: Amache the story of Japanese internment in Colorado during World War II by Robert Harvey. ISBN 1-58979-038-3 Taylor Trade Publishing. The book is revealing in its intimate look inside the camp and shocking in its stark descriptions and frank revelations of the whole Internment process. Margarette still has her husband’s graduation certificate from Amache H.S. In the end he had to go to SRJC after the war to get a ‘real’ diploma. 

The Masuoka family lost two sons during the war. Their oldest son, who stayed in Japan, became an important worker in the office of a seaside construction company for the government. One day he was taken out of the office because there was an urgent need for a worker outside. 

That day a crane collapsed and killed Takeji Masuoka. The second brother lost to the war, Pete, was assigned to the 442nd infantry regiment made up of second-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) who fought gallantly. The 442nd was the most decorated regiment of World War II. In one famous battle late in 1944 was an attempt to rescue “The Lost Battalion” which refers to the 141st Infantry, originally from Texas. The Battalion was surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains on 24 October 1944. After two failed attempts to rescue them by ground forces. Supplies were air-dropped to provision and munition the 275 men. The last-ditch effort was to assign the 442nd to rescue the men. They were successful and saved many lives. The battle cost the 442nd dearly. One of the men killed in action was Pete Masuoka. About that same time her brother Frank was injured during his service in the South Pacific. Both boys had volunteered while living with their family in Camp Amache. Both boys were awarded the purple heart for injuries and both were awarded a silver star, for exemplary service above and beyond the call of duty. 

After the war ended in August of 1945 things began to settle down. A new America emerged as a true world power. The internment camps were closed in ‘46 and people went back to their lives. Many bitterly moved to Japan, others made new lives far from California.

The Masuoka’s came home to Sebastopol to find their home occupied by renters. Their friend had remained steadfast in his promise to keep their property for them. For a time, they ran a hostel under the supervision of an FBI agent. Many people had nowhere to stay when they got back. Eventually they were reunited with their home and orchard. 

Jim Murakami a Sebastopol resident and graduate of U.C. Berkeley, became a successful electrical – mechanical engineer. Although he and Margret were both interned at Camp Amache, they did not know

each other. Jim was a blind-date arraigned by a friend. “It went OK. We met again and started dating. “They married and raised two adopted children Alan and Leslie. Jim Murakami served as national president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). The JACL were instrumental in getting official recognition of the illegal actions against the Japanese and eventually getting an official apology and, as symbolic reparation, a check from the federal government. The first ‘redress’ checks were given to nine Japanese veterans on 9 October, 1990 by then president George Bush. The last checks were issued to former camp inmates by the end of 1993.

Margarette remembered sending letters to friends back home during her years in Amache, Barbara Bertoli was one of those friends. Years later her mother told Margarette that she had saved the letters from camp and did she know they had been censored? “I couldn’t believe it! What could a twelve-year-old girl write that could possibly be a threat to the government?” Much later the letters were accidentally burned.

There is a permanent exhibit of artifacts of Japanese Internment under Executive Order 9066 in the restored office of Army General DeWitt at the Presidio in San Francisco. The exhibition is open to the public. Their web site:https://www.presidio.gov/officers-club/exhibitions/exclusion.