Interview Date: November 24, 2011
Life of a kid in Gila River Internment
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, many Americans feared that Japanese-Americans could have been spies or even possible enemies. This outrageous assumption created many mixed feelings towards Japanese-Americans. The media, the government, and even the president had pretty much put a label on these people which consequently put all of the Japanese-Americans into military concentration camps all over the United States. “Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order 9066 which allows military authorities to exclude anyone from anywhere without trial or hearings.”(www.pbs.org)In this paper, I will cover the view of the Gila River Internment camp through the eyes of a young child. This child is my uncle, and he really had a hard time remembering the camp; partly due to the fact that he is 76 years old; and also because he probably never really cared to remember what it was like living in such a horrible place. All of the following is from an interview with James Tatuso Nakaisu with my uncle on November 24th2011 except as noted.
Before the war broke out, my uncle’s life was of a normal American. He was born on September 11th 1935. He attended Moreland elementary school in Campbell CA before the relocation and would have probably stayed there longer if the war had never broken out. Since of course Japan did bomb Pearl Harbor, my uncle’s life went from a normal American to a normal Japanese-American. At the time, my uncle was only 7 years old and he vaguely remembers bits and pieces of what was happening. He remembers that everything was rushed. He didn’t have much time to pack, and it’s not like they were even able to bring everything that they wanted to. They just picked up and left their farm in Campbell CA. He told me that the fact that they were leaving home wasn’t as bad as the humiliation that they had to go through. Their neighboring farmers and friends of other ethnicities saw them leave and pack their belongings, and to him, that was extremely embarrassing.
From Campbell CA they left to Selma CA; it’s a small town located twenty miles south of Fresno. My grandfather Itaru Nakatsu, had caught wind of a place they could go to in Selma CA. Supposedly if they got to the place in Selma in time, then they wouldn’t have to go to the camps; this is what my uncle told me. So my grandfather lead 4 other carfulls of Japanese-American families to this place in Selma. When they got there, they found out that they were pretty much going to be hiding out in a barn with about 20 other people. The first night they all slept on beds made of hay. My grandfather being a handyman built a trailer out of wood so that he, my grandmother Yoshiko, my uncles James and Herb, and my aunt Naomi, could live in there and leave more space in the barn for the other families. This hideout lasted for about two months before the military finally caught up with them. My uncle said “it was like I was on vacation: no school, no working on the farm, just hanging out and swimming in the nearby lake”. Of course all of the adults were probably thinking a lot more negative of the situation. After being rounded up in Selma, they were sent to Fresno so that they could catch a train to Arizona.
The train ride took two days and my uncle said that it wasn’t very comfortable either. “The windows were covered up and there were hardly any chairs. The only people that had chairs were soldiers and pregnant women; everyone else just stood.”(James Nakatsu). My uncle had brought a radio with him and back in that day, radios were pretty big; so he just ended up sitting on the radio for the train ride. Eventually one of the soldiers let him sit in his seat for a few hours. Interestingly enough, according to my uncle, the soldiers were actually pretty nice. They weren’t really mean or hostile or anything of that nature. Perhaps it’s because my uncle was just a little kid or maybe the soldiers felt bad for these people. I’m not sure.
Once they finally got to the camp, my uncle said that it looked like a military compound. There was barbed wire wrapped on top of the fences and there was a watchtower. My uncle distinctly remembers seeing the guy in the watch tower holding a big machine gun. Gila River was divided into two parts, Canal camp and Butte camp. “At Canal camp there were 404 buildings, 44 of which were for administrative purposes, 232 barracks for living, 16 mess halls, 17 ironing rooms, 17 laundry rooms, 34 latrine and shower buildings, 24 school buildings, and 20 community buildings. At Butte camp there were 821 buildings, 22 administration offices, warehouses, 627 residential barracks, and whole lot of other stuff that you would see on the outside like; post offices, police offices, courthouses, canteen stores, and so on”.(www.javadc.org). My uncle told me that his barracks apartment was the size of a 20x20 room and each family had their own. The barracks that they lived in was divided in to 4 apartments and each apartment had a family in it, regardless the size of your family. Luckily my uncle James was only one of three at the time. Then my Uncle Ken was born in camp, and became one of four; then it got a little cramped in the apartment after that. They used to hang up a blanket in the middle so that my grandmother could get her privacy away from the boys.
