By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR
“You had to smell that?” someone exclaimed as the tram rounded the corner of the stables at Santa Anita Racetrack and the open tram was filled with the unmistakable aroma of the horses.
More than 180, including former internees and their families, gathered on Oct. 3 at Santa Anita to reminisce about the time when the racetrack served as an Assembly Center for Japanese Americans before they were sent to concentration camps in 1942. During its peak, nearly 19,000 Nikkei lived in converted horse stalls and hastily constructed barracks at the center, which was open from March 27 to Oct. 27, 1942. The Japanese Americans who came from Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Clara counties had to suffer through discomfort and a lack of privacy.
“I’m sure the stench of the horses brings back many memories,” quipped Rafu columnist George “Horse” Yoshinaga, as he narrated part of the tram tour. He noted that the first 8,000 were sent to the stables, while the remaining 10,000 lived in barracks in the parking lot.
“They had a whole lot of showerheads where they would put up plywood partitions and the ladies would shower on this side, the men would shower on that side,” recalled Babe Karasawa, who came to Santa Anita from San Diego. “My sister told me that she and my mother would only go after midnight for some privacy. It was the only way they could take showers.”
Min Tonai, who also helped narrate the tour, noted that he spent his time at Santa Anita as a 13-year-old living in the stables. He said that when it warmed up, the cots would sink into the newly-laid asphalt and they were often compelled to stay away during the day.
“We would have breakfast, then come back to our room and carry everything we needed for the day,” said Tonai. “When it cooled off, we would come back because then the smell was tolerable.”
The reunion was organized by the Japanese American Korean War Veterans and besides a tour of the stable areas, included a luncheon at the clubhouse. Evelyn Mitarai said she was going to place a couple bets as well as enjoy time with old friends.
“I’ve been to Santa Anita but it’s fun to come back with this group. Especially seeing a lot of people that were here at the camp at the same time I was,” she said. “I remember going to church in the stands. We used to go up in the stands up there. And they used to do the camouflage netting over there,” she said pointing towards the grandstand.
Tak Hamano of Umeya Rice Cake Co., who made camouflage netting in the grandstands, almost never made it to Santa Anita. Living in Boyle Heights at the time, he and his family were supposed to go to the Pomona Assembly Center and then to Heart Mountain, Wyo.
“There were rumors out that Seventh and Crocker were going to go to Santa Anita, so we rushed up and signed up over there. Little did we know that we were going to end up in Arkansas,” said Hamano.
Hamano was joined at the reunion by June Aochi Berk, her brother Yas Aochi and his wife Joyce.
Yas recalled the many sports that were offered for the youth. Besides living quarters, there were six mess halls, basketball and baseball courts as well as a sumo ring. He smiled as he recalled playing first base in softball for the Hollywood Huskies.
“We played a couple Single A league teams, and we took those leagues and had to play San Diego in the championship. And we beat them for the championship. Killer Takeshita, the pitcher on San Diego, he was really good,” said Aochi.
Aochi Berk, who was crowned Nisei Week Queen in 1954, was in fourth grade when her family went to Santa Anita. She marveled at the changes to the racetrack and its surroundings.
“I was hoping they would let us into the stable area, we could just see it from afar. We saw the big round building where we could take our showers. It looks nice now. The trees are so tall now, the trees were just five feet tall,” said.
For the second year in a row, Santa Anita will be host to the Breeders Cup. A TV crew from ESPN was also at the reunion, and will broadcast a story on the Nisei during the races set for Nov. 6 and 7.
At the conclusion of the reunion, some gathered to take a photo at the bronze plaque outside the grandstand which commemorates the Assembly Center. Hamano, walking gingerly, rested as the others took photos. He was reflective of the years that had past.
“We were young then — 17, 18. The ones who really suffered were the older folks. We were inconvenienced, but we didn’t know what really hurt like the old folks, they lost a lot of things. While we were here we had to make the best of it,” Hamano said.