Rafu Staff Report
Charles Oihe “Charlie” Hamasaki, who passed away on Aug. 30 at the age of 95, was well-known in the Terminal Island community, but is also known for his memorable testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1981.
Born in 1922 in Wakayama Prefecture while his parents were visiting family in Japan, Hamasaki came to the U.S. as an infant and grew up on Terminal Island with his six siblings. A 1941 graduate of San Pedro High School, he was picked up along with his father and taken to Fort Lincoln, a camp in Bismarck, N.D. after the Pearl Harbor attack, then was transferred to the Santa Anita Assembly Center and the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. He worked as a fisherman, served with the Military Intelligence Service, and became an automobile repairman.
The nine-member CWRIC held 20 days of hearings and heard testimony from more than 750 witnesses, most of them former incarcerees, between July and December 1981 in cities across the country. Hamasaki was among the speakers at the Los Angeles hearings in August, the only hearings known to have been recorded on video. Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (formerly National Coalition for Redress/Reparations) and Visual Communications have made the videos available to the public, including a “best of” compilation DVD that features Hamasaki.
Following is an excerpt from his testimony, which was down-to-earth and at times humorous.
Gentlemen, my name is Charlie Hamasaki and in 1941 I lived in Terminal Island, Calif. with my parents, brothers and sisters … I just graduated from San Pedro High School, and I was 18 years old and I started working as a fisherman like my father.
As far as I remember, in 1941 … two guys walk in my house and they come to my bedroom. And they say, “Hey buddy, wake up.” I wake up and ask them, “Who the hell are you guys?” [laughter]You guys laugh right now, but man, I wasn’t laughing.
“Let me see your ID.” Then they flashed FBI. I said, “What the hell did I do?” They look at each other and they say, “Hey, we got a young one here.” They were rounding up all the old guys, see. So one of the guys said, “Hey, get your coat on, man. I’m taking you in.” I say, “What for?”
“You’re an enemy alien.” I tell them, “Enemy alien?! Man, the real enemy alien live across the Pacific … Don’t take me in.” But anyway, he said, “Get your coat.”
I got my coat. They took me to Terminal Island – that immigration station over there. It’s like a jail over there, you know. At that time they didn’t have the Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary. It was next to that thing. They took me in over there. Four days I stayed over there.
Meanwhile, I know how to talk both languages. That’s why I interpreted for those other fishermen friends and translated everything. So I thought maybe they might let me go since I’m doing them a favor. Hell no, man …
After two days they took us from Terminal Island immigration station to the Union Depot, over here. I remember that … There was about 10 to 12 [railroad]cars over here. They herded us into that car. When we walked in, they told us to pull all the blinds down, you know. I said, “What the hell for?” They said, “Never mind. That’s an order. Pull the blinds down.”
At the end of the train they had a soldier with rifle, M-1 rifle … and a bayonet on it. We can’t move. For four days we traveled. During that time I was traveling, all these guys ask me … “Hey, where we going?” When I peeked, it was Fresno, and they stopped and put more guys on. They kept going. It took about a day to go over there.
The next thing I know it was Stockton, Sacramento, Redding, Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane. And we couldn’t move from where we sat down, except to go to the head, you know. And you know what happened? My feet start swelling. You do nothing but sit down, you know. [laughter]You guys try that. You never did that, so you don’t know. That’s suffering too, you know.
When I looked, the next thing I know it was Missoula, Montana. The train stopped; they cut the train in half. Half went further east. The next place we stopped was Bismarck, North Dakota, Fort Lincoln …
“One thing I gotta say — in the train they fed us real good! [laughter]Yeah. We were a poor fisherman family, Terminal Island; we ate nothing but fish, you know. On the train, first time I ate a steak. I’m serious. Some of these old men say, “Hey, they feeding us because we’re gonna die. They’re going to kill us. Just like a execution chamber before you die.” …
I said, “No, no, no. This country, they ain’t gonna do stuff like that, man. This is democratic country, Bill of Rights, Constitution! They not gonna do that, this is democracy!”
You know what one man say? “No, this is not democracy, this is democra-shit!” By God, maybe this guy, he got a point, I say. He might be right.
And, when we got off the train [shivering sound], 25 below zero, man. I’m from Southern California. I had my moccasins, not a shoe, my moccasins with me, and a T-shirt and an overcoat. At that time, bell-bottom trousers wasn’t in style, you know …
So when we got off the train, the snowdrift was 10 foot high, cold like hell … They had to line us up in the freezing weather to count the heads so nobody escaped. They got to have the exact count. And we did that every morning for one month. And during that time we stayed in … what I call a concentration camp … they had barbed wire, a tower, machine gun, searchlights, everything. That’s a concentration camp. Not like a relocation camp. I call it concentration camp. This Lillian Baker, whoever she is, she said not a concentration camp, but I call it a concentration camp! [applause]
[Lillian Baker, an outspoken opponent of redress, spoke at both the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles hearings. She claimed that most Japanese Americans were disloyal and that the camps were like summer resorts.]
Anyway, at first there were about five guards. Every night they got to come inside the barrack and inspect. When it’s so cold, you put your blanket over your head. When they come in they said, “Hey buddy, stick our head out.” They got their rifle and they go like that. They were scared of fisherman because there was a rumor that fishermen were a mean, wild bunch of guys … We were gentlemen! [laughter]
So after a while, they got used to us. “Hey, these guys not bad.” So, they threw the rifle and gun and everything away. “Hey, hi, buddy, what you doing? How are you doing this morning?” … You know, all that. They talking conversation, see.
So after that, my mother and sister didn’t know where we went. After one month they let us write letter, but the letter was censored …
Then they had a hearing. I told you this is a democratic country. We had a trial now coming up, anyway … “Are you loyal to this country or are you loyal to Japan?” they asked me. “Hey,” I told them, “I’m loyal to this country.” …
They asked me a whole bunch of questions. They even asked me, “What if the Japanese army invades this land over here and we give you a rifle? What would you do?” So I told them, “What would I do? If the Japanese army comes this far in, you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing.” [laughter]That’s what I told them.
Anyway, I say, “I’m going to be loyal to this country,” so after a couple of weeks, you either get released, paroled or interned. So I got released. So they sent me to where my mother and sister were, so I came to Santa Anita.
Hamasaki also did an oral history for the Densho Digital Repository in 2010 and participated in a 2014 presentation, “Power of the Commission Hearings: First-Person Voices of Japanese American Incarceration” at the Katy Geissert Civic Library in Torrance along with Roy Nakano, Miya Iwataki, Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga, Lane Hirabayashi and Kay Ochi.
After the war, Terminal Islanders went their separate ways as their Japanese fishing village was gone. But they formed an organization and kept in touch over the years.
“The Terminal Islanders want the family of Charlie Hamasaki to know that we gather together with them to mourn his passing,” the group said in a statement. “He was a long-time board member of the Terminal Islanders group and contributed much to our community. Charlie was on the planning committee for the Terminal Islanders Memorial Monument in the Port of Los Angeles.
“We will always remember his singing the ‘Yogore’ song and him entertaining the crowd as master of ceremonies at various Terminal Islander events. We are saddened to lose Charlie and he will be greatly missed.”
Naomi Hirahara, co-author with Geraldine Knatz of “Terminal Island: Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor,” wrote on Facebook, “He was one of a kind, truly. When I picked him up from his Crenshaw home for our joint interview last year, he bemoaned not being able to drive any more in his nineties and said that he was going to start riding a bike. I pictured him swerving through the traffic in the congested streets of L.A.
“‘Oh, Charlie, that’s kind of dangerous,’ I said. ‘Who cares, I’m ova ninety years old,’ he replied. What he said stayed with me. He was right. Why not live your life to the fullest?
“Thank you, Charlie, for your testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, your stories shared with countless of outlets and your fierce spirit. I will miss you but feel so fortunate to have known you.”
Hamasaki was also involved with Wakayama Kenjinkai and Seinan Senior Center.
Survivors include his wife, Fumiyo; five children, Vincent (Susan), Kevin, Jon, Julie (Tom) Ozeki and Roman; five grandchildren, Kailee and Kayla, Kyle, Jordan and Taylor (who played basketball at Capistrano Valley High School and Chapman University).
A memorial service will be held Saturday, Sept. 29, at 11 a.m. at Centenary United Methodist Church, 300 S. Central Ave. (at Third Street) in Little Tokyo.
Kay Ochi of NCRR contributed to this article.