The outside wall of the building was just sheet rock so you can imagine how hot it got during the summer and how cold it got during winter in the Arizona desert. They had cots made out of canvas for beds and it was very uncomfortable. The nearest restroom was an outhouse that was located a block away. He said sometimes he would just pee in the dirt because he didn’t want to walk all the way down there. The accomodations were not as nice as home, but they had to make do with what they had.
The people at the camp were friendly. Japanese people aren’t usually the type to start a bunch of ruckus. According to my uncle, he remembers there were a lot of bachelors (guys that hadn’t married yet), and widows (women who’s husbands had died in the war). He remembers talking to an old man that had a grey eye. The old man told him that he got hit in the eye with a rosebush thorn and that is why his eye looked that way. There were all sorts of people there; in fact there were too many people there. “The original layout for the camp was supposed to house 10,000 people, but 14,000 people had occupied the place before it was even done being built, so you can imagine how crowded it was over there”.(www.javadc.org). The barracks were all placed in blocks and the blocks were labeled 1,2,3,4 and so on. “Each block had a resident serving as block manager and the internees ran the mess halls and other services.”(www.javadc.org). Even though everyone was separated from “normal society”, they still had a somewhat organized town comprised of all Japanese.
Everyone ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the mess halls. James didn’t like the food very much at all. He said that they used to give him all the nasty parts of the meat, like pig feet. The only time when food was actually good was during Thanksgiving and Christmas. They used to get turkey and gravy for Thanksgiving, and all kinds of good stuff for Christmas. When James didn’t like what they were serving, he would just get a bowl of rice and mix tea into it with a little salt and that was his meal. He wished that the canteen store had candy, but they didn’t. I guess once a month the canteen store used to get ice cream and that was his favorite things to eat, but you’d only get it once a month. Sometimes they would get candy from my grandfather Itaru who was working on the east coast.
My grandfather was fortunate enough to get a job at “Skippy Peanut Butter Company” and would send money and candy back to the camp for his family. He was one of the few people allowed to leave the camp to find work. He also worked at a tire shop and a paint company. Not all families were fortunate enough to have someone working, let alone get candy sent to them. Before leaving to find work on the east coast though, my grandfather was asked to be an interpreter for the US Army because he could speak both Japanese and English fluently. I never met my grandfather, but everyone says that his Japanese was very good, and it isn’t too common to be able to speak both fluently. He turned down the job although it did offer pay decent. He turned down the interpreter position because he was afraid that some of the other Japanese-American internment residents would get pissed off that he was helping the Army against Japan. Most of the families there in camp still had family back in Japan, and I guess we were one of those families.
James Nakatsu claims that his experience at the camps weren’t as bad as the adults' because he was just a kid playing around. He used to play marbles, checkers, cards, and baseball with the other kids in the camp. There was an incident when he actually got hit in the head with a baseball bat and had to go to the hospital (located in the camp). What had happened was the kid that swung the bat accidently swung all the way around and my uncle was trying to pick the ball up off the dirt and whack, baseball bat to the side of the head. He got eight stitches where the gash was. That didn’t slow him down though because later on that week he was back playing baseball again.
After a while, the guard in the tower eased up a bit and used to let the kids play on the other side of the fence. My uncle said there was a hole dug underneath the fence that they used to crawl through so that they could get to the desert. The guard knew that they were just kids playing and they weren’t going to cause any harm, but if the guard saw an adult going past the fence then he would start to worry. “There’s some weird stuff out there in the desert” said my uncle. He saw sage bush, Gila monsters (looks like a giant lizard with venom), cactus, and rattlesnakes. He said that one day he and his friends were exploring the desert and they saw a bunch of rattlesnakes and none of the kids wanted to go back out there after that; I wouldn’t either. He also told me that in the desert there would be some serious dust storms and that you wouldn’t be able to see anything, which was bad because you wouldn’t be able to see if you just stepped on a rattlesnake or Gila monster.
