By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Two first-timers to the pilgrimage had been on the Gripsholm waiting list to be used in the second hostage exchange during the war. They were Fujiko Mae “Fudge” Amemiya Komura and Yae Kanogawa Aihara.
Tule Lake Committee Chair Hiroshi Shimizu was also on this list but he was only six months old at the time and the family was shipped to New York.
The Gripsholm was a Swedish ship contracted by the U.S. government to transport Japanese, Japanese Americans or Japanese Latin Americans to be used in two hostage exchanges between the U.S. and Japan.
An estimated 3,000 civilians of Japanese descent were exchanged for Caucasian U.S. citizens.
Both the U.S. and Japan drew up a list of people they would like to be used in the hostage exchange. On the Japan side, those on the list included diplomats, journalists, business people, community leaders and families with ties to government officials.
Amemiya Komura’s family made that list. She was only in 8th grade when the family was taken from the Amache (Granada) War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp in Colorado and shipped to New York.
“We stayed at Ellis Island for about a week,” she said. “You look up and there was the Statue of Liberty on the next island. Then they sent us to Rohwer for a couple of days before they shipped us to Tule Lake to wait for the next boat, but it never came. Thank goodness!”
Amemiya Komura recalled walking her girlfriend to the ship and waving to her as the ship left New York Harbor. Years later, she met her friend in Los Angeles. “She said to me, ‘Boy, were you lucky you didn’t go.’ My girlfriend said it was kind of rough.”
Since Shimizu had just been born at the Topaz (Central Utah) WRA camp before being shipped to Ellis Island with his family, he had no recollection of those days.
“The story that my mother told me was that this was the second ship,” said Shimizu. “The first ship had vacancies, and the government didn’t have any back-ups. … So for the second exchange, they made sure they had a waiting list but fortunately, no one turned back, and we didn’t have to go.”
Like Amemiya Komura’s family, Shimizu’s family was transferred to Rohwer and then to Tule Lake after the family did not get placed on the Gripsholm. However, Shimizu’s family was not released from Tule Lake.
“After Tule Lake, our family made one more trip,” said Shimizu. “We went to Crystal City when most people were being released.”
Kanogawa Aihara was older than Shimizu and Amemiya Komura and remembered the most. On Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the FBI came to her home in Seattle and took away her father. They would not see him for the next year and a half.
Her father had been the president of the Wakayama Kenjin-kai for a number of years, had a successful grocery store and was an advisor to the Seattle judo dojo. One of his customers included a yakuza, who may have attracted the attention of the FBI.
Kanogawa Aihara’s family was sent to the Puyallup Assembly Center, then to Minidoka in Idaho before they were transferred to New York. She has no fond memories of Puyallup or Minidoka, except that she received her high school diploma without having to take her finals.
“One thing about the Idaho WRA camp, we didn’t have one meal together as a family,” she said. “You had no family life.”
Her interesting recollections included being assigned to cover the student desk chairs, designed by George Nakashima, with forest-green paint. After camp, Nakashima would become famous for his woodwork and designs.
Kanogawa Aihara’s family was reunited with the father at Ellis Island, but she said the living conditions were worse than camp. She also met Japanese Latin Americans who had been forcibly taken from their countries to be used in hostage exchanges between the U.S. and Japan.
“All the women slept in one big room,” said Kanogawa Aihara. “And the food was terrible. I only remember that the best thing I ate there was a shriveled-up orange. That’s how bad it was.”
While her family was not placed on the Gripsholm, their luggage was.
“The second good thing that happened was we didn’t have to go on the ship, BUT all our luggage went on that boat,” said Kanogawa Aihara. “Then, we had to stay at Ellis Island for five miserable days while they [government officials]made plans, I guess, to send us to a family camp.”
The family was shipped to the Crystal City Department of Justice camp in Texas, where she had privacy for the first time and the family was able to eat together again. She felt she was treated better at Crystal City, which, as an enemy alien camp, was under the Geneva Convention.
Past pilgrimages have included a tour of the Lava Beds National Monument, with a brief introduction to the 1872-73 Modoc War, but this year, descendants of the Modoc warriors shared their stories with the attendees.
Cheewa James, Rayson Tupper and Taylor Tupper told stories passed down to them from their ancestors. James and the Tuppers, who are father and daughter, are related through the Hot Creek Band of the Modoc Tribe.
James, the author of “Modoc: The Tribe That Wouldn’t Die,” has been a National Park Service ranger/historian at the Lava Beds National Monument, is an award-winning television producer and personality, and is the great-granddaughter of a Modoc warrior. Her father has the distinction of being the first Native American to play professional basketball.
James noted that when the Modocs foresaw that war was inevitable with the U.S. Army, which was getting pressure from white settlers wanting the Modoc land, the Modocs began to fortify the lava beds.
“They picked the lava beds because they knew how bad it was,” said James. “They were what I consider to be America’s first guerrilla warfare fighters. They used the land against their enemies. This is what a lot people don’t know.”
James said the Modocs started to build wooden lookout stations among the lava rocks and also created a path of rocks so that if they ever needed to move through the darkness, they could touch the rocks as guides.
When James was a ranger at Lava Beds, she said a geologist visited her and told her he thought he found the rock path that had been used as an escape route out of the lava beds by the men, women and children during the middle of the night, after the U.S. Army thought they had the Modocs surrounded. The Army had troops on the east and west side of the lava beds; the north side opened into Tule Lake; and the south side was considered no man’s land due to the harsh terrain.
“The military thought they had them,” said James. “…But when they had to evacuate the stronghold, they felt the rocks to get out.”
Among Taylor Tupper’s ancestors was Anna Mae Copperfield, who, along with her grandmother, had been sent out to gather bullets and guns of fallen U.S. Army soldiers and bring them back to the Modoc warriors.
“She told us we had to be those warriors today,” recalled Tupper. “That we can’t allow ourselves or the next generation to forget what we’ve done and what occurred. We cannot forget the true history that Cheewa put into her book.”
“We have two worthy stories that America needs to know and needs to be preserved,” said James. “It needs to be carried through the centuries so something like this never happens again, whether it’s war or incarceration.”
Tupper gifted Barbara Takei with a red tobacco bag and the Tule Lake Committee with a war staff, decorated with the colors of the different Modoc tribal bands. The war staff had been with Rayson Tupper the day before on the national day of protest.
Taylor Tupper is running for Oregon State representative in District 56.
Second of three parts.
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo