CROSSROADS TO SOMEWHERE: Concentration Camp Tar Pits

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By W.T. WIMPY HIROTO

Executive Order 9066 was more than a mere number. It transformed the lives of a hundred thousand West Coast Japanese and Japanese Americans. It was a monumental American hegira that unfortunately achieved historical indifference. Here it is only 70 years since that fateful decree and people are forgetting it ever happened. And how many it impacted. And the whimpers from whimpies trying to keep the memory alive.

You would think we, the principals of that historic misadventure, would at least agree upon the total number affected. Historians and academicians trumpet the government’s 120,000 figure; others use a more modest 112,000. CR2S, ever the contrarian, challenges both.

Simple math. There were 10 concentration, er, relocation camps; that would translate to 11,000-12,000 per.  Never happened. Only Poston and Tule Lake topped 10,000. Allowing for families fleeing military zones for inland safe (sic) haven states and the approximately 2,500 Issei males arrested [without charge and incognito]by the FBI, both totals still remain bloated. At no risk and based on nothing but gall, CR2S  would guess 95,001, give or take a newborn. [I’ll guarantee an automatic A to anyone in an Asian American studies class who tackles (and solves) the numbers discrepancy.]

Last week an inquiring Mr. Over- Reach asked what it was like living and going to school in Poston, circa 1942-5. There were nightly blackouts (no street lights); rattlesnakes and scorpions took the place of dogs and cats; sand storms and rain squalls were daily visitors. Let me tell you, Pal, it was ruff.

Yet we still went to school, for want of a better word. Class was held in a bare 20×25 wooden barracks room, 20-25 pupils per. No desks, no books, no a/c (guffaws allowed), and a teacher of questionable qualifications. Which meant 20-ish Nisei volunteered as emergency instructors; although lacking credentials, most did better than the “qualified” outsiders.

Initially I had a Core teacher right out of Norman Rockwell. Let’s call her Dr. Perky (because that’s what her name was). A smallish lady of indeterminate age and ethnicity, she wore 1920s garb of wool everything, including scarf, even in 100+ weather. All I can recall is her reading from Silas Marner. [I almost named my first-born Dickens.]

By second (junior) year, we had an adobe elementary school built with the help of students; it also housed some high school classes.  The teaching staff was practically all-Nisei by now, but the lack of textbooks, equipment and supplies was a huge burden. You learned the typewriter keyboard on a paper replica, no labs meant science experiments were conducted verbally or on paper. And still classes progressed fully attended.

Truancy was not a problem mainly because there was nowhere to hide if you ditched school. [I had an adventure as a junior at an elite (all-white) Chicago high school when I ventured “outside” as a junior. Expelled after a quarter for being from out of state without benefit of tax-paying parents or guardian, a choice of attending University of Chicago or going back to Gulag Poston was proffered.  Without benefit of counsel, I hopped a  Greyhound bus and made it back to good ole Poston.

[Upon return, Tad Ochiai, science teacher and fellow Riversider, challenged me to become a more serious, dedicated student. I think my diary entry for that day read, “made promise to try.” Dr. Ochiai died last month at age 97; as did his hope for proper recognition by alma mater USC for his untimely wartime ouster.]

By senior (third) year, the exodus to eastern states was well under way although there were still more than 200 in the last graduating class.  How a Poston education stacked up against the norm would be later proved at UC Berkeley, USC, UCLA, Occidental, LACC, Woodbury et al, or in varied work environs. How this success was achieved can be traced to perseverance, resilience and several Japanese maxims defining determination. I have long contended only Nisei, no other generation or ethnicity, could have survived the camp challenge. A debatable notion, to be sure, but it’s as much a paean to the Issei as ourselves.

Camp sports teams were the equivalent of the modern-day gang.  There were the student body types, but for the most part clubs (including girls) remained provincial and close knit. There were hot rivalries but no major dustups, most settled by one-on-one fisticuffs. As far as student CR2S (nee wth) was concerned, I thought it was jack – cool – to raise an occasional ruckus with a few other delinquent wannabes. We had a 21-year-old maiden Core teacher who we made cry more often than teach. We didn’t have a football team nor school rivalry on any level with Camps II or III even though they were less than two miles away.

Drive-in theaters? Be real. We were outside, but standing, subject to storm or film breaking. Making out meant not being left on the sidelines while last dance record played. I diligently kept my diary but didn’t work on the school newspaper or annual staff. You figure.

Today our youthful advocates confidently challenge authority and shine a light on governmental misdeeds. EO 9066 is a perfect example as the evacuation and ten compounds resulted from the edict. I’m not into Sam Hayakawa semantics, but am convinced the “relocation center” vs. “concentration camp” debate isn’t worth a heated debate. If I say “tomato” and you claim “tomatoe,” I’ll simply ask green or fried.

I don’t believe Fred Korematsu was an iconic hero (nor did Bill Hosokawa), but my opinion isn’t worth a stale manju so who cares? What does bother me is how the scientific world blew the opportunity of a century when no one thought of conducting research projects during internment. With such an unadulterated captive (oops) group, this was the perfect chance to conduct multiple studies: mental health, group psychology, disease, (lack of) crime, destruction of patriarchy, effects of isolation, communal living.  I mean, hey, a veritable wellspring of scientific possibilities was waiting to be dissected. Alas, only the question of loyalty was ever asked. And bungled.

A long while ago I heard a noted instructor speaking before a huge audience with great passion describe how two burly FBI agents dragged his father out of their home after Pearl Harbor, traumatizing both he and his mother. Tears welled amidst an outburst of emotion and standing ovation. While the auditorium rocked, I did some arithmetic. The speaker would have been three years old at the time of trauma! Okay.

To be fair, just because I didn’t talk until nearly four doesn’t mean everyone else had to be slow on the uptake. Brother Ed claimed he could remember when he was three, so I guess it’s possible. I can recollect first day in kindergarten at age four, but nada before that. As a reader, when you have nothing better to do, just for kicks, see how far back you can reach into your past – honestly.

Thanks to Mr. Over-Reach, I had another opportunity to reflect on the Concentration Camp Tar Pits. “You know it, Hoss!” was “Dude” of that long-ago era.  And rather than Kilroy, CR2S was there in body and soul … paid $20 a day to forget [based on a $20,000 government “apology” for 1,000 incarcerated days]… but I don’t come that cheap.

W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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