The only people that weren’t really scared of the desert and the snakes were the Native Americans. The Gila River Internment camp was actually built on an Indian Reservation and the Natives used to actually live right there. My uncle said that he used to attend some of their pow wows for fun and that it was actually really cool. They would sing and dance around a huge fire and it would be like a huge festival. Of course the Native Americans didn’t want the camp being built there, but they built it there anyway against their will. So the Native Americans and the Japanese kids got to know each other quite well. He remembers the Native Americans used to be able to leave whenever they pleased.
It wasn’t all fun and games for the kids though; they had to attend school as well. “The schools enrolled several thousand students from kindergarten through high school. One entire block housed an elementary school and another was used for the high school. The internees built an auditorium and additional classroom buildings for science, home economics, and vocational studies. Desks and chairs were made by students in the vocational school, and painted walls served as blackboards. Most of the teachers were Japanese American, and some had college degrees and even some teaching experience.”(www.javadc.org). According to my uncle James, all of his teachers were white and they were all women. He says that they were very nice to all the kids and that he used to do very well in school. Except for one time, when he got into trouble. He used to cut the hoses off the swamp coolers with his brand new pocket knife and make spit ball cannons with them. He remembers buying that knife from the canteen store and the school staff taking it away after they found out what he was doing with it; they gave him detention for a week.
If you ask me whether or not I think my uncle's life at the Gila internment camp is of a typical one then I’d have to say no. James experience at the Gila Internment camp wasn’t as serious or negative as many other residents. My uncle was only 7 years old when he got there and 10 years old when he left. Of course there were other kids there too, but the kids weren’t the ones who had to deal with all of the stress. To an adult I’m sure their experience was much more horrendous. Their freedom, belongings, and honor being stripped away like 2nd class citizens were not anybodies idea of a good time. My uncle not getting his candy, or the food that he wanted, or not being able to shoot his spit balls were miniscule issues compared to the adults who had to make do with limited resources, living in cramped areas, or having to prove their honor as American citizens.
Once everyone was finally allowed to leave, they were all excited. They all hopped onto the back of an Army truck and were driven to the nearest Train depot. They ended up in Mt. View where my grandmother’s sister and family were living (the Uchiyamas). The Uchiyamas had a farm and they offered work to my grandfather and his family. It was about a 20 acre farm located where the Buddhist temple is located on Shoreline Road in Mt. View. Back then it wasn’t called Shoreline though; it was called Sterling Rd. They were greeted by some friendly Hindu Indian people that also farmed in Mt. View, but when they would go into town they would see signs that said “No Japs Allowed”. My uncle remembers distinctly some old white guy in downtown Mt. View saying “what you Japs doing over here?” So evidently even though the war had been settled, there was still some tension between some of the white people and the Japanese. According to my uncle, the Uchiyamas had a really big nasty mean German Shepard that used to scare the crap out of him. The dog' s name was Sparky and all he did was bark viciously; they had this dog for protection against the racist people.
After farming there for a year in Mt. View with the Uchiyamas, my grandfather took his family to Palo Alto where they farmed all kinds of fruits and vegetables on their own farm. This is when my father was born. My uncle James remembers driving the flat bed truck to the market in South San Francisco from East Palo Alto at the age of fifteen because my grandmother didn’t know how to drive stick. He got pulled over on the way back home one time and the police officer almost had a heart attack when my uncle told him that he was only 15 and that he didn’t have a license, and that he had been driving to the market for almost a year.
They were just renting the farm in Palo Alto and my grandfather got a chance to buy a farm in Saratoga. So after Palo Alto they moved to a smaller four acre farm in Saratoga where they only grew strawberries. Then during the seventies my grandfather sold his 4 acre farm to investors and bought a smaller tract home down the street on Saratoga Ave, which is where I currently live right now because my father bought the house off of my grandfather, and I plan on buying the house off of my father, and so on. By the time my grandfather had bought the tract home in the 1960’s, my uncle James Nakatsu had already left for the AirForce so that he could once again be a normal American citizen.
Nakatsu, James (San Jose, California; 24 November 2011)
De Anza Class: History 10
Contact: Tom Izu